Water Security in the Borderlands: an analysis of Palomas and Columbus

by Emilie Schur

Emilie Schur

Emilie Schur

I am a Master’s student in the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona. For my thesis, I am conducting a comparative study of water security in Palomas and Columbus during the months of June and July. From a human development perspective, water security is defined as having adequate, reliable and affordable water for a healthy life (Cook & Bakker 2012). This research is trying to uncover:

  • What causes household water insecurity in colonia communities, and
  • how can access to clean and reliable water be improved?

I chose Palomas and Columbus because they are interconnected by their climate and the transboundary Mimbres Basin aquifer, which is their primary water source. The communities are segregated by the U.S.-Mexico border and country-specific laws and policies that control who has water and who doesn’t. On a broader scale, the U.S.-Mexico border is highly vulnerable to water stress associated with a dry and variable climate, demographic and economic growth, and asymmetrical development in the trans-border region (Wilder et al. 2013). 1.7 million people live in communities—colonias—that are not connected to municipal water and sanitation infrastructure and experience chronic water stress (Donelson & Esparza 2010).


Emily Schur’s research led her to speak with many varied residents of Palomas.

Over the past three weeks, I lived in Palomas and collaborated with Border Partners and their network of community health workers to conduct a household water survey. Palomas is a village of climatic and economic extremes. Scorching summer temperatures crack and blister the earth, wind storms scour unpaved roads and dry arroyos, heavy rainfalls coalesce into muddy floods, and winter freezes crack household water pipes. Pick any street in Palomas and you will find freshly painted mansions guarded by German shepherds juxtaposing dilapidated concrete rectangles with sagging fences filled with trash. Almost half of both types of houses are abandoned. Access to water in this community is controlled by both social and environmental factors.

Next month, I will shift my focus to Columbus and continue my investigations on water access. By the end of the summer, I hope to have gathered diverse perspectives—from households to decision makers—on the status of water on the border. This multi-scalar investigation will hopefully illuminate gaps between water users and water providers and foster a bi-national dialog on water security. This is particularly important as no formal groundwater laws exist between Mexico and the United States (Sanchez et al. 2016), and solutions must be found locally through partnerships with organizations like Border Partners.

borderlands research

Emily’s borderlands research reflects her values and her desire for a better future for all.

Cook, Christina, and Karen Bakker. “Water security: Debating an emerging paradigm.” Global Environmental Change 22, no. 1 (2012): 94-102.

Donelson, Angela J., 1971, and Adrian X. Esparza 1957. 2010. The colonias reader: Economy, housing, and public health in U.S.-mexico border colonias. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Sanchez, Rosario, Victoria Lopez, and Gabriel Eckstein. 2016. Identifying and characterizing transboundary aquifers along the Mexico–US border: An initial assessment. Journal of Hydrology 535: 101-19.

Wilder, Margaret, Gregg Garfin, Paul Ganster, Hallie Eakin, Patricia Romero-Lankao, Francisco Lara-Valencia, Alfonso A. Cortez-Lara et al. “Climate change and US-Mexico border communities.” In Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States, pp. 340-384. Island Press/Center for Resource Economics, 2013.