Category Archives: Water

The Ancestral Values We Inherited: Protecting Indigenous Water, Land, and Culture in Mexico

Within our indigenous community of Xoxocotla, we continue to hold the ancestral values we inherited. It never crosses our mind to leave them behind. Because in daily life we are always in contact with nature, with our lands, with our water, with our air. We live in harmony with nature because we dont like the way that modernity is advancing, destroying our territory and our environment. We believe technological modernity is better named a death threat.We still watch our children chase the butterflies and the birds. We see the harmony between the crops and the land. Above all, we respect our water and we continue to perform ceremonies that give thanks for the water.

via The Ancestral Values We Inherited: Protecting Indigenous Water, Land, and Culture in Mexico.


Small Is Beautiful: Urban vs. Rural

I read an article from the Guardian that asked “Which is greener urban or rural living?” Treehugger also picked up the conversation, and the consensus seemed to be that urban life was clearly greener. In the city you often don’t need a car. You live in smaller housing units in tall buildings that take up less space. You have more options for consumer products that are environmentally friendly, organic or otherwise more sustainably produced. There were a few commenters that didn’t want to just throw out the benefits of rural living, but no one really seemed to think rural living could be greener.

I read the whole conversation in light of the section in E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful on development. Schumacher addressed the mentality of much development work which still continues today.

Before we can talk about giving aid, we must have something to give. We do not have thousands of poverty stricken villages in our country; so what do we know about effective methods of self-help in such circumstances? The beginning of wisdom is the admission of one’s own lack of knowledge. As long as we think we know, when in fact we do not, we shall continue to go to the poor and demonstrate to them all the marvellous things they could do if they were already rich. (199)

This could also be applied to this way of thinking about whether urban or rural living is greener. Environmentalism has its own unspoken creed containing dogmas that often remain unquestioned and uncritically swallowed and regurgitated. There are certain assumptions about what is “greener” that attempt to slip the premise by us. One of those is the divide between rural and urban.

Yet it remains an unalterable truth that, just as a sound mind depends on a sound body, so the health of the cities depends on the health of rural areas. The cities, with all their wealth, are merely secondary producers, while primary production, the precondition of all economic life, takes place in the countryside. (203)

This dualism between urban and rural is and always has been a fiction. This was one of the most stunning thoughts for me in reading this book. It is only more relevant as the world continues to urbanize and face the same problems of Schumacher’s time (the book was first published in 1975) on an ever increasing scale.

When Schumacher wrote Small is Beautiful the majority of people still lived in rural areas. Therefore, he argued, we should be putting as much, if not more, emphasis on rural development. That is not what happened. The emphasis on urban development made cities much more attractive places than the increasingly difficult life in rural areas. This drove migration to the cities and the increasing urbanization that continues today. The UN predicts that 70% of the world population will live in cities by the year 2050 and we have just recently crossed the 50% mark (I don’t have a link, but I think it was in a recent State of the World report from the UN). Urban development can’t keep up with the needs of all the rural people migrating to cities as rural economies tank. Yet, the opportunities are better in the cities. Thus we end up with the massive slums that seemed to pop up overnight around Manila, Buenos Aires, Mexico City and all the major urban centers in the “developing” world.

Yet, what is our answer for this problem of urbanization? It is to create better cities that can handle the increase in population, instead of creating rural development that makes it possible for people to stay in rural areas. What the question about whether urban or rural living is greener fails to address is the continuing, dynamic relationship between these two sectors. It’s also evident when we try defining these two terms that they are not very clear. What size community should be considered rural? At what point does a city transition from being rural to urban? 20,000? 50,000? 100,000?

Derrick Jensen defines cities as “a collection of people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources” (from a YouTube video on his book Endgame). This definition means that our definition of “urban” will be relatively small compared to the largest cities in the world. However, it does account for what the discussion of how green urban living is neglects. While certain metrics make urban living appear greener, because of the economies of scale, it does not account for the dependence on outside resources to sustain the “greener” urban way of life.

