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In this world on its own, where improvisation has always been the family Bible, it is often the volunteers who come to the rescue. Women on both sides have taken up a common crusade known as promotoras. With help from government agencies like Mexico's Health and Development Federation, they are creating community banks and lending trees for small businesses; they circulate in poor neighborhoods like Avon ladies, teaching health care and selling condoms; they even dig trenches for colonia septic systems.
El Paso and Juarez recently teamed up--behind the backs of their federal governments--to increase the amount of treated wastewater that Juarez can channel to agriculture. That will eventually free up river water for colonias like Anapra--and lessen the chances of El Paso's drying up along with Juarez. And there's an $833 million, 20-year plan to tap new aquifers for both cities. Says Maria Elena Giner, of the Border Environment Cooperation Commission: "I don't think anyone has ever confronted the scope of what we're racing against."
El Paso, meanwhile, is concerned enough about the water problem to be planning what will be the largest inland desalination plant in the U.S., costing $52 million, that will clean 20 million gal. of brackish water each day. In March the city started offering residents 50[cents] per sq. ft. to rip up their water-guzzling lawns and replace them with rocks and plants native to the Chihuahua desert. Juarez has banned any new high-water use maquiladoras and is encouraging factories to build water-recycling facilities.
Local officials know that they are only tinkering at the edge of a crisis. They are urging Washington and Mexico City to form autonomous regional authorities, funded and staffed by both nations. "Our [federal] governments treat us like a third country," says Juarez mayor Gustavo Elizondo, "so we might as well act like one."
So El Paso and Juarez will keep jury-rigging solutions. Last year, when encephalitis broke out in Juarez, El Paso's spray planes "accidentally" crossed the border to wipe out disease-carrying mosquitoes. To reduce air pollution, El Paso is helping Juarez brickmakers redesign their kilns. And to eliminate the epic waits at border crossings, businessmen (from both sides of the border) fought for--and won--a "fast lane" for U.S. and Mexican citizens who are precleared by U.S. law enforcement agencies.
Back in Anapra, Conrada Valles, 58, is hopeful enough to stay where she is. The matriarch of a large family that has given years of sweat to the maquiladoras, Valles is one of more than 100,000 Juarez residents who have no running water. She's confident the U.S. will help pony up the funds to turn on her faucets. Watching over a front "lawn" of sand and brush as a caged parrot on her porch creates an illusion of oasis, she insists, "We're all here because the Americans wanted us here."
To take part in a town-hall meeting about the border at 3:00 p.m. E.T. on Tuesday, June 5, go to Keyword: New Frontier, or send your questions to AOL screen-name AskFrontiers during the meeting