By: Regidor Francisco Fonseca Hoeffer, Oscar Andrade, Laura Monti, Rafael Cabanillas, Gary Nabhan
Two indigenous communities of the Comcaac (Seri) in the coastal deserts of Sonora, Mexico are requesting international support for their struggle to regain their human rights to energy and water. They face their worst crisis in access to food, income, potable water and electricity in more than a half century.
According to Comcaac external affairs official Francisco Fonseca Hoeffer, who represents the village of Desemboque de los Seris to the federal government, “We want Mexico government to know that for more than fifty years we have had this problem water access in our community. Our community chronically suffers for lack of this essential resource, and this has been aggravated even more so over this last year.”
He explained that failed water and energy systems worsened the other challenges the Comcaac community faced this year. These included heat waves that generated 100 days over 43 degrees Celsius (110 F); lockdown in response to the pandemic; nearby cartel violence limiting access to external resources; and declining incomes.
“For these reasons, we extend our heartfelt call for collaborations to the Mexican government, other institutions and organizations to help us find positive solutions to these problems, so that our families no longer have to suffer from the lack of water and energy.”
Comcaac Governor Miguel Estrella confirmed the gravity of the situation in a forum on solar energy in Desemboque March 4th: “Our priority is access to energy and water at a cost that is affordable and is sustainable for the Comcaac community. The lack of potable water has imperiled the public health of our community—especially because of its consequences for those suffering from Covid-19 and/or diabetes since the onset of the pandemic.” The Governor committed to pay $180,000 pesos to reduce the debt of the community to CFE and to initiate a long-term solution to this challenge.
Estrella and Fonseca are among the many Comcaac tribal members now soliciting commitments from federal agencies and others to help permanently install longer-term solutions. These proposals include high-capacity water storage tanks in both Comcaac villages; more secure water piping that can resist climate catastrophes; and stable, affordable electricity. The Comcaac are not simply protesting, but are working to build collaborations to guarantee their basic human rights to these essential resources.
As confirmed by Proyecto Puente, the fishing village of Desemboque del Sur in the municipality of Pitiquito has been without water since December 27, 2020. The instability in power from the Federal Commission on Electricity (CFE) triggered the burnout of the pump at the only well supplying the 100 household community with its only source of electricity and potable water.
Because of thousands of pesos of debt accrued by individual Seri families and the community itself during the pandemic and economic recession, CFE cut the incoming power lines to their well in early March. As a result, most gardens and fruit trees required for food security there are now dead or dying. This regrettable action deprived most of the village’s families from any running water. In early March, in responses to pressure from Comcaac leaders and INPI, CFE temporarily restored electric power to Desemboque, but without erasing the community’s debt or withdrawing its threats to cut off power again in the future.
“Fishing, indigenous crafts sales to tourists, and wildlife conservation projects are usually among the three major sources of income to both villages,” explained Alberto Mellado Moreno, a Comcaac natural resource scientist and novelist living in Punta Chueca. “But income from all three have declined dramatically since the onset of the pandemic.”
As Reynaldo Estrella, the Comcaac leader in charge of security and public works in Desemboque, explained, “Our income is highly variable and seasonal. Families can spend over half of their monthly income to pay utility bills when and if there is even enough to cover them.”
No wonder Comcaac families—like many others across Mexico– have found it difficult to pay bills for power and water. Most Desemboque families have been forced to haul water from the ejido of Nopalera 15 kilometers away, but even access to fuel for vehicles has become limited as cartel violence to the north of Comcaac villages has damaged or closed the closest gas stations. As Veronica Molina, a Desemboque resident and solar technician, has testified,“Since mid-December, we have to go outside of our reservation to get water at the price of $150 liters for each container of 200 liters, plus the price of gas.”
In the other Comcaac village of Punta Chueca, the erratic production of potable water at a local desalinization plant has plagued the community of two hundred households for nearly fourteen years. Most residents have been buying and hauling bottle water from Bahia Kino 34 kilometers away for more than a decade. As Zara Monroy, a cultural ambassador for Comcaac community, has testified to journalists from El Sol de Hermosillo…
“In Punta Chueca, fresh water is very scarce. All families have one time or another been forced to make difficult decisions on whether to bathe or to wash clothes. Moreover, rainfall has been so sparse that we don’t have the capacity to harvest and store large amounts rainwater in cisterns… Until recently, we haven’t seen a viable solution to this problem, but we are now collaborating with others to search for a new source of water in a manner that will be fundable and sustainable.”
As Comcaac leaders and activists reach out to national and international partners, the meandering path to sustainable. long term energy and water security is becoming clearer. Monroy is one of those in dialogue with Rubén Albarrán, lead vocalist for the band Café Tacvba, who supported hydrological testing to locate a new well for the village. Unfortunately, initial drilling found that much of the groundwater underlying Punta Chueca is already salinized. As ocean level rising further affects all coastal aquifers, few potential well sites within ten kilometers of the village will be likely to offer fresh, uncontaminated potable water.
Nevertheless, a research team organized by Universidad de Sonora’s Dr. Rafael Cabanillas have developed a new, more effective model for desalinization. This model will soon be put into operation at Punta Chueca, thanks to support facilitated by regional Director of INPI Oscar Andrade, of Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos (INPI) Indigenas in Bahia Kino, Sonora.
To attain affordable energy and secure water sources, Andrade and Desemboque leaders blessed a renewable energy initiative with Hermosillo based company Solarex to install solar panels at the well and in the village. University of Arizona collaborators Laura Monti and Gary Nabhan recruited the Honnold Foundation to work with the US non profit Borderlands Restoration Network to initiate a second phase. It has now renovated solar panels at the well area and built others in the village to supply low-cost energy to 30 of the 100 households.
The final and critical step to reach affordable energy and water security must be the moral responsibility of CFE and CONAGUA. For its part, CFE temporarily turned electricity back on in Desemboque in the second week of March, but has not forgiven the community debt, nor removed the threat of cutting off the energy again at some point in the future. To help the community avoid further crises, the Honnold Foundation raised the funds needed to clear the energy debts of all Desemboque households.
“As basic human rights, these communities deserve better access to clean, affordable water, reliable and renewable energy, healthy food and live-able wages during this time of crisis. Health care costs have dramatically risen at the same moment that incomes have declined. It is clear that the Comcaac don’t want nor deserve another temporary bandage on gaping wounds. They are intent on solving such problems before climate change further challenges the food, water and energy security of these indigenous communities,” said Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan, a desert ecologist with fifty years of collaboration with Comcaac, at a community forum in Desemboque on March 4th.
The next steps needed to resolve these conflicts are clear. CFE must forgive community debts during this crisis and reconnect Comcaac households and pumps to the grid. The solar panels must then be connected to the power grid controlled by Mexico’s CFE. CONAGUA must initiate planning and installment of sizeable water storage tanks to be placed in both villages. Punta Chueca’s 200 households will require the storage of 120,000 liter per day, while Desemboque’s 100 households will require storage of 60,000 liter per day. The cost of investing in renewable solar energy for all households will be a fraction of the cost of fossil fuels, freeing the Comcaac community from the vicious cycle of debt and electricity shutoffs by CFE that plague indigenous and rural communities throughout Mexico.