Opinion: Two states, one climate crisis - New Hampshire and Oaxaca

Dancers perform on the first day of the Guelaguetza in Oaxaca, Mexico, Monday, July 17, 2023.

Dancers perform on the first day of the Guelaguetza in Oaxaca, Mexico, Monday, July 17, 2023. Maria Alferez / AP file

People parade during the Guelaguetza festival in Oaxaca, Mexico, Saturday, July 15, 2023. 

People parade during the Guelaguetza festival in Oaxaca, Mexico, Saturday, July 15, 2023.  Maria Alferez/ AP


Published: 03-13-2024 4:54 PM

Judith Elliott lives in Canterbury.

Like many Granite Staters, my husband and I like to head south when winter comes. Since retirement, we’ve been lucky enough to spend winters in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca (pronounced “wa-HAH-ka”), mostly in its capital city of the same name.

The city of Oaxaca, located in a mountain valley, is full of brilliant flowers, a stunning array of handicrafts, coffee shops, art museums, music, and dance. Oaxaca’s cuisine is among the best in the world. If you know Spanish, you will find Oaxacans to be gracious and interesting. (If your Spanish is limited, you’ll probably find the same.) On Saturdays, you can watch traditional parades known as “calendas,” with dancers, giant puppets, and brass bands celebrating weddings, quinceñeras, and baptisms.

Exotic as it seems to our northern eyes, the state of Oaxaca has a lot in common with New Hampshire. This includes a proclivity for local self-government, largely run by volunteers. Also in common with many New Hampshire towns, Oaxacan villages have town meetings, annual festivals, and sometimes local disputes that go way back. And in both places, people have the capacity to make themselves heard when they’re mad about something.

Oaxaca and New Hampshire have one more thing in common — the climate crisis. In New Hampshire, that means a rising sea level, the loss of our classic snowy winters, hotter summers, and heavy rains causing floods. In Oaxaca, the problem manifests itself largely as severe heat and drought that has been worsening for years. The central valley of Oaxaca which I remember from twenty years ago had a remarkably temperate climate. Today it is much hotter and drier. The lush, eco-diverse forests in the mountains above the capital are drier, too, leading to a frightening increase in forest fires. Last week, five men lost their lives battling an out-of-control fire in the village of San Lucas Quiavini.

The city’s chronic water crisis, like the heat, has sharpened this year, leaving Oaxacans frightened at the prospect of not having water to drink, cook, and wash. My friend Norma tells me it’s been 40 days since water has reached her home through municipal pipes. Other neighborhoods report a similar wait. To fill the gap, water trucks known as “pipas” roam the city, but there are waiting lists, often over a week long, to schedule delivery. The big plastic jugs families rely on for drinking water are getting harder to come by. Our friend Edith reminds us, “Without water, we cannot live.”

Recently on our morning walk we came upon a small, determined group of Oaxacan neighbors blocking a busy city street. Some held signs saying “Queremos agua,” or “We Want Water.” A woman named Marta explained to us that they wanted to draw attention to the fact that water was not being delivered to their neighborhood, Colonia Francisco Madero. Across town, a group of citizens from another neighborhood was blocking a larger road, also demanding water.

As in New Hampshire, many small communities in Oaxaca aren’t waiting for government help, but taking action to address the crisis with their own volunteer labor. In the Chocho-Mixteca region, a group of 50 indigenous communities is planting trees to reverse centuries of deforestation. In the central valley, a network of 16 farming communities has used picks and shovels to install rainwater recirculation systems of their own design.

At the national level, there are changes Mexico needs to make to address the water and climate crises. Investment in water and sanitation infrastructure is required. Renewable energy projects, for which Mexico has great potential, need fair access to electricity markets, now dominated by the country’s petroleum industry. Illegal and excessive logging that reduces the rain in Mexico’s mountains must stop. And all this must be done respecting the rights of local communities, which in Oaxaca are mainly indigenous.

Yet we cannot escape the fact that carbon dioxide emissions by wealthy countries like the U.S. are the primary driver of climate change worldwide. In 2022, Mexico emitted four metric tons of carbon dioxide per capita, whereas the U.S. emitted 15 metric tons per capita. Moreover, resource grabs by U.S., Canadian, and other corporations are polluting Oaxaca’s water and damaging the farms and forests that nourish Oaxaca’s diverse ecosystems. The U.S. and other rich countries have a big responsibility, both to cut emissions and ameliorate damage.

New Hampshire and Oaxaca have more in common than first meets the eye, including the climate crisis. We’re in this together.