Distraction Free Reading

The Shifting Borders of Value: Water and Wellbeing along the U.S.-Mexico Border

Is access to water a right? Should water be free? Have you ever stopped to ask yourself that? This is exactly what surrounds the discourse of water use along the US-Mexico border and the way these questions are being addressed may surprise you.

Water use in the U.S-Mexico border region has long been a tense topic, driven by stress placed on water supplies in an arid environment by agriculture and industry. The movement of water through the borderlands, as an economic resource and as an essential human good, has impacted many aspects of border life. The way water is handled in free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has caused tensions to rise. In Mexico, the privatization of water pushed by these trade agreements has created friction with the concept of water as a human right and water as a commodity. Water acts as a medium to observe the movement of resources through borders; such movement over border lines then transforms this natural fixture into a tradeable resource. The encounters with the rivers of the border region bring attention to how these movements are not as free as an idealized vision might have it, especially the visions of those who argue for a globalized world. Like human beings, water is traced from its source to the multitude of spaces it is destined to go and flagged for adequate use. With climate change looming, water issues and broader environmental impacts on transborder activity will become stark; some may argue they already have.

A Brief History of Liquid Value

For the U.S-Mexico border region’s border planners, rivers helped identify a “natural” boundary between nations. Initially, these boundaries were shaped by conflict, but by 1889, cross-border commissions had begun to address the matter of shifting rivers which changed shape and location because of climate (Alvarez 2019). The river, as a justification for a “natural” border, did not abide by human conceptions of static geopolitical lines. Much of the changes that waterways in the border region underwent worked alongside a third type of boundary which was not a party to the negotiations over water sources and borderlines. Hydrology projects and irrigation constructions meant to serve American and Mexican agricultural interests deprived Indigenous agriculturalists of the same resources (Sheridan and Radonic 2017). Boundaries that changed and fluctuated with the movement of rivers also cut through boundaries established by nations that had less power. The result of border controls and economic policies when imposed upon rivers has been termed by scholars as a “waterscape”, a socio-natural assemblage where social power is embedded and shaped by material water flows and their representations (Sheridan and Radonic 2017). “Waterscape” stands for the enrollment of water under institutional and ideological projects (Sheridan and Radonic 2017). Using the “waterscape” concept, we work with and view water systems as agents acted on under political regimes- and connect discussions of water to the ways people are acted on under these same contexts.

Neoliberalism in the borderlands has had wide-reaching effects on the waterscape of the region, and many facets of life there. Neoliberalism is described generally as a set of economic and political philosophies which question or reject the role of the state and government in matters of the market or people’s relationships to the economy (Heynen et al 2007). For example, certain policies or trade agreements push for the privatization of formerly nationalized resources such as water by placing more power in the hands of investors over the powers of the state (Heynen et al 2007). To understand the role of neoliberal policies in the management of natural resources, we must consider specific aspects of NAFTA.

NAFTA links Canada, Mexico, and the United States in a regional trading bloc based on neoliberal principles of free trade. One way in which NAFTA works to protect value and represent the interests of profit and industry is through Chapter 11, which focuses on investor’s rights. Under conditions set by trade agreements, investors are guaranteed that they will be able to move investment funds and profits in and out of the country (Kibel and Schutz 2007; McCarthy 2004). A corporate firm can argue that if environmental protections and regulations on certain activities infringe on the firm’s economic activity regardless of the ecological or social impact of their activity, they have a right to demand their loss of profit be accounted for by the state. Due to these policies, a foreign investor has equal standing to a state on the international stage to establish how the state regulates itself. NAFTA negotiations did include concerns about the environment on the border, including water quality and air pollution. Several entities were created to fund environmental infrastructure and facilitate cross-governmental cooperation[1]. Nevertheless, follow-through was difficult because cross-border entities had little bargaining power with larger corporations and within the policies of each state (Trouillot 2000). Decentralization and the privatization of water create discourse around whether water should be viewed as an economic commodity instead of a right, bringing into question whether water should be free. More market-minded individuals favor privatization; from this perspective, the market serves as the ultimate regulator and should not be subject to political judgment or consensus (Carter et al 1996). Interest in water markets, and labeling water as an economic good, natural resource, and social good, positioned the market as an effective alternative to government intervention- assuming of course that the market will act rationally and provide payoff for all involved. This did not end up being the case.