Unless you are living off of your urban/community garden, the majority of your food, no matter how organic or sustainably produced, must come from somewhere else. Likewise for all the other products no matter how organic or sustainably produced that you consume in a city. All of the water you use is imported from elsewhere, as well as the coal, oil and/or natural gas you use to use electricity, drive your car, cook and heat your studio apartment. Another quote from Derrick Jensen undermines the kind of thinking that makes urban living seem “green”.

Rational people will go quietly meekly to the end of the world, if only you’ll allow them to believe that recycling is going to make a difference.

We choose the metrics that make our lives seem “greener” so that we can ignore the reality that we cannot help but participate in an economy based on extraction and the importation of resources to support our preferred lifestyle in communities called cities that require this arrangement. Perhaps there is a balance between urban and rural populations that could be sustainable. I’m open to that possibility, but it would look radically different from the current order.

So, instead of asking which is greener we should be asking which way of life is self-sustaining. Rural living, if it involves industrial monocropping or extractive lifestyles, is not self-sustaining either. But, I would argue that living in smaller rural communities has the potential to be self-sustaining, while cities require an arrangement that imports resources from outside its borders.

Pay For Rain

We’re more about making money than making things. -Stephen Bechtel

There is a movie that looks very interesting about the Water Wars in Cochabamba called Tambien La Lluvia (Even the Rain). The plot is that a film about Columbus is being made in Cochabamba exposing all the horrible atrocities that came with his “discovery” of America. Meanwhile the making of the film is hampered by protests and riots against the take over of water systems in Cochabamba by the Bechtel Corporation. I haven’t seen the movie, but the idea of linking past exploitation to present and seeing them juxtaposed sounds like an interesting one to explore. The title of the film (and this post) is a reference to the fact that under privatization people would be charged by Aguas del Turani, a subsidiary of the Bechtel Corporation, for collecting rainwater.

So, how did this happen? The story exposes some of the worst of the manipulative practices of the World Bank and Multinational corporations in developing countries. Water had been a problem in Cochabamba for decades as the population of the city continued to swell, reaching 500,000 at the time of the Water Wars in 1999. Corruption, scandals and lack of funding left the issues unresolved over the decades. One year prior to the conflict the public water system only reached 60% of the city’s citizens, the remaining people received water from self-organized wells and hookups or private distributors at exorbitant prices.(58)

The beginnings of the conflict are in a 1996 agreement between the government and World Bank to privatize Cochabamba’s water supply. World Bank threatened to withhold $600 million in debt relief if they did not agree to the plan. The agreement gave Aguas del Turani control over rural irrigation systems and community wells that had been built and financed by the local community. Villa San Miguel, a town just outside Cochabamba, financed and built their own water system that provided water to 210 families for $2-5 a month to cover costs for the pump and maintenance. After taking over the company immediately raised the rates, installed metering equipment and charged the people for the installation (59).

In a city where the monthly minimum wage is $60, many Cochabambinos found meeting water costs of $15-20 per month impossible.

Aiding the process of privatization was a law passed by the government, the Water Law 2029, which “favored the use of water by international companies for mining, agriculture, and electrical purpose over human consumption” (59). This paved the way for Bechtel which is

over a century old and works in everything from railroads, mines and oil to airports, defense and aerospace facilities. It is the largest construction company on the planet with 19,000 projects in 140 countries, including every continent except Antarctica (61).

Even when Bechtel representatives heard protests from the streets during a festive contract-signing party, Bolivian president and former dictator Hugo Banzer told them, “I’m used to that sort of background music” (57). Unfortunately for Bechtel and Banzer the people would not be denied so easily. Coordinated protests and blockades against the privatization began in January 2000. The government responded with brutal violence against protestors for months. The persistence of the grassroots organizations and coordinated efforts to maintain blockades and protests in the face of repression from police and military eventually forced the authorities to change Law 2029 and made the water company public.

