U.S. Water News Online
SUNLAND PARK, N.M. -- Ruben Segura, mayor of tiny Sunland
Park, N.M., looked through a chain-link border fence into this city
of shacks, where thousands of people live without running water, and
he had an idea.
Why not give them some water?
Sunland Park is a blue-collar community of 13,000 where many
people live in mobile homes or modest ranch houses and everyone has
access to running water and flush toilets.
Anapra, filled with Mexican migrants who work in factories and
live in tin shanties, has no running water or sewers. Instead, people
here get by on trucked-in water and endure open pits of human waste
and the constant threat of water-borne disease.
To Segura, the son of a Mexican mother and an American father,
sharing with Anapra seemed no more radical than passing the water
pitcher at the family dinner table. But the idea soon succumbed to a
web of complications of the kind that arise every day along the
border where two large countries are trying to share a small supply
Conflicts over access to a clean, cheap and sufficient supply of
water are becoming a defining feature of life along the 2,100-mile
U.S.-Mexico border and of relations across it. While for many
outsiders the border is synonymous with drug trafficking and illegal
immigration, when people who live here talk about confrontation
between Mexicans and Americans or tension between urban areas and
farmers or cooperation to solve problems, the dominant subject is
Thousands of factories and millions of people migrating to both
sides of the border in recent years have put intense pressure on the
water supply. Drinking-water supplies are running dangerously low. In
the cross-border megacity of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico,
officials say the main aquifer is in danger of being exhausted in the
next 25 years. Water is so precious that builders of a new El Paso
high school were criticized for planting too much grass.
Human and industrial waste have polluted water and raised disease
levels to much higher than national averages in both nations. A
dispute over agricultural water rights in the Lower Rio Grande
Valley, on the eastern reaches of the border, is threatening to
explode into a diplomatic confrontation between Mexico and the United
States at a time of unusually warm relations.
"Fresh water is going to be the key resource challenge of the 21st
Century on the border," said David Lorey, a border specialist at the
Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park, Calif. "People are going to wake up
to this very fast. Within the next decade it's going to be front-page
news every day."
Water has always been a prime concern along this vast stretch of
land, some of it empty as an echo and some of it poisonously
overcrowded, at the intersection of the world's richest nation and
another struggling to lift itself out of poverty.
The border area gets precious little rainfall and draws water from
a few key rivers -- mainly the Colorado in the west and the Rio
Grande in the east -- and a few groundwater aquifers. Even before the
current growth, the region had barely enough water and inadequate
infrastructure, especially on the Mexican side where such basic
services as sewage treatment were virtually nonexistent.
Now Mexican and American workers are flooding to the border at
gold-rush pace, with about 1.8 million new residents in counties and
cities on both sides in the last five years. Paul Ganster, of the San
Diego-based Southwest Center for Environmental Research and Policy,
said the border's current estimated population is about 12.3 million,
with about 6.5 million on the U.S. side and 5.8 million on the
Mexican side. Those figures are expected to double in the next 20
In the ragged hills of Anapra, across the border from Sunland
Park, water is trucked in by the city and pumped into open 50-gallon
drums sitting in dirty front yards. Between 10,000 and 25,000
squatters -- no one is sure how many live here -- are willing to
manage without running water for jobs in the plants assembling
televisions and CD players.
The jobs are bringing people like Braulio Munoz, who lives in a
one-room concrete shack in Anapra. His drinking water comes from a
concrete cistern foul with dirt and debris. To relieve himself, Munoz
walks across a plank to a shared outhouse perched over an open pit of
stinking human waste.
"We breathe the same air, and we drink the same water," said
Segura, the mayor. "We cannot shy away from the reality that they are
living in a desperate situation."
But Munoz, 53, a father of eight, has what he wants. A month after
leaving his village in southern Mexico where he was a farmhand, he
now works in a brand-new factory that makes appliance motors, where
he has air-conditioning, a five-day work week, free lunch, a free bus
ride to work, and double his old salary.
"It's like a dream for me; it's wonderful," said Munoz, proudly
showing off his laminated employee ID. "I would like to have water to
take a shower. But I have work, and that's what I care about most."
Water shortages are causing havoc for Mexican and American farmers
working at least 2 million acres of land in the Lower Rio Grande
Valley. Farmers say water scarcity has cost them at least $2.5
billion in the last five years. They are planting fewer acres and
switching from more lucrative fruits and vegetables to plants such as
cotton and sorghum, which require less water.
Officials in Washington and Mexico City are currently sparring
over a water dispute in the valley.
Mexico has withheld more than 450 billion gallons in the past
seven years that it was supposed to give to the United States through
controlled releases from a series of dams and reservoirs under a 1944
treaty splitting up the waters of the Rio Grande. Mexico argues that
a drought has made it impossible to deliver the water, but the
Americans contend that Mexico is simply withholding it to provide for
its own fast-growing industry.
Compounding the problem, the region has suffered a drought for the
last six years.
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