Oaxaca: Indigenous changemakers

Elisa writes*

Oaxaca is a state of southern Mexico filled with culture, biodiversity — and  water scarcity. Oftentimes, water management is associated with a board of old, rich people sitting at meetings discussing theoretical economic “solutions”, failing to address systemic issues as it is not in their interest to do so. However, within the Copalita-Zimatán-Huatulco watershed, which encompasses Oaxaca, Indigenous people and local residents are taking the initiative (Medium.com, 2022). Pollution, overconsumption, and poor management limit water availability, so residents get water from wells or private water trucks known as pipas (Starkman, 2013). Federal and municipal organizations have tried to improve water quality, but tap water is not drinkable, forcing residents to find their own solutions (Mansourian et al., 2020).

Oaxaca has 19 ethnic groups speaking 16 languages (globalsiasar.org, 2017). This diversity often results in indigenous communities dealing with government failures. Indigenous people have built 579 water infrastructure projects. Local families work with municipalities to construct water pans, wells, and dams (Pelliccia, 2022). The farming cooperative Alternativa Agricultura Zapotec has increased Milpa production, constructed livestock enclosures and compost systems, and captured rainwater for irrigation (Alistair, 2018). These projects improve water security for residents but also set an example — inspiring others to help with water scarcity.

It appears that local initiatives have been significantly more successful than governmental efforts. One reason may be cultural. Indigenous communities such as the Zapotec, for example, protect nature against human disturbance.

Bottom Line: Indigenous-led, community-based initiatives are more effective than centralized, federal efforts in addressing water scarcity.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

4 thoughts on “Oaxaca: Indigenous changemakers”

  1. Wonderful blog post Elisa. Your post was very insightful in learning about the water scarcity issues that Oaxaca faces. In particular, I liked your focus on the indigenous communities and how they are being impacted by the incapabilities of the local government to improve water management. It was intriguing to find that indigenous communities and other local communities strive to combat water scarcity and build their own solutions, which strongly reflects the level of corruption in Oaxaca. I think it would be even more interesting to read about your case-study if you focus on such aspects of corruption, and the types of regulations (top-down or bottom-up) that Oaxaca can implement in the future to ensure that they mitigate water scarcity and related health/security issues.

    1. Hello Kiara! Thank you for your comment. I will send you my completed case study, so you can get a more in-depth overview of corruption and types of regulations implemented.

  2. Hey Elisa, it was fascinating to read about your case study and the intricacies of that region. Your decision to focus on Oaxaca while shedding light on its ethnic diversity brings up some intriguing points. For instance, how should the government act as they have failed in managing water scarcity? Are there water disputes among the indigenous communities once the Federal government has consistently failed at administering water? Do the private companies take advantage of the indigenous’ vulnerable situation?
    In essence, I got really curious and excited about your project. I think that exploring the history of that territory in connection with water management can be insightful in understanding existing power structures and future scenarios where water becomes scarcer. In fact, what are the 19 ethnic groups doing to make water more available and democratise the system? Hopefully, you’ll share your finished project with us; I’m looking forward to reading it!

    1. Hi David! The government played a small role when addressing the failures of water scarcity, but some initiative has been taken to communicate with locals within smaller towns. The national government is aware of the struggles that Oaxacan residents face. However, communication between municipal and national governments are limited, and national initiatives are not taken seriously by leaders in Oaxaca. Based on my research, extreme cases of disputes between Indigenous communities and the government are limited mostly because focus is distributed to actually obtaining access to clean water. However, when disputes do arise, the government avoids addressing conflict and fails to acknowledge the root issues. Private companies definitely take advantage of the situation by illegally rerouting water taps and unlicensed water trucks. I am unsure whether they speficially target Indigenous people, but I will look more into that (and would not be surprised if the answer is yes). I will be sure to send my completed case study to you!

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