ANAPRA, MEXICO — Elena Moreno has lived in this impoverished neighborhood in Ciudad Juárez for nearly 30 years. She’s raised six children, seen politicians come and go and survived waves of violence.
But one thing has remained constant for Moreno and her neighbors: access to basic services has always fallen short.
“There’s no (water) pressure, it’s so little, you can’t even wet yourself down to cool off,” she said.
Access to the essential resource in the desert hills has been complicated by years of scarcity, inadequate infrastructure and potability.
The situation was made worse during last month’s power outages that halted access to water for thousands of people who use electric wells.
Moreno said the weeks where temperatures hovered around 100 or higher and only dipped into the 80s at night felt unbearable.
Anapra resident Fernando Herrera García said some of his neighbors made homemade upgrades, like installing pumps with higher pressure, leaving less water for others on the block even when the blackouts are resolved.
“One neighbor has a machine (that increases water pressure) and pulls water into his house, while there’s none for the other neighbors,” he said.
He said others bypass the system completely by using rubber hoses to illegally “tie in,” to the supply lines, which lowers the pressure for everyone.
But the issues extend beyond the pipes, pressure and wells as what little of Anapra’s water that does trickle into homes is often undrinkable.
The water is pumped from deep aquifers.that have layers of fresh and salty water. But the deeper layers of the water table are often briney.
Jorge Salas-Plata Mendoza a professor in Engineering at Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, wrote that years of agriculture and municipal use with no way to recharge the groundwaters contributes to poorer water quality. That creates a public health crisis in an area prone to drought.
“Overexploited aquifers have a lowered water table,” he said. “The deeper layers generally have a high salinity and existing areas with the occurrence of arsenic and fluorine.”
When much of Anapra’s land was settled in the 1980s and 1990s, parcels were sold cheaply because of the maquiladora boom in Juárez. Most of the houses had no titles and were separate from the city’s water systems and electrical grid, which took years to update. A grant from the North American Development Bank provided money for wastewater infrastructure improvements. The review by U.S. federal agencies said although officials from Ciudad Juárez built wastewater collection infrastructure in the 1990s, officials did not connect wastewater treatment to houses in Anapra until the 2006 project.
When Ciudad Juárez built a pipeline in 2007 to take water from the binational aquifer Mesilla Basin/Conejos Médanos to 180,000 people in western Juárez, it bypassed Anapra, leaving the community without drinking water.
About 4,500 households in Anapra pay the city’s water authority the Junta Municipal de Agua y Saneamiento (JMAS) for non-potable water supplied from three wells.
JMAS President Jorge Manuel Domínguez said the blackouts have been a growing problem for the past two years.
“All of the water service that we provide comes from wells, and the wells run on electricity, the motors, pumps, everything,” he said. “So when the electricity is interrupted, water service is interrupted.”
On top of the interruptions, Domínguez said population growth will add to demand.
“In the next few years, we are going to have to add purification processes so that the water will be completely potable,” he said. “We are going to have water but it’s going to be more expensive.”
Anapra’s sole source of drinking water comes from five water-distribution kiosks run by JMAS that are open for a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the afternoon Monday through Saturday.
While the water is free, each family is limited to two jugs of 20 litres per day, according to signs posted at the area.
An official who asked not to be named because he is not allowed to talk to the media said that even though he is to limit the number of water jugs per car, he sometimes looks the other way.
“The heat is ugly here,” he said. “And although the limit is four jugs per car, sometimes there’s six or seven people from different families coming up.”
However, JMAS said it has a more permanent solution as it will start construction on a pipeline to connect Anapra with the Mesilla Basin/Conejos Médanos.
“With this project, everyone in Anapra will be able to receive potable water through their plumbing without having to go to the purification stations,” Domínguez said.
Activists who have fought for clean water in recent years said the agency is dragging its feet on the project.
“We in Anapra have been discriminated against for 20 years,” said Leo Durón, an organizer for the group Front for the Right to Water (Frente por el Derecho al Agua), who lives both in Sunland Park, NM, and in Anapra.
He said the limits on water and the lack of potable water violate basic human rights.
The group has been fighting against the JMAS’s billing of well water as “potable water” for years. He said he’s watched wells run dry, and that people can’t depend on drinking water stations that often run out of water while people wait in line.
In 2019, residents led by the Frente por el Derecho al Agua filed a complaint about being billed by JMAS for non-potable water with the Chihuahua Human Rights Commission (Comisión Estatal de los Derechos Humanos Chihuahua).
Santiago González Reyes, an inspector with the commission, said in February 2020 the commission found the area’s water was white from the salt.
“There isn’t sufficient potable water,” González Reyes said in a video with YoCiudadano, adding it was a public health issue.
As a result, the state commission told JMAS to discount water bills, eliminate debts people accrued with the agency and provide drinking water to residents.
In May, Anapra and Lomas del Poleo residents protested at city buildings, saying JMAS violated the agreement with the state commission on human rights to discount water bills by 80% until the water quality improved.
Durón said about 300 homes are receiving the discount, but said it’s been difficult getting the word out, as people are busy with work, or are hard to reach.
“Without organization, we would win nothing in this, we are fighting for our human rights,” he said.
Corrie Boudreaux contributed to the reporting of this story.
Cover photo: A boy leaves one of Lomas de Poleo’s purified water stations with two full jugs. Families in Loma de Poleos and Anapra must retrieve potable water from these stations because their tap water is not drinkable. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)