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Living in the age of drought

By Katherine Zavala, Thousand Currents’ Regional Director, Latin America

“California’s reservoirs have about a year’s worth of water left.”

The news came out officially earlier this year. It was a shocking statement, but as a California resident, it did not come as a surprise. The heat waves are coming more often. The drought is palpable.

But I’m not sure if I can grasp the idea of no water where I live. What are we going to do?

When I brainstorm about solutions, stories come to my mind from the communities of San Jacinto Chiquimula, located within the dry corridor region (corredor seco) of Guatemala. I know this case because Thousand Currents’ long-term partner, the Institute for Overcoming Urban Poverty (ISMUGUA), has been accompanying these communities since 2011.

Like California, there have always been wet years and dry years in Chiquimula. However, in 2008, the local communities started to get worried when they saw how dry the area was getting, reducing the success rate of cultivating any crops for survival.

The population living in Chiquimula is of Xinca (non-Mayan indigenous) ancestry, but they don’t claim their indigenous identity. Xincas were one of hardest hit in terms of oppression and massacre during the civil war in Guatemala, leading to hiding or declaiming their indigenous identity.

ISMUGUA, with its extensive track record in training community-led disaster preparedness, felt compelled to support Xinca communities in the 2008 drought. They responded to a national call for help led by the mayors in Chiquimula and it was decided that Sheny, ISMUGUA Program Coordinator, should travel to San Jacinto Chiquimula and present their work at a town hall. Here she made an announcement that ISMUGUA was interested to support women in building solutions to the drought, particularly in accessing food.

Otilia, Photo by Katherine Zavala.

Among the crowd sat Otilia, a Xinca woman who had come to the town hall to learn what strategies the municipality had to address the drought. When the meeting was over, Otilia ran after Sheny.

“I heard your speech,” she said. “You said you were interested to work with women. I would like know how.”

That inquiry led ISMUGUA to start coordinating with the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Food, to request resources and technical assistance for women to learn to grow vegetables and to raise chickens.

In the meantime, Otilia went back to start organizing the women in her community. It was a slow start. Only five women showed up in the first meeting. But she was persistent, despite the existing lack of trust amongst women to meet together.

By the time, ISMUGUA had coordinated an agreement between the municipality, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Food, and the local communities. Fifty women were committed to the project. ISMUGUA focused their trainings on building community resilience and women’s empowerment by exploring reproductive health, personal hygiene, self-esteem, and getting to know our community. At the same time, representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Food trained the 50 women in sustainable agriculture and breeding chickens. Furthermore, ISMUGUA supported five women in this cohort to be trained as promoters to replicate the training more extensively.

After four years, 80 women are fully committed to this project, having grown their own backyard garden and their own chickens. They are surviving the drought each year saving money and having access to their own food.

The water is still scarce, and the crops don’t reach optimal productivity. But the women are incredibly happy to have more control over their food. The community has been strengthened as women exchange their crops with each other.

Sitting at my office in San Francisco, thinking about Otilia and the women of Chiquimula, I wonder how we will respond in California when the water is no longer there.

Will we build our own solutions?
Will we organize with our neighbors?
Will we connect more with each other?
One more year worth of water. What then?

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