The Ache of Injustice

I peered deep into the 50 gallon plastic container at the few inches of water remaining at the bottom. Just moments before, the bucket was full- but after 20 minutes of using this water to pressure wash the inside of the 2500 gal water tank that provides water for the Ramirez* home, my plastic container was practically empty. I began to drag the container to the open field just behind the home to dump out the remaining water in attempt to begin the clean-up process after a day full of manual labor, frantic trips to the hardware store, sunburn, sore muscles, and homemade tamales. Just then, Mara*, the female head of the household, walked outside of her home and it dawned on me – maybe she wants to save this water. Upon asking, she hurriedly brought me a 5 gallon open bucket to pour the remaining water from my container into, to be saved for later use in the home- perhaps to fill toilets, bathe with, or be used for cooking.
2500 gallon water tank
photo: 2500 gallon water tank.
view of algae inside water tank
photo: view of algae inside water tank.
water from tank at the faucet
photo: water from tank at the faucet.

Over 600,000 households located in unincorporated, predominately Hispanic neighborhoods, known as colonias, find themselves in this reality everyday of their lives. Water often costs anywhere between 5 and 40 percent of a monthly household income, to be compared with the US average of 2.5%. Every drop saved is gold. Every drop saved is money for propane gas, for gasoline, for food, for electricity, for school supplies, for livelihoods.

For a short, gut-wrenching 8 hours- I experienced the ache of water insecurity. In undertaking an attempt to rid one family’s tank of the algae that had been accumulating for over 10 years, I experienced disgust of the water quality that is used to ‘clean’ bodies, dishes, clothes, floors, etc., fear of exposure to water-borne contaminants in the tank, stress associated with working out the logistics to obtain the proper equipment- including a fresh water source for the cleaning process, not to mention the process to transport the 50 gallons in an over sized, heavy, leaky, plastic container- thirst for hydration that was unquenchable other than by a 30 minute trip to the nearest gas station, frustration when the outdoor hose had a broken nozzle- rendering it unfit to be connected to any power washer, in addition to electrical outlets not working, lack of extension cords, and the loss of a water vacuum extension wand as it was dropped inside the 10-foot tall tank – unreachable without a nerve-wrenching trip inside the enclosed space that wreaked of mold, a blistering sunburn, muscle soreness, exhaustion, and an empty pocket.

UTEP Engineers climb inside water tank to retrieve vacuum extension
photo: UTEP Engineers climb inside water tank to retrieve vacuum extension.

The process to clean the inside of a household water tank, for those households that are not connected to a municipal or private water distribution system, takes place about twice a year. The process to schedule and pay the water hauler to fill your water tank when it is empty takes place anywhere from 3 times per month to once per month, depending on family size. And families spend close to $24 to $96 per month on purified water for cooking, drinking, and brushing teeth, not including the cost of gas and time to reach the local market or water vending machine, the time and labor of cleaning the purified water storage containers, and the worry associated with the inability to pay at any and all of the above points.

Welcome to the United States of America. Where less than 1% of the population lacking access to basic water infrastructure equals 1.5 million people carrying the burden of water provision for their families every single day.

*Names changed for confidentiality
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