School for Water & Energy
Seva supports innovative development program in Chiapas

For indigenous communities in Chiapas, Mexico, solving the problem of poverty is interconnected with issues of access to clean water systems and electrical energy.  While many international groups have built water and energy projects there, experience shows that the most successful efforts are those that are planned, built and maintained by the communities that will use them.

That's why Seva's Community Self-Development Program (CSD) is supporting the Popular Water & Energy School, an innovative new program being launched in Chiapas this year by Otros Mundos, a nonprofit organization helping indigenous people address the social, economic and environmental problems that confront them.

The School's curriculum includes water basin management, water collection systems and treatment, ecological latrines, biodigestors, and solar energy systems.  The goal is that through sustainable management of water, energy and agro-forestry, the indigenous communities of Chiapas will enjoy better living conditions while reducing the effects of global warming and environmental destruction.

Roger Maldonado, Seva's Program Manager in Chiapas, spoke with Otros Mundos co-founder, Gustavo Castro Soto, a sociologist and researcher with more than 15 years of experience in popular education and community development.  Here are excerpts from their conversation:

Most of us assume that the utility companies take care of water and electricity. So why is the Popular Water & Energy School needed?
Here in Mexico, just as in the U.S., there are many environmental problems that result from the energy we use — from the dams that disrupt rivers and displace people, to greenhouse gasses that cause global warming. In addition to that, the cost of electricity is simply too high for most rural indigenous communities — so families use firewood for cooking, which causes problems with deforestation and air pollution. Yet there are alternatives to secure energy in a more sustainable way, in harmony with the environment.

The same happens with water. In the cities, and with large-scale agriculture, so much water is wasted and so much is contaminated. But in the rural communities where we work, there is often no running water or sanitation system.

The idea of the Popular Water & Energy School is to find solutions that benefit the people, where the communities design their own alternatives with autonomy and sovereignty. As we increasingly feel the effects of privatization, increased costs for water and energy services, contamination, and health impacts due to mismanagement, we believe it is urgent to generate a new water and energy culture based on efficient use and respect for the environment, while satisfying the basic needs of rural communities.

Who will be the students of this school?
This year we are working with seven indigenous campesino communities. When we convene the workshops, we start by reflecting on the communities’ problems with water and energy. Then each community appoints three people who will go to the school. We are also ensuring that women have the opportunity to participate in the training program. The people appointed by their communities are required to participate in the classes for one year, and then they immediately begin applying the principles learned to find solutions to the problems in their community. Upon successful completion of the one-year program, the school recognizes this effort and awards students a vocational degree in Popular Water and Energy. It is important that those who complete the training in turn seek sustainable alternatives in their own communities rather than searching for solutions elsewhere.

What will people learn at the school?
The Otros Mundos team has developed a comprehensive curriculum based on the needs that the communities have expressed over many years. We start with an overview of the challenges with access to water and generation of energy in their communities. After students understand the complex relationship between environmental factors and development of water and energy resources, they then learn specific techniques to solve these issues. So for example, they will learn how to analyze the water resources in their surroundings to better plan their development. They will also learn things such as how to capture and store rainwater, how to clean contaminated water with filters they build themselves, how to build ecological latrines, and other techniques.

Why is the school a good way to work with the communities? Why not bring in experts to build water and energy systems?
In our experience, when somebody comes from the outside to solve the problems, it usually doesn’t work. The solutions have to come from the people — they can choose which alternative is the best for them according to their needs and according to their region and culture.

Are there other programs similar to the Water and Energy School?
The concept of the School is unique in Chiapas. As facilitators, we are joining with the communities to search for alternatives together. The community elects its trainees and participates in the school’s design and its improvement. This is the first year of the school, and it will be a permanent building process that includes the participation of the communities themselves.

It’s an incredible challenge, but we know we can help people build a dignified life without poverty. The success of the school will be a success for the world because when communities build projects without degrading the environment, they are fighting global warming, and that benefits everyone.

How important is the support Seva has provided to Otros Mundos?
Seva was the first to recognize the strategic importance of the Popular Water & Energy School in Chiapas. They were the first to believe in the School’s ability to develop sustainable alternatives. This would not be possible without the alliance between Seva and Otros Mundos.

You can help support Seva's work to bring water and energy projects to communities in Guatemala and Mexico with an online donation.


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