An Image of Papago Well, a large water tank with a faucet. Behind it there is a metal windmill, and barely visible is the purple humane borders flag marking this as a location containing potable water. The water tank sits in a desert landscape, near a sandy road marked by tire tracks.
While accessible sources of water are present, migrants must have knowledge of their limited whereabouts as they undertake their journey through unforgiving desert landscapes (Image by Author).

Who Gets to Survive?

In the waterscapes of the borderlands, other conflicts related to ideological battles, conservation, and border fortification play out. The migration of people across the southern border has proven deadly. Part of what makes the Sonoran landscape so dangerous is its vast swathes of largely unpopulated desert, devoid of water, which migrants are pushed to walk through. These migrant corridors exist today due to a 1994 policy titled Prevention Through Deterrence, and even now the policy continues to push migrants farther away from population centers, and from water (Cunningham 2001; 2012). The discourse regarding migrant traffic through the region has been varied. A strong thread has been the concern of conservationists over environmental impacts of the crossings (Sundberg and Kaserman 2007). In the early 2000s, the humanitarian aid group Humane Borders entered the scene, leaving water stations in Organ Pipe National Monument, under specific flagged locations chosen using Border Patrol data on deaths (Sundberg 2008).  This supply of water, although helpful in preventing deaths, is controversial (Sundberg 2008; Meierotto 2015). Some argued it would generate garbage for environmental pollution and affect local species, therefore focusing more on the lives of the local flora and fauna than on the people for whom these programs were created (Cunningham 2012). It is easy to connect the dynamic around migration in the borderlands with the focus placed by conservation agencies on the survival of species suffering increased water scarcity and environmental degradation in the region. For the Sonoran pronghorn water is often received from plant foraging, but over time foraging has become more difficult and has resulted in near-catastrophic declines in population numbers in the north of the Mexican border (Slone 2011; Sundberg 2008). To protect against declines, agencies have created breeding enclosures with water tanks for pronghorn which are protected by fences with 7000 volts of electricity (Sundberg 2008). Migrants have been documented trying to access this source of water, despite the electrified fence –  this is a troubling comparison (Sundberg 2008). More recently, the narrative surrounding pronghorn has positioned migrants as a threat to conservation efforts in the area (Devoid 2014).  An example of the way these dynamics play out is at the Barry M. Goldwater bombing range. Some claim that bombing exercises may be beneficial for the pronghorn because the craters left by bombs hold water which can collect more easily without dissipating – providing more water for the animals (Krausman et al 2007). However, to make sure that animals are not harmed, they must be constantly monitored by scientists who will call the military operatives to pause all exercises until the pronghorn move on. There is no such organization to my knowledge that ensures migrants walking across this range are protected in the same way.

The impact on animal livelihood is addressed in discussions of the border wall and border patrol activity; the death of humans to these same factors is not as thoroughly addressed. Water figures prominently in discourses of migration, conservation, and environmentalism. Despite liberal associations, it carries conservative discourses regarding human life. Neoliberal thought frames risk of death as an individual responsibility undertaken by migrants. Border militarization is not at fault for leading people towards deadly terrain, nor is it responsible for the pollution and destruction of natural environments and water sources. The RealID Act states that in the interest of national security, all existing regulations can be put to the side, including environmental regulation, treaties and agreements with Indigenous nations, and landowners’ private property interests along the border wall (Peters et al 2018).  Much like free trade agreements allow foreign industries to assert their rights over those of the state, the state acts to reaffirm its sovereignty by ensuring that its borders are only permeable to the “right” values. In this, the Sonoran pronghorn and the undocumented border crosser share a similar treatment: under modern border policy, both have disposable lives. The difference is how their survival is treated by the area’s stakeholders.

