Exploring Paths for Water Services and Human Capabilities in U.S.-Mexico Border Colonias

Chilton Lee Tippin, University of Texas at El Paso


This thesis examines causes and consequences of water insecurity in colonias on the U.S.-Mexico border and explores potential pathways for improving situations wherein low-income households lack reliable access to water and sewer services. Colonias are low-income, rural and/or semi-rural communities that lack basic services, such as paved streets, water, and sewer. Through in-depth interviews, surveys, and ethnographic observations, the research presented here describes needs, desires, and capabilities of residents in two high-needs Texas colonias. First, findings elucidate the lived experiences of water insecurity in colonias households, leading to an argument that lacking water access constitutes a nexus, wherein water insecurity draws in, interacts with, and contributes to a variety of household hardships, including those associated with health, time, stress, and budgets. Second, I trace the discourse around water projects at multiple scales to show how colonias residents aspire for water access, mobilize for water access, and yet are continually excluded from such access—a discourse of resistance and exclusion rooted in a neoliberal political ecology. Third, survey results and qualitative analysis consider a novel approach to alleviating water insecurity, particularly in small, remote, and isolated colonias, known as the “soft path to water.” In brief, the soft path focuses on decentralization, low-cost technology, and water conservation to increase supply and reduce demand. Results indicate colonias residents express interest in several soft path strategies and technologies, such as rainwater harvesting and under-the-sink filters. Furthermore, I argue the soft path could fit in with residents’ lifestyles and leverage extant funds of knowledge related to plumbing, building, and water strategies to free up human capabilities. Finally, I make a methodological point that qualitative researchers can orient themselves to multiple needs in the field, seeking critical explanations for problems, while also contributing to applied solutions of the sort that come about through engaged anthropology.

Subject Area

Cultural anthropology|Environmental Justice|Water Resources Management

Recommended Citation

Tippin, Chilton Lee, "Exploring Paths for Water Services and Human Capabilities in U.S.-Mexico Border Colonias" (2019). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI27670922.