I have been living in southern Mexico, in the city of Oaxaca, for two years noticing daily customs and ways of doing things that are not the same as where I lived in the mountains of Colorado. One big difference is the attitude about water. Oaxaqueños act as if it is liquid gold, more valuable than the finest wine. My Mexican friends scold me when I leave the water running while I rinse the dishes or brush my teeth. My neighbor is fanatical about keeping his car clean but he uses less than a bucketful to do it . . . and has enough left over to give the geranium a drink. Plants don’t get any water that hasn’t already been used to wash something: cars, clothes or children. It seems to me that everyone is afraid that, the next time they turn on the tap, nothing will come out.
And for good reason.
Even with the careful husbandry of water that is ingrained in Oaxaqueños from birth, at certain times of the year the tap still runs dry. The ancient Zapotec Indians, who lived in this valley for centuries before the arrival of the Spaniards, worshipped, Cecopi, the god of lightning and rain. Rain meant survival. Things haven’t changed much since. Like most of Mexico, there are really only two seasons in Oaxaca: wet and dry. During the wet season, from July until September, it rains almost every afternoon and water is abundant. The runoff that fills the reservoirs provides for the next several months. Sometime in January, however, the reserve runs out, the rivers have long since dried up, and the only water available for the thirsty city is what can be drawn from the deep wells in the surrounding mountains.
During this “dry” period, which can last seven months, water delivered by the municipality is scarce and undependable. In Colorado, spring is announced by the arrival of the hummingbirds. Here in Oaxaca the change between the wet and dry season is heralded by the appearance of the pipas. Not a bird at all but rather a large tank truck emblazoned with the words agua para uso humano (water for human use) these harbingers of the new season, like the hummingbirds to Colorado, return every year without fail. In January, they suddenly appear on the street, hoses snaking into the tourist hotels and restaurants. Then I know for sure that the dry period is here. The water shortage shows itself first in the commercial establishments because their demands are greater. But if the pipas are at the hotels then my tiny cistern will soon feel the same pinch. When the city water supply is at it’s lowest, when I have cut back to the absolute minimum of flushes and showers and there is still not enough water…I call a pipa. Enterprising entrepreneurs own the pipas that truck water in from private sources to fill cisterns in homes and businesses.
I live in the central part of the city, in a building that has a relatively sophisticated water distribution system. I may only receive a small allotment every three days but I almost always have water during the dry season. Often there is not enough to flush the toilet more than a couple of times a day or for more than a brief shower but these are minor inconveniences to which I can easily adapt. When the polite guest asks to use the bathroom she will inquire, “Are we flushing or not flushing?” and act accordingly. Water needed for a shower can be reduced by turning the pressure down to a dribble, shutting off the flow entirely while lathering up, and placing a bucket under the shower head to catch the run off.
Water for drinking and cooking presents another challenge. Most people do not allow the water that comes from the tap to pass their lips. It is not only untreated but also visibly dirty. In order to be drinkable tap water must be boiled for a full twenty minutes at the end of which time the amount of dirt that has settled to the bottom of the pan will send you running into the street in search of one of the bottled water vendors that pass back and forth on their bicycle driven carts crying “¡Agua! ¡Agua!”. They sell purified water in five gallon bottles that are a staple in every Oaxaqueño kitchen. From them comes the water for brushing teeth, making ice cubes or cooking stew for the family dinner. Those of us who can afford to pay for water, from the pipas and the bottled water vendors, can live a normal life in spite of the erratic municipal supply. We are the lucky ones.
Water flows into the city with only the force of gravity. The area in the center, with its enormous demand from the hotels and restaurants, is the lowest lying part of town. This huge central beast gets it’s drink first and then, if there is any left over, the water dribbles to the outlying edges of the city. Many of these fringes are warrens of tiny shacks made from mud and tin, creeping up the hillside. They are principally populated by newcomers who have fled the desperate poverty of their pueblos to try to find work and survive in the city. At times an entire neighborhood of twenty families or more share one outdoor water tap. They are the last in line for water. They have no space to install a holding tank, even if they could afford one, so buying water from the pipas is not an option. Instead a child is posted near the open tap and when the city water arrives, usually sometime in the middle of the night, the entire neighborhood is alerted. Women and children come running down the dirt pathways armed with buckets and cans to catch every drop. And it gets worse.
Sometimes the water never arrives. It is all sucked up by the central city. There is none left over to flow to the outlying areas: day or night. When this happens, these citizens of Oaxaca have to rely on someone in a luckier part of town and carry the water, by bus, back to where they live. There it is doled out, literally, by the cupful. For the poor conserving water isn’t a glossy Sierra Club poster. It is a matter of daily survival.
So I am learning to think like a Oaxaqueña and budget my water as carefully as I do my money. But sometimes I wonder what the United States would be like if we had to live with the same restrictions on water that the people in Oaxaca do.
- Food would surely cost more without the huge irrigation systems of the Midwest.
- Rivers and lakes would be the way they were before modern dam expansions.
- Saturday mornings would be simpler: there would be no decision to make over whether to go to the golf course or stay home and mow the lawn because neither would exist.
- Without grass in the public parks, gardeners might rake the dirt into interesting patterns every morning like they do in Oaxaca.
- The neighborhood swimming pool, full of children shrieking and teenagers flirting, would never have been built not to mention all of the backyard pools.
- There wouldn’t be any more automatic car washes; instead you would dust your car off daily, as if it were a piece of furniture.
- Sprinkler systems would be a thing of the past, as would those miniature rainstorms that keep the vegetables in the supermarket sparkling fresh.
- Bottled water stocks would be a good investment as sales skyrocket.
- There would not be any need for four bathrooms per home. No one would be flushing the toilet in more than one.
- Bathtubs could be placed outside to catch the rain.
- Hot tubs could store all of the golf clubs, inflatable toys and water skis that your family doesn’t need any more.
- And the Jacuzzi would make a nice sand garden for your cactus.
Sounds pretty different, doesn’t it?
As a matter of fact it sounds a lot like Oaxaca.