By Jenny Cook
At 25, Dylan Terrell was partnering with villagers in Chiapas, Mexico, to build sustainably, encouraging a return to adobe brick. Ten years later, at 35, he is founder and Director of San Miguel de Allende’s NGO Caminos de Agua (Caminos) and has secured a 16 million peso project from the Río Arronte Foundation to build 330 new large-scale rainwater harvesting systems (amongst several other initiatives) for communities in the Alto Rio Laja Watershed over the next three years.
“I am vehemently passionate about rainwater being a solution, not only to water scarcity, but to having potable [water]. Rainwater does not have arsenic and fluoride” says Terrell. These poisons create serious neurological and skeletal debilities in humans and are prominent throughout the region. To purify rainwater of bacteria and organic debris, Caminos’ engineers designed a low-cost ceramic filter, certified by COFEPRIS, which is the Mexican equivalent of the US EPA. Many groups world-wide have requested this filter. Caminos recently designed an award-winning adapter (Aguadapt) that allows a filter to be installed in any household container, using standard plumbing parts. It is an ideal response for water treatment in natural disaster areas that can transition to permanent household use.
“We are in one of the most vulnerable regions in the entire world for hydraulic stress-–all of Guanajuato; 80 percent [or more] of our water resources are used every year,” says Terrell. “State data says [the] water table drops two to three meters a year. Technically it’s two to four; that’s still an absurd level of water over-extraction: I mean it’s absolutely brutal.”
Arsenic and fluoride were first discovered in the groundwater by a UNAM Juriquilla scientist, Dr Ortega, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 2011 Caminos in collaboration with grassroots organizations from Texas A&M, and the University of Guanajuato started a water monitoring program that has covered 400 sites testing for contaminants common to our region that continues today.
“What we found horrified us, frankly. We had read all the water quality studies from
UNAM, and one by the San Miguel municipality done in 2006. Our results were above and beyond anything we had ever seen. We registered fluoride levels 15 times higher [than the World Health Organization limits]. We started seeing arsenic [levels], which hadn’t been an issue, nine times above norm. Today, it’s 22 times that.”Terrell reports.
In response young engineering interns in Caminos’ lab designed an effective and low-cost fluoride filter. For arsenic, a commercial filter is more cost-effective. Sadly, new contaminants like mercury and nitrates are showing up now.
Terrell earned his MA in global sustainability and public policy with a focus on the impact of macroeconomic policies on development in rural Mexico.
When he began work in Chiapas, he and his technical colleagues in social development projects realized their good intentions often produced more harm than good. To be more effective they decided it was important to live where they worked, so Terrell moved to San Miguel in 2009.
“We also realized that we should enter communities responsibly, through the existing grassroots groups. In 2011 when we started linking up with local NGOs [and grassroots organizations] and asked what the problems were. We wanted to provide technical support or whatever was needed,” Terrell continued, “From day one, the unanimous reply was ‘Water, water, water!’”
Terrell and Caminos, now a team of more than 30 people, have taken this to heart.