MERCEDES, Texas (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When it rains in South Texas, Norma Aldape fears dirty water inundates the slums – called Colonias – where she lives close to the US-Mexico border.
Given the prospect that climate change will bring more violent storms more frequently, flooding is the latest ordeal for 500,000 people in Texas who live in colonies farther from the border with little or no drainage.
Residents like Aldape have struggled for basic services like plumbing and electricity for decades, and tens of thousands still get by without clean water, street lights, paved roads or public transport.
But sitting on low-lying floodplains, once fields and orchards along the meandering waterway of the Rio Grande, the colonies are now exposed to an even greater danger – climate disasters.
“Climate change has a big impact on the poor, especially the poor who live in a place like the Rio Grande Valley,” said Nick Mitchell-Bennett, director of the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville (CDCB), which deals with housing issues.
“Poor people get the short end of the stick all the time, and climate change is just one more thing to deal with.”
Hundreds of colonias line the valley – as it is called – with a total of about 2,300 in Texas and similar, but fewer settlements in the border states of New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
The poverty rate in Colonias is three times the national rate, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, with residents – mostly legal US citizens – usually buying their land through what is known as a contract-for-deed system.
Under these unregulated arrangements, they don’t own the land until they make the final payment, and troubled residents often turn to expensive payday loans and auto title companies for quick buck, pile up debt, and keep them in poverty.
Original colonies go back decades when landowners sold small plots of land to low-income buyers, often migrant workers, a promising infrastructure that was seldom or never realized.
GRASS ROOT ORGANIZATION
Over the years, the closely related communities got water, electricity, and other services, but only after years of activism.
Groups called La Union Del Pueblo (LUPE) and A Resource In Serving Equality (ARISE) stood up for lawmakers, fought litigation, and sought government funding, said Jordana Barton, senior advisor at the Dallas Fed, which oversees the colonies’ economic conditions .
“It was all grassroots community organization, and a lot of it came from women,” said Barton.
Most colonias are outside the city or city limits in areas largely exempt from building codes that regulate safe living.
Some home-built houses are made of little more than tin, cinder block, and cardboard, while others are rusty trailers on overgrown lots full of tires, auto parts, and blooming cacti.
Newer homes have been built with the help of groups like the CDCB, which promotes affordable and resilient housing, but crowing roosters and dogs give the colonies the feel of rural Mexico.
A group called Proyecto Azteca is building improved housing in Colonias – but only at a rate of about 20 homes a year due to budget constraints, said Ann Cass, executive director.
It has a waiting list of 4,000 families.
“IT WILL GET WORSE”
Last summer, Hurricane Harvey devastated east Texas, a few hundred miles away, with 50 inches of rain in five days that caused catastrophic flooding.
The residents of the Colonias in south Texas fear that they could be hit by storms like this next.
“In the last four or five years we have seen an increase in storms and that increases the vulnerability of these people who do not have adequate infrastructure,” said Martha Sanchez, a LUPE organizer.
“It has to do with climate change … it’s getting worse.”
Aldape, who lives in a Colonia in Mercedes, is pressuring the district authorities to turn a half-dug drainage ditch in her garden into an effective channel for water.
“It’s dark at night. A car can easily fall in, ”she said, peering into the hollow. “When it rains, there can be a lot of mosquitos … It won’t stay that way.”
Barton said that newer colonies have sewers and other basic services, but residents struggle to pay for them, leaving less money for decent housing.
“Your apartments are more dilapidated,” she said. “You are at the forefront of the challenges of climate change because of the precarious, non-compliant housing conditions and the lack of drainage.”
Without working drains, rainwater won’t go away – and it looks like it can spread mosquito-borne diseases like Zika.
“Last year the entire Colonia was flooded. Water everywhere, ”said Jesus Suarez, who lives in Indian Hills East. “It was full of mosquitos.”
Former Texas Foreign Minister Carlos Cascos, whose job once included overseeing the colonias, said funding the government to improve conditions should be a health and safety priority.
“When it rains, literally everything comes to the surface,” he said.
But government aid for the Colonias is becoming increasingly unlikely. Texas, a Conservative state that prefers minimal, free-hand government, last year abolished an ombudsman program that coordinates programs and services for the colonies.
ARISE recently worked with a district government to require adequate drainage in new colonies and to provide funding to improve systems in older neighborhoods as well.
The measure is pending with the local legislator.
“We could end up with epidemics. We are the United States and we are supposed to have a much better quality of life, ”said Cascos.