Tag Archives: colonias

‘If no gasoline, no water’: the rise of water vending machines in South Texas

IMG_0699Rather than drink tap water delivered through community water systems, thousands of families living in south Texas “colonias,” low-income peri-urban and rural subdivisions on the US-Mexico border, rely on private water vending machines.  My recent study discovered that over 87% of the surveyed colonias households relied on 50% or more of drinking water from the water vending machines, colloquially known as the molinto (little windmill). Some may argue that the water vending machine is an engineering success. Who could argue with a point-distribution system that purified water? I suggest otherwise: the ubiquitous water vending machine in South Texas symbolizes a failure of public water systems to provide adequately clean water for the larger community.

Water vending machines fill a demand: residents don’t trust the quality of water from the tap.  It smells, looks funny, or tastes dirty.  It is unreliable: water pressure problems and boil-alerts surprise residents. Others experience skin rashes after showers or baths, and many are concerned that the tap water causes illness. The region’s less than stellar history of domestic drinking water provision and fragmented system of water conveyance –moving water from the Rio Grande through irrigation district conveyance systems into water facilities–  also undermine residents’ trust in source quality.

Water vending machine in Hidalgo County (Jepson 2011)

Water vending machine in Hidalgo County (Jepson 2011)

But the water vending machine as a quick-fix to long-standing water quality problems in the region costs a lot.  It costs the most impoverished households to pay more money for water. Water is universally unaffordable, defined as 2.5% monthly income, and reliance on vended water exacerbates the problem. In addition, over 50% of surveyed households reported that they either missed a water payment or lacked money to pay for their water at some time in the last year.

Accessing drinking water from a vending machine also costs in terms of time and effort. Reliance on water machines requires residents to convey their drinking water in heavy five-gallon bottles from distribution machines to their homes. It is not surprising, then, that over 37% of surveyed household reported difficulty transporting drinking water.  For some, especially the elderly, it was a physical burden; for others, it required gas money. Colonias residents made the connection between transportation and water: “Si no hay gas, no hay agua” (if no gasoline, no water).  In short, drinking water is effectively privatized through the water vending machine by shifting access, conveyance, and responsibility for acceptable drinking water from a regulated community system to the unregulated market and individual.

Privatizing water in this way is not only a costly burden on the poorest households; it a potential public health risk.  Water vending machines are de facto unregulated.  We can only speculate on the health implications of such an overwhelming reliance on drinking water from vending machines.

How does the everyday reliance on vended water impact health? With little or no regulation one wonders what contamination occurs at the point of distribution.  Regulators assume that water from the municipal or community system, which is purified in the machine, remains the same throughout the system.  Yet studies have demonstrated post-treated water often contains pathogenic organisms or fungi at the tap. Some companies may be better than others in developing disinfecting methods at point of distribution, but there is not standard monitored by the state or county. Regardless, water vendors expect colonias residents, many of whom are the working poor and live at or below the poverty level, to maintain and store their bottles properly to avoid water contamination. Instructions on each vending machine stipulate that consumers need to disinfect their bottles prior to refill. Yet, few disinfect the water bottle before reuse, leading to concerns over water contamination. And what about long-term dental health? A recent study by the Texas A&M Baylor School of Dentistry cited bottled water as a culprit that keeps residents from maximizing fluoride’s remineralizing effects. Residents and their families are further deprived of fluoride as well as the other minerals in tap water, further compounding the burden of poverty on health.

IMG_0260In the final analysis, reliance on water vending machines for drinking water places a huge burden on the poorest and most vulnerable communities.  The cost of water is not only beyond affordability (or 2.5% monthly income), and it requires households with limited means to expend time and effort to secure drinking water. Public heath outcomes are unknown, but could be important to assess.  Water vending machines don’t fix the underlying problems of domestic water provision for America’s poor. Instead, these machines lock residents and their families into a no-win waterscape where domestic water provision is insecure.

-Wendy Jepson

Marketing event for water vending machines near colonias

Marketing event for water vending machines near colonias

Full article: 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.

“No-Win” Waterscapes

From GeoNews

Most Americans take for granted the ability to turn on a faucet when thirsty or to fill a pot for cooking. But a Texas A&M researcher has found that segments of the population, especially along the Texas-Mexican border, exist in a “no-win waterscape,” with no easy access to clean water, no ability to pay for it and no immediate solution.


Water from tanker in El Paso colonia community (Vandewalle 2013)

The issue, says Wendy Jepson, an associate professor in the College of Geosciences, is a matter of water security, defined as the ability for individuals to access acceptable, affordable, and adequate drinking water for a healthy life.

More than 400,000 people live in 2,300 colonias along the border in a region that is one of poorest in the United States, with more than a third of the families living below the U.S. federal poverty level. And despite the perception of ubiquitous water availability in the United States, Jepson says that the reality has left many colonias residents in a position of water insecurity.

With funding from the National Science Foundation and help of staff from the Colonias Program in Texas A&M’s College of Architecture, Jepson systematically interviewed and surveyed the people who actually spend a large part of their incomes trying to obtain clean water for their families.

Jepson developed a three-dimensional approach that identifies water access, affordability and quality through a measurement called a Guttman scalogram. “This method provides a socially and scientifically sound measurement that allows us to document, discuss and create policy interventions,” Jepson says.

Out of the households interviewed, Jepson and her team determined that fewer than half (45 percent) were water secure or marginally water secure. Fifty-five percent were identified as marginally insecure or insecure.

Jepson explains that a combination of factors affect household water insecurity. In some cases it is a matter of impure water—it smells or is dirty, off-color or tastes bad. In other households, it can be a matter of infrastructure, such as no hook-up or a broken one. Economically it can simply be the inability to pay the bill.

The recommended percentage for water bills in the United States is no more than 2 percent of monthly income, but in some cases families are paying 8 percent or more.

“When your household income is less than $1,000 a month, paying the water bill can take a big bite out of your paycheck,” she says.

Many households, Jepson says, have turned to water vendors, which may not provide water of higher quality. Furthermore, access to these vendors costs, too, in terms of gas or ability to transport the water back home.

Although the infrastructure has improved over the years—Jepson has been researching social issues in the Rio Grande Valley since her undergraduate days—her research reveals that a lack of trust for municipal water persists.

“With more information and policies in place that better regulate water quality and accessibility, I hope we can change both the perception and the reality.“
Jepson says that although she has only researched the colonias in Hidalgo and El Paso Counties, the similar problems exist even in communities near large urban areas like Houston.

“Look at Detroit,” she says. “The city is shutting off residential water because some of its citizens cannot afford the high fees. Meanwhile industries owe several months in back payments with no consequences.”

“The United Nations recognizes access to safe and clean drinking water as a human right. The least we can do in this country is to ensure the same for our citizens.”

El Paso community (Vandewalle 2013)

El Paso community (Vandewalle 2013)