“Batallamos Para Agua”: The Less Visible Security Concerns of Water and Wastewater Infrastructure on the U.S.-Mexico Border

Security and Infrastructure

There is seemingly no shortage of funds for border security infrastructure these days: funds have built the stark iron fence dividing families, communities, and two nation states; spurred new drone and light technologies; and supported massive increases in border patrol personnel presence, along with the related vehicles, checkpoints, and sensors their presence entails. While all this money has flowed toward the increasing militarization of the border, binational funding provided by the U.S. and Mexican federal governments for sanitation and water infrastructure has quietly diminished. This is a less dramatic story, but one that is no less pressing for those enduring the consequences.

In a region with growing concerns of water scarcity, degrading and insufficient water and wastewater infrastructure, and diminished water quality, insufficient environmental infrastructure funding and oversight is worrisome. The most recent comprehensive report on water and wastewater infrastructure on the U.S.-Mexico border, the Good Neighbor Environmental Board (2012; accessible here: http://www.epa.gov/ocem/gneb/gneb15threport/English-GNEB-15th-Report.pdf), states that 82 percent of communities in Mexico have wastewater services and treatment, but this percentage of connection will likely drop with increased population growth along the border. From 1983 to 2005, population in the border region rose from 6.9 million to 13 million people (EPA and SEMARNAT, 2010). By 2030, it is projected that the population will grow to anywhere between 16-25 million (EPA and SEMARNAT, 2010).

Urban landscape of Nogales, Sonora; Photo credit: Lily House-Peters
Urban landscape of Nogales, Sonora; Photo credit: Lily House-Peters

As the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) becomes a more distant memory, so does the burden of responsibility, particularly for the U.S., in addressing these infrastructural shortcomings. In what follows, I first outline the U.S.’s longer-term engagement in the development of the border region. I then describe the everyday struggles of life without piped water and sanitation that I witnessed while researching in Nogales, Sonora, and the issues this case study raises about infrastructure construction and measurement. Finally, I consider the implications of NAFTA and increasing security concerns for environmental infrastructure construction today.

Maquiladora-led Growth

To understand why and how water sanitation has become such a persistent problem on the border, it is critical to understand the following three points. First, the lack of sanitation and potable water infrastructure on both sides of the border is a structural issue that has been directly influenced by United States’ (as well as Mexico’s) political and economic interests. Second, lack of adequate sanitation and water access existed long before the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1994, and, despite common beliefs to the contrary, NAFTA has made positive contributions toward curbing these enduring problems through directing funding and collaboration, discussed below. Third, despite these efforts, sanitation and potable water remain a pressing environmental justice concern. These problems are only exacerbated by an overly myopic focus on border security, the use of inadequate data to understand the populations and informal landscapes along the border, and the dramatically shrinking budget to support sanitation improvements on both sides of the border.

Since the Border Industrialization Program (BIP) began in 1965, the U.S.-Mexico border region has experienced rapid urbanization and economic growth. The BIP met the political-economic needs of the U.S. in two important ways. First, it provided the infrastructure for a system of goods assembly and shipment conducive to U.S. business. Maquiladoras, export-oriented manufacturing centers, were primarily U.S.-owned when the program began. These assembly plants use imported materials and equipment (duty free from the U.S.), then ship assembled products for distribution elsewhere (Frey, 2003). Additionally, the BIP provided a labor solution for the pool of Mexican agricultural workers in need of employment following the termination of the Bracero Program, which brought workers to the U.S. to mitigate labor shortage during World War II.

Everyday Struggles Without Infrastructure

In my masters research examining the politics of piped water and sanitation in informally settled neighborhoods (colonias) in Nogales, Sonora, I found colonia residents are both unfairly blamed for local social and environmental issues while also exposed to the bulk of the hardships. Indeed, the socio-natural transformation of the city, fueled by the maquiladora industry, resulted in the concentration of environmental and social marginality in these informal colonias.

The BIP promoted a model of assembly plant (maquiladora)-led growth on the Mexican side of the border that resulted in significant resource degradation without the necessary infrastructure (paved roads, electricity, sanitation) to responsibly support that growth. Border cities lacked affordable homes and, due to the difficult local topography and ownership patterns, open tracks of land to develop housing were scarce. Crucially, in Nogales as well as along the rest of the border, neighborhoods mushroomed rapidly, fueled by the needs of these incoming laborers. In Nogales, the population has grown from 35,000 people in 1965 to at least 225,000 residents today (INEGI, 2010).

Informal colonia in Nogales, Sonora; Photo credit: Lily House-Peters

With few alternatives, maquila laborers settled in informal neighborhoods, often on steep eroded hillsides. Many in these colonias live without access to piped water and formal sanitation. Instead, they have few options other than to expend precious energy to track down private water trucks and pay large sums for water to be delivered to their homes. This caused many people interviewed to share the same phrase: “Batallamos para agua,” which translates to “we struggle for water.” For sanitation disposal, residents primarily use pit latrines or dispose of their excreta in containers picked up by garbage service. In addition, during the summer monsoon rains, Nogales experiences heavy flooding, which destroys roads and makes it difficult for water trucks to access certain neighborhoods. These torrential rains also wash out many of the pit latrines, spreading contaminants throughout the city and across the fence into the United States.

