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eNews January 2019

NMSU Graduate Student Studying High School Student Perspectives on Water Issues in Colonias

By Margie R. Vela, Water Science and Management, PhD Candidate and Student Regent, New Mexico State University

In December 2018, I had the pleasure of hosting a visit to NMSU by over 150 students from Canutillo High School; twenty of them presented findings of the research they conducted in their respective communities, providing a closer look at the challenges many residents of colonias (unincorporated communities in the Border Region lacking infrastructure) face daily. The Water and People Project is one component of the U.S. Department of Agriculture funded project titled, Rural Development: Using Photovoice to draw connections between social, built, and human capital for youth living in the colonias of the U.S. Border Region. It aims to discover relationships between water, education, and health for families in the colonias from the perspective of youth.

This project was inspired by UNESCO’s 2006 World Water Report titled Water: A Shared Responsibility, which begins to explain the relationship between water and educational attainment for women in many third world countries. This relationship is one that I found fascinating. As I pondered this idea over a few years, I could not help but wonder if the same dynamic existed in underdeveloped communities in the United States, particularly on the Southern Border. As a high school student, I spent many of my summers volunteering at an orphanage in Anapra, Mexico. I saw how families lived in colonias south of the border, and was compelled to study how families are affected by water in their sister communities, north of the same border. And so, the experiences of a young high schooler and the curiosity of a more mature researcher merged into a successful grant application to the USDA to conduct this study. I was awarded the NIFA Fellowship to conduct the research.

Canutillo High School became the study site for two simple reasons: 1) the high school serves a total of four colonias; 2) the high school principal is supportive of the project. Canutillo High School serves Canutillo, Westway, Prado, and Vinton. All four of these colonias are census-designated places, which makes it easy to find aggregate data for the communities. Additionally, the school principal was excited to accommodate the research and provide access to classrooms for several weeks. I spent ten days with some students, and seven days with other students. Class topics included water as a socio-environmental issue; socio-environmental issues as complex problems; the world water crisis and local water issues; population growth, drought, and climate change; water stakeholders; and agency and major water decisions. Students were encouraged to think about water critically and were given a homework assignment to take three photos and write narratives for every picture submitted for analysis. Not all students in the classes participated in the project.

The data collection included six short surveys and the homework assignment described above. Surveys included questions that will inform demographics, rates of diabetes and obesity for households in the communities, rates of bullying at school due to hygienic issues, access to parks and recreation facilities for healthy living, and access to healthy food choices in communities, among other topics.

Analysis of the data is still underway. Student presentations suggest there are substantial infrastructure issues in the communities. Streets and roads lack proper drainage for flash flooding that often occurs in the communities during monsoon season. Housing structures need repairs and maintenance for water damage that poses safety concerns for families. Public buildings currently harbor limited or non-functioning water fountains and sinks for public use. Preliminary findings also suggest water quality and confidence in water quality are also problematic for the students. Data analysis will continue to reveal more about the community and will inform future research.

Preliminary results and related methodology of the project were published in 2018 by the Journal of Social Change, Determining Pathways and Connections Between Access to Water and High School Noncompletion Rates for Communities Along the U.S.–Mexico Border. Click here to read article.