Household Water Insecurity on the U.S.-Mexico Border

Vista of an El Paso colonia (Vandewalle 2013)
Vista of an El Paso colonia (Vandewalle 2013)

Domestic water insecurity is a problem for low-income, migrant and economically vulnerable households across the United States. From rural communities to urban centers, access to and benefit from adequate, affordable, and safe drinking water are daily struggles many communities. National and local news coverage of systemic water governance failures in water systems –such as Flint, Detroit, and Houston– confirm the emerging scholarly research on water insecurity problems in the US. In the United States, over 600,000 households, or approximately 1.5 million people do not have complete plumbing facilities. And while many belong to migrant or economically distressed rural populations, recent studies also document that some households with community water service also suffer from precarious water provision.  For rural communities in California’s San Joaquin Valley, peri-urban settlements on the US-Mexico border, and urban communities, water for a healthy life can be chronically unreliable, inadequate, undrinkable or unaffordable.

This prowater from tank at the faucetject addressed these gaps by examining household water security in low-income Mexican-American communities in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, one of the poorest regions with the largest population lacking suitable water supply and basic sanitation in the United States.  The region is characterized by low-income, rural and peri-urban communities called “colonias.”  Nearly half of the 238,000 colonia residents face known infrastructure deficiencies in water, sanitation, or both, while nearly one-fifth have unknown water and sanitation status.

I developed the first, experience-based metric for household water security that captures the multi-dimensionality of water security within a scaling and classification procedure. The proof-of-concept metric was developed as part of my study of household water insecurity in colonias. Using this metric, we assessed the efficacy of water technology to help colonias households and conducted a preliminary study of determinants of water insecurity.

  • Regional Differences. Research results indicate that the HWS metric satisfactorily differentiates water insecurity at the household scale, offering a more direct measurement than other proxy indicators, such as presence of piped water. This is an important finding because the HWS metric results challenge the notion that colonias households form a homogenous group in terms of living conditions and access to resources. 
  • Determinants of Household Water Security. The HWS security metric also allowed us to run binary and ordered regression models to determine what demographic characteristics are likely to result in household water insecurity. Surprisingly, our study determined that immigration status of households not household income was the most significant predictor of water insecurity.
  • Point-of-Use Technologies. We evaluated the efficacy of a novel water engineering technology (point-of-use water purification system) designed to improve access to potable water. We used the HWS metric to argue that these devices exacerbate water insecurity in some cases because they increase risk of household water contamination and require more money, time, skill, and labor to adopt and maintain that other forms of water provision. These “mediating” devices not only mask the slow violence of chronic water insecurity behind technological hubris, they undermine colonias residents’ vision of themselves as political actors in water governance.
  • IMG_0699Technologies of Rule. Analysis of survey data and qualitative data also yielded other important findings for critical scholarship on environmental subjectivity, technology, and neoliberal water governance. The project’s qualitative objectives allowed me to examined technical devices in the water sector, focusing on what Furlong (2011) calls “mediating devices.” In my work, water vending machines and household water filtration devices were seen as two technologies that could ameliorate chronic problems of unacceptable drinking water provision. I argue, however, that these devices are not panaceas to water insecurity but “technologies of rule.” The introduction of water technologies redirected limited resources to individual, market-based technical “solutions” rather than water governance reform.


Related Publications

Jepson, W. (2012). Claiming space, claiming water: contested legal geographies of water in South Texas. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 102(3), 614-631

Jepson, W. (2014). Measuring ‘no-win’ waterscapes: Experience-based scales and classification approaches to assess household water security in colonias on the US–Mexico border. Geoforum, 51, 107-120.

Jepson, W., & Brown, H. L. (2014). ‘If no gasoline, no water’: privatizing drinking water quality in South Texas colonias. Environment and Planning A, 46(5), 1032-1048.

Jepson, W., & Vandewalle, E. (2016). Household water insecurity in the Global North: a study of rural and peri-urban settlements on the Texas–Mexico border. The Professional Geographer 68 (1), 66-81 doi: 10.1080/00330124.2015.1028324

Vandewalle, E., & Jepson, W. (2015). Mediating water governance: point-of-use water filtration devices for low-income communities along the US–Mexico border. GEO: Geography and Environment 2107121.

Marketing event for water vending machines near colonias
Marketing event for water vending machines near colonias