Health in Texas' Colonias: Why Conditions Still Fall Short

Published on
July 9, 2010

Nearly half a million Texans live in substandard conditions in colonias -2,300 unincorporated and isolated border towns with limited access to potable water, sewer systems, electricity, sanitary housing or health care. These predominantly Hispanic, overwhelmingly impoverished villages, which dot the 1,248-mile Texas-Mexico border from the Gulf of Mexico to El Paso, present a state public health nightmare. But despite decades of public outcry, campaign promises and legislative action, conditions in the colonias have improved relatively little. Using the Dennis A. Hunt Health Journalism Grant I've received, I'll explore what's standing in the way - whether it's state party politics, or bureaucratic red tape, or even local government corruption.

The colonias got their start in the 1950s, when developers turned land worthless for farming into unincorporated subdivisions, putting in little to no infrastructure and selling plots to low-income immigrants for dirt cheap. Six decades later, water-borne illnesses like cholera, typhoid and malaria run rampant, the result of poor drainage, pooling sewage and contaminated wells. Children play amid piles of burning garbage on makeshift landfills, and swim in wastewater canals, leading to infectious disease and parasites. And a lack of doctors or even basic health care facilities means many children go without any medical care - and adults rarely get treatment for endemic chronic diseases. At last count, more than 60,000 Texans lived in the 440 Texas colonias classified as "highest health risk," meaning residents have no running water, no wastewater treatment, no paved roads or solid waste disposal.

Costly state and national efforts to improve conditions in the colonias have had mixed results. In some cases, the layers of government bureaucracy have actually hindered progress. In many colonias, residents can't afford to get their houses up to code - but can't get running water until they do. If they don't have running water, they can't get access to sewer hook-ups. And if they don't have either running water or a sewer connection, they can't get electricity or access to other government programs.

These problems aren't unique to Texas. Though the large majority of U.S. colonias are in Texas, border states like New Mexico, Arizona and California all struggle with these unincorporated villages, their often non-existent infrastructure and the public health woes they contribute to. Through research and reporting, multimedia elements and interactive mapping and graphics, I hope to discover why the best intentions of Texas lawmakers, local government officials and border health advocates have been largely ineffective. The stories will run on The Texas Tribune's website, and will be offered to all other news affiliates (TV stations, newspapers, other websites) under our free syndication arrangement.

Stay tuned!