July Campaign | Arenal de Arriba

When The Water Was Finally Piped-in, They Thought Their Problems Were Over, Instead Their Teeth Started Falling Out

Photo by Mathilde Poulle

Photo by Mathilde Poulle

Raquel Delgado Navarro has become a civic leader in the small community of Arenal de Arriba located in the arid hills of the municipality of San Luis de la Paz in the State of Guanajuato. As far back as she or Maria, her 81 year-old mother, can remember the most consuming issue facing the community has been water.

For many years their main source of water came from a natural spring. It didn’t provide enough water – but it was fresh. During the rainy season, they created small handmade reservoirs to catch rainwater. It was murky but people boiled it and used it anyway. In the 1950’s a community well was drilled and life was good for a brief while, until it ultimately dried up.

Finally, in the late ‘90’s a pipe was run from the much deeper well in the nearby community of Ex-Hacienda de Jesús. For the first time there was enough water for drinking, cooking, household chores, animals, and even irrigation, but there was only one problem – it tasted funny.

After a few years, according to Raquel, “we started to worry when our children’s teeth started to rot and later broke into pieces. We all started feeling terrible pain in our bones and intense headaches. We knew it had to be the well water.”

As it turns out, the water from this well has some of the highest concentrations of arsenic and the highest level of fluoride Caminos de Agua has ever recorded – more than 12 times the allowable limit – in the Alto Río Laja Aquifer, which is the main water source for over 680,000 people in the state of Guanajuato. In fact, together with Texas A&M University, the University of Guanajuato, Kansas State University, and Northern Illinois University, we have studied and monitored the water from this well extensively, dating back all the way to 2013, because it is so toxic.

Luckily, about the same time the people of Arenal de Arriba were desperate for a solution, CUVAPAS, a grassroots community organization and close collaborator of Caminos de Agua, ran a weeklong workshop, demonstrating how to build rainwater harvesting systems and showing the communities that they have the ability to mobilize and take charge of their future. Raquel and others attended that first workshop and that is where they met Caminos de Agua. Since then, together with the families we have built four large-scale rainwater harvesting systems, which now provide healthy, clean water for drinking and cooking for all the families of Arenal de Arriba twelve months a year.

Why is our water contaminated?

While the water the families in Arenal de Arriba were drinking is the most contaminated we’ve ever seen, all of us who depend on the Alto Río Laja Aquifer are at risk for health threats. That covers a large part of the State of Guanajuato, including the entire municipality of San Miguel de Allende. 

In brief, the reasons for this are that our region has become the center for a very large and expanding agricultural industry that grows vegetables for export. This requires extraordinary amounts of water; therefore, our water table is declining  two meters or more per year, much more than the annual rainy season can replenish it. As a result, naturally-occurring chemical contaminants like arsenic and fluoride are mixing into our water supply. 

What can be done?

Caminos de Agua works closely with grassroots organizations and local communities in our region to assess water quality and scarcity issues, health risks, and implement solutions. We regularly test and monitor water sources for a wide array of contaminants, like arsenic and fluoride, and we maintain an ongoing database and an interactive map available to all through our website. This allows us to discover new and changing trends and identify the communities most at risk. We then work with our local community partners to design and implement solutions that address their specific needs. Our work is crucial for every one of the 680,000+ people whose water comes from the Alto Río Laja Aquifer.

As our water crisis worsens, more communities and people desperately need us. The biggest limitation on our efforts is how much money we can raise.

Melissa Landman