“Pipa” water truck in Nogales, Sonora; Photo by author
“Pipa” water truck in Nogales, Sonora; Photo by author

Findings from my research also revealed that the official statistics on infrastructure connection, such as the estimate that 82% of Mexican communities have sanitation connection, are most likely overly optimistic. For example, while the Nogales government states that nearly all residents are connected to piped water and sanitation, a day trip to the colonias across the city brings these numbers into question. Population estimates are also contested. Mexican census data reports 225,000 urban residents (INEGI, 2010), but researchers argue this is a significant underestimate, with actual population numbers closer to 350,000 (Austin, 2010; Wilder et al., 2011). It is likely that these 125,000 uncounted residents (nearly 1/3 of Nogales’ total population) remain without services.

In addition, many of these infrastructure connections are counted when constructed, but due to funding and governance issues, piped connection to homes is not guaranteed when a new plant is built. In the colonia where I focused my research, binational funding financed pipes built under the main road in the neighborhood. These pipes, however, remain unused, without financing to connect them to the existing grid. What these findings suggest is that connection to piped water and sanitation could be less than or more unevenly distributed than currently reported. Basing reports on poorly understood demographics and infrastructure-construction dynamics creates unrealistic optimism and a false sense of progress.

The Changing Tides of Border Funding: NAFTA 20 Years Later

As the earlier history demonstrated, the signing of NAFTA did not create these water and wastewater problems. In fact, despite substantive critiques on its negative socio-environmental effects, NAFTA led to the creation of an institutional framework to fund and oversee environmental infrastructure construction in the border region. The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), the Border Environmental Cooperation Commission (BECC), and the North American Development Bank (NADBank) were all created to support environmental regulation and responsible governance on the border. BECC, a binational institution with a mission to protect the health and environment of the border region, oversees project implementation, and NADBank provides project funding. NADBank has funded 1.326 billion dollars in environmental infrastructure since its inception (Good Neighbor Environmental Board (GNEB), 2012).

However, as security budgets for border patrol and homeland security inflate rapidly, the funding for the much-needed projects in the urban colonias and rural areas of the border region is overlooked. BECC has experienced such a diminished budget that it now struggles to meet infrastructure needs (GNEB, 2012). In 2011-12, BECC received applications for over $800 million and could only grant $10 million. This was a drastic decrease from the $100 million allocated in 1995 following the implementation of NAFTA (GNEB, 2012). At the same time, U.S. funding for border security this year alone, $3.5 billion, nearly tripled NADBank’s total money allocated to environmental infrastructure in the past 20 years. These data confirm that security needs continue to trump environmental concerns.

The security preoccupation in border funding is often defended in terms of the well-being of the populace. Access to piped water and sanitation is a question of well being, too, one that often goes overlooked in the tense geopolitical border climate. Responding to and ameliorating the social and environmental issues of the U.S.-Mexico border region are responsibilities of both nations and their citizens, as well as the maquiladoras that fueled the region’s development. An iron fence does not contain these overflowing woes.


Sarah Kelly-Richards is a PhD Candidate at the School of Geography and Development, University of Arizona



Austin, D. (2010). Confronting environmental challenges on the US–Mexico border: Long-term community-based research and community service learning in a binational partnership. Journal of Community Practice, 18(2-3): 361–395.

Environmental Protection Agency and SEMARNAT. (2010). State of the border region indicators report. Border 2012: U.S.-Mexico Environmental Program. Accessible online: http://www2.epa.gov/sites/production/files/documents/border-2012_indicator-rpt_eng.pdf

Frey, S. (2003). The transfer of core-based hazardous production processes to the export processing zones of the periphery: The maquiladora centers of Northern Mexico. Journal of World-Systems Research, ix (2): 317–354.

Good Neighbor Environmental Board (2012). The environmental, economic, and health related of water resources in the U.S.-Mexico border region. Fifteen report of the Good Neighbor Environmental Board to the President and Congress of the United States. Accessible online: http://www.epa.gov/ocem/gneb/gneb15threport/English-GNEB-15th-Report.pdf

INEGI (Instituto Nacional de Estadística Geografica e Informatica). (2010). Censo general de población y vivienda. Retrieved from http://www3.inegi.org.mx/sistemas/mexicocifras/

Liverman, D. M., Varady, R. G., Chavez, O., and Sanchez, R. (1999). Environmental issues along the United States-Mexico border: Drivers of change and responses of citizens and institutions. Annu. Rev. Energy. Environ. Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, 24(1): 607–643.

Wilder, M., Slack, J., Varady, R., Lai, O., Beaty, R., and Mcgovern, E. (2011). Urban water vulnerability and institutional challenges in Ambos Nogales (Working papers on climate change and water resources No. 1). Moving Forward from Vulnerability to Adaptation: Climate Change, Drought, and Water Demand in the Urbanizing Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico. pp. 1–47. Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy.


Share this Post