There were still many obstacles and difficulties in managing and improving the water system, but now the “slow process of democratization of the public water company” was in its beginning stages (68). It wouldn’t be until 2006 that Bechtel would drop its claims to $50 million from the Bolivian government after international campaigns and protests. “Bechtel left with a symbolic 30 cents in their pocket” (69).

As Dangl points out the conflict in Cochabamba is part of a global issue concerning the depletion of water resources and increasing conflict over water rights as private industry seeks to profit off the crisis.

If the population continues to grow at the current rate, total human usage of water will reach 100 percent by the middle of the 21st century…More than a billion people, 20 percent of the global population, currently lack access to safe drinking water. At the same time,, around 70 percent of all fresh water utilized by humans from lakes, aquifers, and rivers is used for agriculture (57).

Many have predicted and continue to predict that wars will be fought over water in the future because of this situation. What we ignore at our peril is that these wars have already begun. Dangl concludes with a quote from Uruguyan historian Eduardo Galeano on his own country’s struggle for water rights,

More than five centuries have passed since Columbus. How long can we go on trading gold for glass beads? (70-71)

Humanure: Waste or Resource?

CAUTION: I use many different words in this post to refer to human feces, most of which just make my four-year-old son laugh (OK.. me too), but some of which are slang and might be considered offensive by some. You have been warned.

The Humanure Handbook quickly and easily catapulted itself to one of my favorite books of all time. The plot is pretty simple. The human turd has been looked down on for much of Western history as a villain, a bearer of death and disease and something to be got rid of as quickly and cleanly as possible (at least for those of us who don’t work in wastewater management). But wait… Could it be that this much maligned malefactor is really only a misunderstood and much underutilized natural resource in disguise? It turns out that while there are lots of plot twists (pathogens, night soil, etc.), the reprobate pile of human excrement is actually a very smelly Boy Scout waiting to waltz with thermophilic microbial lifeforms until he turns your dung into the most delicious and nutritious tomatoes you’ve ever eaten. Only the topics of poop or compost can inspire me to wax so poetic. The Humanure Handbook combines both in a glorious tome destined to inspire generations to come and probably save the planet.

Stop Pooping in the Water Cooler

The world is divided into two categories of people: those who shit in their drinking water supplies and those who don’t. We in the western world are in the former class (15).

This seems to be the motto and rallying cry of the book. Author Joseph Jenkins reminds us that “Less than one percent of the Earth’s water is available as drinking water. Why shit in it?” (117). This is really what happens when we use modern, western toilets. We pull that innocent-looking handle and wave goodbye to our waste as gallons of water swirl around carrying our excrement off to unforeseen lands that we then promptly ignore. The truth is that the water in our waste systems is for no other purpose than carrying away our waste. If it weren’t for us using it to get rid of our excrement, then it would be perfectly acceptable water for our own consumption.

People around the world are trying to keep feces and contaminants out of what water supply they have, while we abuse our abundance by happily turning our water into an environmental hazard that is ridiculously expensive to dispose of properly, if indeed, it is even possible. In a world where “one out of four people in developing countries still lack clean water, and two out of three lack adequate sanitation” (Source: State of the World 1999, p. 137), it’s at least silly, if not criminal, for us to be using our own water resources this way.

Jenkins covers thoroughly all the systems used to dispose of our ordure (outhouses, septic systems, wastewater treatment, stabilization ponds, constructed wetlands and composting toilet systems), the structure and problems associated with them including handling of pathogens and toxins. In the end his beloved system of managed thermophilic compost (which is a fancy way of saying composting toilet systems) comes out smelling like roses, quite literally if that’s what you want to grow with it.

