Divining Destiny: Mexico's Water Crisis - Uncertain Futures, Unlikely Heroes

Four years ago, standing outside her mud-brick home in San Marcos Tlacoyalco, Mexico, I met Francisca Rosas Valencia. We were interviewing her about her country's water crisis and how she was helping her struggling community survive a severe drought.

We had one more question. We had heard her describe in detail the death of her corn crop and how the ancient drought-resistant grain, amaranth, could be an agricultural salvation.

But what did the water shortage mean for her, her family and her future?

We sat in uncomfortable silence as tumble weeds wandered by. She gazed across the parched territory, peered far into her future, and grappled with the reality that life here could forever be redefined by the dry, brown earth.

Francisca Rosas Valencias near her home in San Marcos Tlacoyalco, Mexico.

Thirty seconds of silence is a long time, and a minute can feel like an hour. As tears began to well up, she quietly reached for a photograph. Her son Florentino, she told us, had left. Possibly forever. Headed north, she said, to find work in Los Angeles. She hadn't heard from him for months and wondered if he had made it alive. What if his journey ended, she thought, clinging to a railroad car, or hiking the treacherous desert where so many have died of thirst?

Stretched out beneath the small ridge near her home, the Tehuacan Valley's dusty hillsides and hardy greenery seem to capture the tragedy and triumph of Mexico's worst freshwater crisis in decades.

Forces of man and nature have turned this valley's vast freshwater supply, once renowned throughout Mexico, into an ancient memory. Industrial and agricultural pollution have rendered many waterways dangerous, and some deadly. Rainfall is scarce, leaving soils baked and aquifers dangerously low.

At Circle of Blue we dispatched a team, including Joe Contreras, then Newsweek's Latin America bureau chief, and Brent Stirton, one of Getty Images' top photojournalists, to tell Tehuacan's story. Four years later, we've turned our attention back to the region to find out what's happened since -- particularly after the worst drought in 68 years struck Mexico last summer.

Forces of man and nature have turned the Tehuacan Valley's vast freshwater supply, once renowned throughout Mexico, into an ancient memory.

Francisca died of cancer a year after that afternoon of tears. She died from a disease her friends believe was caused by polluted water and toxic dust from industry.

But as Tehuacan confronts its ongoing water crisis, we've found a few bright spots. A Mexico-based non-profit called Alternativas is helping communities find solutions that combine modern technology and entrepreneurial spirit with ancestral wisdom. They're growing hardy grains like amaranth, processing family sewage and collecting rainfall.

Although she was dirt poor, Francisca helped put together a plan that lives on, slowly transforming her community. And, perhaps, shaping a brighter future for the valley's other sons and daughters.

The full report, photographs, video and interviews are online here.

Photos © 2009 Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images for Circle of Blue