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The Ache of Injustice

December 19, 2013 Leave a comment
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

Texas Colonias: Red Tape or Politics as Barrier to Decent Housing?

August 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Last summer The Texas Tribune published a two-part series on Texas colonias. The first article addresses the efforts and problems with securing habitable dwellings for residents (Red-Tape, Catch-22 Impede Progress). The second article (Conditions, Health Risks Sicken Colonias Residents) paints a striking picture of colonias residents and their life-world. I would only have added that when you enter Mexico Chiquito, the community cited in the article, you are welcomed by a severe sulfur smell that, for the first-time visitor, may cause your eyes to water…but that is another post.

As I finished reading the two articles, I am left unsatisfied. The article relied on the narrative that poor housing and substandard infrastructure are a result of individual actors, “unscrupulous developers,” usurious lenders, and other malcontents ready to prey on poor farm workers. Tone and word choice rendered residents as naturally poor, eliding their existence to the anachronistic “Third World.” The author stopped there, failing to grasp the complex historical and geographical processes that produced colonias in south Texas. The author did not address how chronic low-wage employment, wage supresion, and limited educational opportunities cause poverty. The author did not explain that many rural and peri-urban subdivisions exist outside municipalities because cities actively avoided incorporation of colonias. The author did not recount that colonias residents lost their right to vote and, therefore lost their opportunity for water and sanitation service, when state legislators allowed local elites to gerrymander their neighborhoods out of water control and improvement districts. The articles did not describe how government officials failed to either pass or enforce land development regulations, thus contributing to the growth of under-served communities. So, attention to red-tape and bureaucracy as major barriers to decent housing strikes me as superficial and misplaced.

NYT Article – Tropical Disease and Poverty in the US

August 29, 2012 Leave a comment

A recent New York Times Op-Ed (August 18, 2012) described the rise in “tropical diseases” among the nation’s poor. Surprise! The example used to illustrate this trend was in south Texas. And while the specifics were not clear, the description and photo suggest that it was referring to one of the colonias of Cameron County.

I embrace the author’s diagnosis that links poverty and poor health, and I agree that the current problems undermine the future generations’ capacity for educational (and thus, economic and social) advancement. Finally, someone does not explain this by invoking “immigration” as cause, but poverty. Indeed, I second the outrage expressed by the author. But at the same time, the narrow and technocratic solutions do not address the root causes of this “new plague.” Rather than surveillance or vaccines, how about raising the quality of housing in the communities hardest hit, providing better sanitation infrastructure and environmental health. Interventionist and technocratic solutions simply obfuscate the social and political issues around poverty and the increasing incidences of tropical diseases. If poverty is the problem, then perhaps that is where our attention needs to be.

Returning to the EJ Texas Blog

August 29, 2012 Leave a comment

My return to blogging on environmental justice in Texas follows a month of field work in South Texas colonias. Frequent trips to the region and the communities in which I conduct my research on drinking water remind me that the most difficult struggles for equitable distribution and access to key resources for a health life lay ahead of us, not behind us. Residents have witnessed progress, no doubt, and much of that spurred by the unyielding determination of community-based organizations, residents, and like-minded academics and public officials. From the Colonias Bill (1989), which set up the framework to build water and sanitation infrastructure, to the Colonias Program and the army of promotoras serving the residents of this forgotten place, much has improved. Rather than 50% of the population lacking water service, it may be 10%. Residents may no longer be dependent upon cesspools and outhouses for sanitation, as new developments must meet minimum requirements for septic tanks or sanitation connections. However, many challenges remain. Poverty, economic, social and environmental marginalization, and fear along with resignation create “the normal.” Decades of extreme poverty and neglect have normalized the conditions under which hundreds and thousands of people, mainly Mexican Americans, live, work and play.

What does it say about a society when people are not shocked by the fact that there are families that live on less than half of the federal poverty level, or other individuals living on $2.00 a day? The other side of normalization is also resilience and survival on the part of residents. So in both representing and trying to explain and understand the current status of colonias communities as places of environmental “injustice,” I also want to retain in my approach that the residents are resilient and struggle to maintain dignity despite the tremendous challenges faced on a daily basis. So, for the next several weeks, my focus will be on environmental justice, but within the context of colonias and their residents.

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