Lack of Clean Water, Sewers Breed Disease in Border Settlements

United Press International

Eleazar and Maria Morales say they detest hauling water, a daily chore in the rural West Texas slum where they live without indoor plumbing or proper sewage disposal.

Their home is in Sparks Addition, a hodgepodge of substandard housing in the desert near here.

The neighborhood is a colonia, the Spanish term for subdivision that has become synonymous with the predominantly Latino rural slums that have grown up along the U.S.-Mexico border over the last 15 years.

In El Paso County, about 28,000 people live without running water, and 53,000 have no sewer system.


Along the U.S. side of the Rio Grande, a further 150,000 people live in colonias where septic tanks overflow every time it rains and the contaminated mud breeds illnesses that are rare elsewhere in the nation.

There are colonias all along the border, from San Diego to Brownsville, Tex., but social workers say the problem is worst in Texas, where counties have no zoning powers.

Refugees From Cities

Many colonia dwellers are refugees from city slums and housing projects, and most are American citizens or legal immigrants.


“I was desperate for a place to live,” Morales said. “Rents in El Paso tenements were too high, and the living conditions in the city are not good for raising children.”

The 40-year-old unemployed construction worker said he had always dreamed of owning a home. He said he bought his small piece of desert land from a developer who promised that water and sewers would soon be available.

Morales and his wife, Maria, 45, built their house, a cinder-block building with three bedrooms, living room, kitchen and two baths--and a huge septic tank out back.

“We haven’t gotten sick from the water yet,” Morales said, and quickly added: “Thank God.”

Like the others in the colonias, the Morales family relies on friends and relatives for drinking water, which they store in drums outside the house.

A community well supplies brackish water not fit for drinking but useful for bathing and washing. Residents line up at the well to fill barrels and tanks with the salty water and haul it back home.

‘Just Need Water’

“We stay here now because it’s home,” Maria Morales said. “We’re here in the desert where there’s no smog and no crime. We just need water.”


Armando Esquivel, 48, also an unemployed construction worker, said he doesn’t have a steady job and could not afford to hook up to water and sewage lines even if they were available.

The cause of the colonias has been championed by El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization, an Industrial Areas Foundation community group organized to help the poor to help themselves.

The Rev. Ed Rodan, a spokesman for the group, said the colonias have sprouted as economic conditions in the city grew worse, suitable public housing became scarce and families sought a better life style for themselves and their children.

“I’m not sorry we live here,” Esquivel said. “I’m just sorry we don’t have any water yet.”

Rodan blames the land developers. He calls them “greedy liars, looking for quick and easy money at the expense of unsuspecting buyers.”

“Many of the people of the colonias moved out of El Paso housing projects that are riddled with violence, crime and drugs,” he said. “Others can’t find public housing, since El Paso has only a 1% housing vacancy for low-income families and a frozen waiting list.”

For many in the colonias, he said, moving from the city to the country to get away from crime has brought an encounter with a different kind of crime, that of “uncaring and dishonest developers.”

There have been no deaths reported from the unsanitary living conditions, but public health officials say life in the colonias means illnesses usually not associated with life in the United States.


Dr. Laurance Nickey, director of the El Paso City-County Health Unit, said the rates of dysentery, hepatitis and lice infestation around El Paso are twice the regional average.

He said that in 1987, the last year for which statistics were available, El Paso County had almost four times the national rate of salmonella dysentery and almost twice the rate of shigella dysentery.

The incidence of infectious hepatitis A in the county was more than five times the national rate, Nickey said. El Paso County had more cases of hepatitis A in 1987 than 24 states, more cases of hepatitis B than 11 states, more shigella dysentery than 20 states and more tuberculosis cases than 19 states.

Many Children Sick

Nickey said that 85% of the children in the Sparks Addition, one of the county’s worst colonias , suffered from skin rashes, yeast infections, diarrhea or vomiting.

The Sparks Addition is not the only colonia with problems. A recent study found that water from 98% of 100 wells tested in the San Elizario was unfit even for bathing or washing dishes because it was being contaminated by sewage.

Antonio Parra, public relations director for the San Elizario Independent School District, said the study proved that the people are bathing in their own sewage. He said many households have placed septic tanks too close to the shallow wells, or use open pits that leak into the ground water.

While water is a problem around El Paso and in some rural areas of New Mexico, Arizona and California, the biggest residential problem in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas is a lack of proper sewer systems.

Cameron, Hidalgo, Willacy and Starr counties have about 500 colonias with a combined population of about 150,000, said Sister Christine Stephens of Valley Interfaith, the Industrial Areas Foundation organization working in South Texas.

“People are building on very small lots,” she said. “Each family builds a septic tank, but the soil is not able to percolate the sewage. When it rains, the tanks overflow.”

Nation’s Poorest Counties

Then the contaminated mud causes serious sanitation problems, she said, and poverty in South Texas complicates the the problem. The four counties are the poorest in the nation.

The colonias of the Rio Grande Valley are larger than those in West Texas, she said.

The 34 small towns in the area are operating on slim budgets and unable to assume the cost of extending sewer systems to outlying areas.

Since national news reports have called attention to the area, Texas politicians have made proposals that may eventually lead to correction of the squalid conditions.

State Comptroller Bob Bullock has suggested a $500-million bond issue to set aside aid money for the 25 poorest counties.

Bullock said the bond money could be matched with equal federal funds. His proposal was developed in cooperation with the Texas Water Development Board and the lieutenant governor’s and state treasurer’s offices.

It would take about $6,700 per household to supply the colonias with drinking water and install sewers, the comptroller said.

A similar measure introduced in the Texas Senate by state Sen. Tati Santiesteban, Democrat of El Paso, has the backing of senators from the border counties.

Border Panel Proposed

U. S. Rep. Ron Coleman (D-Tex.) in the last session of Congress proposed a Border Commission to enlist federal resources in solving the problem. His bill passed the House but died in the Senate, and Coleman said he would try again.

State Atty. Gen. Jim Mattox has initiated a vigorous program of lawsuits against the developers, applying the state’s Deceptive Trade Practices Law to the advertising used to attract land buyers.

Attorneys said the county governments cannot force developers to provide water and sewers because Texas counties do not have ordinance-making power.

Mattox has filed about 20 suits during the last two years, citing developers for not giving buyers essential information on access roads, septic tank requirements and regulations on the proper installation of water, electricity and telephone lines.