As a former volunteer with Arizona human rights organizations, I entered academia to find answers to the questions I faced in the field. How could we support the conservation of national monuments and wildlife refuges without acknowledging the ways border enforcement agencies cut paths through these areas, and bombing ranges dropped shrapnel across miles of desert landscape? Why were migrants blamed for its destruction? Why were aid workers criminalized for their attempts to provide water? The large-scale move towards the privatization of resources like water and toward holding each individual as the sole party responsible for their own lives is a key part of the story which leads people to their deaths in the U.S-Mexico borderlands. Understanding the connections between international trade agreements, conservation efforts, and the loss of human life can be a  difficult web to unweave. Work on this matter is still developing, and the specifics of some of the issues I describe have yet to be comprehensively explored. We cannot hold people responsible for their own deaths when they are pushed across arbitrary borders by the impact of American interventionism and free trade policies like NAFTA. NAFTA has created some of the conditions for mass migration, and neoliberal ideas of “value” and “responsibility” have much to do with the discourse regarding migration at the border today. Ultimately, water is an easy equivalent for the similar journey of the human body’s change from individual into an economic commodity- or liability- depending on the location of a person’s birth. Like water, individuals change at borderlines, and are changed by the perception of the global market and the state; like water, they are policed, counted, monitored, and sacrificed.


[1] Such as the Border Environment Cooperation Commission.


Alvarez, C. J. 2019. Border Land, Border Water: a History of Construction on the US-Mexico Divide. University of Texas Press.

Carter, Dean E., Carlos Peña, Robert Varady, and William A. Suk. 1996. “Environmental health and hazardous waste issues related to the US-Mexico border.” Environmental Health Perspectives 104 (6): 590-594.

Cunningham, Hilary. 2001. “Transnational politics at the edges of sovereignty: social movements, crossings and the state at the US–Mexico border.” Global Networks 1 (4): 369-387.

Cunningham, Hilary. 2012. “Permeabilities, ecology and geopolitical boundaries.” In A Companion to Border Studies, edited by Thomas M. Wilson and Hastings Donnan, 371-386. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Devoid, Alex. 2018. “Back from the Brink, the Sonoran Pronghorn Now Roam an Increasingly Political Landscape.”  The Republic | Azcentral.com, 24 May 2018, www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-environment/2018/03/27/saving-sonoran-pronghorn-antelope-increasingly-political-landscape/310133002/.

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Kibel, Paul Stanton, and Jonathan R. Schutz. 2007. “Rio Grande Designs: Texans’ NAFTA Water Claim Against Mexico.” Berkeley J. Int’l Law 25: 228-267.

Krausman, Paul R., Lisa K. Harris, Ryan R. Wilson, James W. Cain III, and Kiana KG Koenen. 2007. “Bombing and Sonoran Pronghorn: A Clear and Present Danger?” The Journal of Wildlife Management 71 (8): 2820-2823.

McCarthy, James. 2004. “Privatizing conditions of production: trade agreements as neoliberal environmental governance.” Geoforum 35 (3): 327-341.

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Peters, Robert, William J. Ripple, Christopher Wolf, Matthew Moskwik, Gerardo Carreón-Arroyo, Gerardo Ceballos, Ana Córdova et al. 2018. “Nature Divided, Scientists United: US–Mexico Border Wall Threatens Biodiversity and Binational Conservation.” BioScience 68 (10): 740-743.

Sheridan, Thomas and Radonic, L.  2017. “Co-Producing Waterscapes.” In The US-Mexico Transborder Region: Cultural Dynamics and Historical Interactions, 287-305. University of Arizona Press.

Slone, Sidney C. 2011. “Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge Sonoran Pronghorn Supplemental Water and Forage Project.”

Sundberg, Juanita, and Bonnie Kaserman. 2007. “Cactus carvings and desert defecations: embodying representations of border crossings in protected areas on the Mexico—US border.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 25 (4): 727-744.

Sundberg, Juanita. 2008. “‘Trash-Talk’and the Production of Quotidian Geopolitical Boundaries in the USA–Mexico Borderlands.” Social & Cultural Geography 9(8): 871-890.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 2000. “A Fragmented Globality.” In Global Transformations, 47-78. Palgrave Macmillan.

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