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Saturday, July 18, 2009

News from Oaxaca

We arrived in Oaxaca on Sunday, 7/12. Our accommodations are excellent. We had asked Juan Jose Consejo, the executive director of The Institute for Nature and Society of Oaxaca (INSO, an NGO), to suggest some residents to us for some extended home stays. He connected us with a small hotel-like facility that specializes in extended stays. We are very happy.

Monday morning we met with Juan Jose, an Ashoka fellow. He has been in Oaxaca for twenty years working on water issues. Our long term plans are totally in line with the work he has been doing for some time now in our initial watershed. He spent several hours with us going over the details of the programs in which they are currently involved. The three principles that underlie all of their work are:

1. Don’t push communities.
2. Work on social enhancement and natural processes together.
3. Do this work in a collaborative way with governments (federal, state and local), local communities, social organizations and research institutions.

INSO basically assists those who want to help themselves.

Tuesday we accompanied Paul and Nellie, two INSO employees, to Santo Domingo Barrio Bajo Etla. There, we met with Maria Soledad Diaz Gonzalez, the mayor. After introductions and a brief overview of what we do and the overall water situation there, she took us on a tour of the village. There are approximately 3000 residents in Santo Domingo, one school and one well. We started the tour at the sewage treatment plant, which is currently not functioning. (Juan Jose later told us that 90% of the waste water treatment plants built in the watershed do not work.) She said that the plant was built in 1996 and stopped working in 2000 because of maintenance issues. Since then, raw sewage has flowed out of this area downhill to the next village Guadelupe Etla. Right next to the broken sewage treatment center is a dump which includes medical waste. The dump has been building up for fifteen years, but none of the trash is from Santo Domingo Barrio Bajo. It was all illegally dumped there from other areas. The community now has a twenty-four hour guard (citizens of the town) on duty to insure that no more dumping takes place.

On our way back to the mayor’s office, we passed a broken sewage pipe. She said that during times of heavy rain, sewage flows out of that pipe and comes into Santo Domingo, contaminating the village and residences. From there it continues downhill to Guadelupe Etla. The broken pipe belongs to the main municipality in that area, Etla, but they have not been able to get Etla to fix it. Maria believes that there are many illnesses in her community that are caused by ‘dirty’ water, not drinking dirty water (everyone uses clean bottled water for drinking), but being around raw sewage. She spoke of one particular home that was flooded with rainwater mixed with wastewater. Since then, the family has been plagued with eye irritations, skin rashes and many other unexplained illnesses. The town has been working with INSO for one year now to replace flushing toilets with dry latrines (composting toilets). This will help the situation in Santo Domingo and Guadelupe Etla, but Etla also needs to participate in any solution that is brought forward.

We have been in email contact with the mayor of Guadelupe Etla and plan to meet with him next Wednesday. These two communities work well together and should be able to work together in any joint effort to solve their water issues, but Etla also needs to participate. Santo Domingo’s relationship with Etla is not good. We will return to Santo Domingo on Tuesday to see some of the good things they are doing about water and, while we are here in Oaxaca, will introduce ourselves to Etla in an effort to begin a dialogue with them about water issues.

As we left Santo Domingo, we felt that the site of the failed treatment plant and adjacent dump may be a good potential location for a natural wastewater treatment area. It is, however, right next to a cemetery which, by all means, must be protected.

On Wednesday, 7/15, we met with Erik Martinez Torres, the Director of the Chemistry Department of the Universidad Autonoma Benito Juarez de Oaxaca (UABJO). He offered his department’s expertise to test the water in Santa Domingo Barrio Bajo Etla and in Guadalupe Etla. His department will do the testing, that they have the capability of doing, at no charge and will help facilitate testing for metals (which they cannot do) in Oaxaca. He assured us that there would be little or no charge for heavy metal testing.

He has also offered to accompany us on our trips next week on Tuesday and Wednesday to the communities of interest to initiate the testing. They will provide transportation with a van that seats ten. He also stated that if it seems appropriate for other departments at the university to get involved with this project, then that would not be a problem. The medical and microbiology schools are prime candidates.

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