thoughts on water

February 25, 2008

Water is on the mind of many Mexicans. I experienced this first-hand on my two-week trip to the country’s parched central states. The first time was day three, when I wanted to wash a few items of clothing – Fermin made a comment about doing it in the morning, and being careful about the water. “There is never enough water.”

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(overlooking the dry valley where Libres, Puebla sits from the little hill behind the Fernandez home)

Virtually everywhere I have been in Mexico there are large, black, cylindrical tanks atop homes. These tanks draw water during the hours that the municipality opens the taps and distributes it to the household throughout the day. My understanding is that the wealth and resources of the town determines how long the water runs each day. The times I have been at the Fernandez household there has not been a shortage of water, but it’s a constant concern. My sister-in-law once shared with me that when she lived with her husband in another town in the same state, there would be days (DAYS!) without the water turning on. She said sometimes they had to go wash clothes in irrigation ditches or tiny streams.

In Oaxaca city, after checking into a small in-home B&B, Britta and I made went straight into the room to wash our smelly work-out attire. While we hand-washed in the sink Fermin went to ask the owner if we could hang our things in the courtyard to dry. He came back and said the woman had been irritated. We had missed the rules posted next to the door of the room. “Water is short in all the city. You may not wash clothes by hand. There is a laundromat two blocks away. Take short showers and do what you can to conserve water.” Oops. We honestly felt bad that we had violated the rules. Our American-ness simply never imagined such a rule.

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On Playa Zipolite, steps from the ocean, one cabana bathroom we looked at just had a barrel of water and a bowl to use for a shower. The place we ended up staying had a shower with a pull-chain. Pull for water, let go for and the water stops. It’s hard to shower with one hand, so the pull-chain forces you to conserve water. You pull to get wet, you let go to lather, you pull again to rinse. Efficient, but not conducive to a 15-minute stream of running water as many Americans are accustomed.

Returning to the U.S., land of anything and everything at your disposal, my first shower seemed strange. I wanted to turn the water off and on. But unlike Zipolite, where the air temperature was around 80 degrees, the air temperature in my bathroom is quite a bit cooler. I felt bad, but then went back to my old ways.

This weekend I was catching up with Milwaukee Magazine and read this feature on various facets of the Wisconsin water battle: the one between the city of Milwaukee (who has access to Lake Michigan) and the cities of Waukesha and New Berlin (who have sprawled themselves out of water and now want access to Lake Michigan), the discussion between southwest states desiring Great Lakes water, and the fears of some scientists that unchecked growth, development and overconsumption will send the Great Lakes the way of the Aral Sea – in other words – toward drying up.

I enjoyed the Milwaukee Magazine article very much, but having the Mexican perspective floating around in my mind made it hard not to ponder the audaciousness of American views on water – that it is a never-ending, limitless commodity. Nations across the world conserve water in one way or another, and we simply act as though it has no end. Kids are not taught to conserve water – we water our lawns, run in sprinklers on hot days, take long showers and wash dishes with the tap running the entire time. And it’s not just the practices – it is the attitude behind them as well. We look down on people who let their lawns go brown, we think of people who don’t shower every day as dirty, it simply does not cross many of our minds that we should be careful with water.

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reality check

May 29, 2007

I’ve been eagerly awaiting some posting from my friend the other Laura, who moved to the Mexico City area a few weeks ago to be with her fiance, who I wrote about here. Well, she’s finally written a few essays, and I sincerely hope you will all trek over here for a moment to read about waste and water in Mexico City. Sitting in my air-conditioned office, with five-gallon jugs of Culligan stacked up in the warehouse and barely a spec of trash to be seen anywhere, I am humbled, and I suspect you will be too.