Wasting Away

The problem, however, is not just in the facts, which add up considerably in favor of humanure. The problem is really our understanding of what is waste. Jenkins points out that Asian countries did not develop western wastewater treatment systems and have used “night soil” (raw humanure) for millenia on agricultural lands. (He does point out that while this returns nutrients to the soil and destroys many of the pathogens through decomposition it can also be a vector for disease because the humanure is not composted.) They don’t even have swear words that refer to human excrement in many Asian languages, because it could never be an insult to call someone something so valuable. Think about that next time the hammer hits your thumb instead of the nail!

It’s a common semantic error to say that waste is, can be or should be recycled. Resource materials are recycled, but waste is never recycled. That’s why it’s called “waste.” Waste is any material that is discarded and has no further use… “Human waste” is a term that has traditionally been used to refer to human excrements, particularly fecal material and urine, which are by-products of the human digestive system… Humanure, unlike human waste, is not waste at all – it is an organic resource rich in soil nutrients. Humanure originated from the soil and can be quite readily returned to the soil, especially if converted to humus through the composting process (7-8).

The challenge is a radical shift in our thinking, not just a matter of where or in what we put the end product of our digestive system. We have come to assume that certain things are “waste” and must be disposed of through expensive and dangerous chemical processes or storage. His comparison of “sanitary” landfills (which use waterproof liners carefully folded up around the edges) to gigantic disposable diapers really stuck with me.

What in truth is human waste? Human waste is garbage, cigarette butts, plastic six-pack rings, styrofoam clamshell burger boxes, deodorant cans, disposable diapers, worn out appliances, unrecycled pop bottles, wasted newspapers, junk car tires, spent batteries, junk mail, nuclear contamination, food packaging, shrink wrap, toxic chemical dumps, exhaust emissions, discarded plastic CD disks, the five billion gallons of drinking water we flush down our toilets every day, and the millions of tons of organic material discarded into the environment year after year (9).

We’ve done such a good job at removing our own waste from sight and therefore our awareness, that we can hardly fathom that we, North Americans, produce 1,000 pounds of humanure in a year and another 1,000 pounds of solid waste. That’s one ton of waste per person every year, half of which can be turned into an agricultural resource (12).

Jenkins also does a thorough job describing exactly how to create an agricultural resource from your own droppings. There are plans for many different permutations of sawdust toilets you can build yourself, in addition to diagrams of many of the commercial products and composting toilets that are out there. There is also a design for the Humanure Hacienda which is two compost bins with a covered third bin that collects rainwater.

The problem of waste that’s created by our consumption, both through the food we eat and the stuff we buy, must be dealt with in more sustainable ways. One of the best things we can do is turn our own waste into a resource.

Our Own Walden

Photo of current Charagua workers cooking giso over the fire in what will soon be our yard.

We recently visited Charagua and decided to accept a position there working with Low German Mennonites, local Bolivians and Guarani (an indigenous group) on water systems, dry latrines and small-scale vegetable production. This is not the position we originally accepted, but it is within the same program. We’re excited about a more rural life and working with both LGMs and the Guarani people. Our house is on the same property as the center where we work and serves as a demonstration plot with a big yard and small pasture.

IMG_6442.JPGI’m excited about all the possibilities this position will provide. Both the more rural setting and living where we work mean that the pace of life will be much slower than in Santa Cruz. I have plans for the garden, but also to experiment with some tagasaste trees as a forage for a couple milk goats in the pasture by our house. I’m also hoping to work on a simple water filtration system (our water gets pretty murky when it rains), maybe rainwater harvesting and a compost pile, of course.

There will be a lot of time for reading, relaxing and just being. I plan on getting a charango and spending lots of time on the porch learning how to play this guitar-like instrument with ten strings and traditionally made out of an armadillo shell. I already have a stack of books to take with us (most of which are fiction this time). I’m also hoping that this will afford me the opportunity to return to my Food in the Bible series.

We will not have internet access. So, I may not be regularly updating the blog at least for the first couple months. If I am able to find a routine for writing, then I will space out those posts over time when I’m in the city.