Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Water Musings

Bufo toad on top of mud oven
I pulled back the blue tarp covering my adobe oven and there it was....something looking back at me...big yellow eyes with horizontal black slits. Eeek! A Bufo toad! A fine big fellow abut 5 inches across. In May! These guys are creatures of the monsoon in July and August. They usually come out and spawn in summer puddles, their progeny swimming in the mud and eventually hiding in it until the next year. What was it doing here now? How did it get to a surface 5 feet in the air? I looked into its eyes and saw its dim amphibian consciousness looking back. I felt a creepy sensation on the back of my neck and went to get the camera. Shortly thereafter it left of its own accord.

The thing is, these toads seek moisture.   It must have sensed the damp mud and sawdust insulation I had slapped on the oven the day before, and was cooling its belly right on top of it. It's still a mystery how it got up that high, but the instinct to seek moisture must have been very strong indeed to draw it there.

108 F in the shade!!
Moisture of any kind is hard to come by in Banámichi just now. The hills are brown and parched, and yesterday the temperature hit 108 F in the back porch shade. The relative humidity hovers between 5% and 30% and it hasn't rained since January. The land  is brown and totally dry just outside of town. Wildfires are an ongoing  threat. Ranchers are busy trucking bales of hay and tanks of water to their cattle. Some can no longer afford to do this and are selling their cattle off in the US. El Día de San Juan (St. John's Day), the traditional start of the monsoon, has come and gone with not a cloud in the sky and the only forecast for rain out in the future.The women here gather to say rosaries to San Juan and pray for rain.

Someone* here told me that  Arizpe, the next town upstream from us has run out of potable water. Every time our water goes off here, I wonder if we have reached that point. One of the things that appealed to me initially about Banámichi was the clean, clear, drinkable water that came from the taps. Within a short 2-3 years this has changed. The town's infrastructure is aging. There are two pumps, but one is broken, and some say* there is no money in the city budget to fix it. Whenever there is a problem, the water is simply turned off, sometimes all day. The first warning will be that I start to wash the dishes or take a shower and turn on the tap and an odd gurgling sound emerges but no water.  I have learned to keep a large pot of water available in the kitchen at all times.

We North Americans are spoiled! In the States, clean water flows continuously and  we assume it will always be there if we just open the tap. We may be urged not to put so much water on our yards, but there is always enough for a shower later on. Here in Banámichi, even though it is personally inconvenient, at least we are frequently confronted with the greater truth that is facing all of us.Water is becoming scarce.

Tinaco on house across the street
It is quite normal in  Mexico for the water to go off periodically. Most houses in Mexico have a tinaco - a big plastic water tank on the roof for times like this. We are finally getting around to to installing a tinaco for our little house...it is currently sitting on our back porch awaiting installation, however our water pressure is insufficient to raise the water to the roof to fill it once it is up there. Dan, our neighbor, wrestles with  choosing the right pump to get it filled and then how to put the water where it is needed in our 2 houses.

Speaking of pressures, there are quite a few on the Banámichi city water supply. The farmers and ranchers upstream from us freely use the water for crops and cattle. We have the new gold and silver mine that uses quite a lot. Because the pressure is low and the water is often off entirely, many people leave their hoses running 24/7 to save trees and rose bushes. There is little awareness of conservation and preservation of the environment here in the hinterlands. And it is said* that a rancher south of town uses more than his share of water with impunity; Mexican law states that cities cannot turn off water to any person. Instead they turn it off to everyone equally.

Meanwhile, we all have water meters for our houses, but they are disregarded. Apparently in Huepac, the town south of us down the river, city officials tried to implement the use of water meters to charge for water actually used, but the populace rebelled and refused to pay their water bills at all. In truth, the cost was more than many could afford. Banámichi put in the meters, but based on Huepac's experience, still charges everyone the same 55 pesos (about US $5) per month that they have charged for a very long time. The woman in the city hall who collects the water fees says that 20% of our citizens simply don't pay their water bill at all. It is a challenging political, social, economic and educational problem.

Water is a huge problem in the US Southwest as well as in  Mexico. In Arizona. we have been under drought conditions since the late 1990's, and this is the worst drought in Mexico since the 1950's. If we continue at this rate, (a friend says) that this part of the world will become uninhabitable within the next 10 years. Imagine the human upheaval that will cause! Historically (based on tree ring studies), there was a very long drought in this part of the world in the 1100's, and it has been suggested this destabilized and ended the Toltec Civilization. Later droughts may have also contributed to the end of the Mayan and Anasazi civilizations.  Consider what happened 1930-1940 in the American  dust bowl when hundreds of thousands of our own citizens were forced to leave their homes and move elsewhere. Severe drought does happen periodically around the world. It is not so far-fetched to think that such terrible conditions could happen here in our lifetimes.

Regarding social upheaval, one of the most memorable and compelling stories I have ever read is a novel called Mara and Dann by Doris Lessing. Mara and Dann are brother and sister and they live in a scarcely recognizable world where it is unbearably hot and dry in the south, with danger constantly lurking about. I especially recall the descriptions of clothes that never need to be washed, and terrible thirst and the tiny amount of water they are allocated each day. The vision Lessing paints of that hell has stayed with me for many years. I have long feared that this is not just fantasy, but a prophetic work.

What is the solution? Is there even one? Ultimately I think that the problem is too big and too complex for us human beings to solve. Global warming is in fact global, and involves so many cultural and nation-based political issues around the world that I am not sure we as a species are smart enough or cooperative enough to implement something on such a grand scale in time to prevent disaster. The problem seems like a huge tangled ball of yarn with bits sticking out everywhere and no clear place to start pulling. Where do we begin if a significant number of people in our own country with relatively good education don't even think that global climate change is real? Even by themselves, they have the money and power to pull down out noblest efforts to conserve. When beliefs and habits are so firmly held, they defy the ability of logic and reasoning to change them. And that is just one factor...there are so many more.

I think I am not being unduly negative or pessimistic, just taking a realistic look at the big picture. I do think we are in the hands of  natural forces on this one... and those of a higher power. Regardless of what we may think, we humans do not always control our destinies. Consider the people in northern Japan when the earthquake and tsunami struck. How about the folks in Joplin, Missouri, or in those living in the path of the Arizona wildfires? What could they control? Some could not even save their own lives. Like it or not, sometimes history intrudes in our lives in a way that nothing is ever the same again. This is exactly what happened to  people in other times and civilizations in the face of drought.

But does that absolve us from making the effort for the good of all? I don't think so. Rather it actually brings into clear focus the individual responsibility for action on a personal scale. It is probably the only hope we have. Having given this much thought, I now feel gratitude whenever I turn on the tap and water comes out. I look at water with new eyes. I know I will be more conscious of how much water I use and for what purposes. Is this partial load of laundry really necessary? Will I luxuriate in the shower for an extra minute? Will I let the water run while I brush my teeth?  Will I fix the leak in the drip irrigation system today or tomorrow? What else can I do?

I would love to hear from you, my friends, what you think about this topic. Feel free to leave a comment here, or send me an e-mail.

* I have used the phrasing "someone said", or "some say" because Banámichi has a very active rumor mill. Sometimes the things that people hear and repeat are simply untrue. In the absence of information, people come up with interesting explanations for events. As Ricardo, the owner of the local hardware store, said last night,  "Pueblo pequeño, infierno grande." (Small town, big hell.) And I was sitting there when he said it....