March 7, 2008

UCSD students help improve border environment

By Luis Alonso Pérez and Mariana Martínez

Environmental consequences of human activities know no boundaries, but fortunately for a unique eco-system at the México-US border, neither do the answers to help save the planet.

In Tijuana, lack of proper urban planning and services has caused thousands of residents to live in unsanitary conditions, such as the ones in Terrazas de San Bernardo, an illegal settlement of over 10 thousand families, where there is no interest (or perceived obligation) from the government to provide basic services.


Oscar Romo hands a camera to a woman holding cameras from a group of students from San Diego State University and the University of California San Diego waiting for a group portrait after the students helped to make porous bricks that will be used to pave roads in the Tijuana community of San Bernardo. The project, coordinated by Romo, will use the materials that allow water to seep back into the ground in an attempt to reduce water runoff, which creates erosion and carries pollution into the Tijuana River estuary. Photo - David Maung

Terrazas is a place where waste water runs thru the streets and accumulated garbage leads to a constant fight against pests like rats, flies and cockroaches.

The situation worsens during the rain season, when the topography of Tijuana leads for massive muddy rivers that take trash (including refrigerators and mattresses) all the way to the Tijuana Estuary in the US side of the border.

The contamination has lead to the loss of 40 acres of precious ecosystem, known to be the last filter between the inland water system and the open sea.

But, there is a plan in place to stop damaging the Estuary while providing better living conditions for the residents of Terrazas de San Bernardo. The plan is in the hands of UCSD professor and Costal Training Program Coordinator Oscar Romo, who the past few years has worked with US students, engineers and the community in Terrazas.

The project, -already coming along- is to install permeable pavement on sensible areas of Terrazas and some other canyons in Tijuana that have a high risk of mudslides after the rain.

The pavement helps prevent erosion, filter bacteria-ridden water, and prevent mudslides, while trapping humidity in the area to help trees and plants grow.


University of California San Diego student Jayinee Basu, 19, helps make "pervious pavers" that will be used to pave roads in the Tijuana community of San Bernardo. Photo - David Maung

“This works in a similar way cobbled streets do. If we remember old Mexican towns had cobbled streets and they never flood, because it allows water to penetrate instead of flowing down the street” said professor Romo.

The permeable pavement is now being put in place at a near by elementary school, and it is expected to continue in the streets close to the school in the next few weeks.

This task is being handled by community residents and San Diego students who go down to Tijuana during the weekend.

Argelia Compeant, a Terrazas de San Bernardo resident and elementary school janitor, is very happy that students contribute to this project because she considers that the Tijuana government has ignored this dreadful situation for many years.

“When it rains water creates large muddy ditches, and when kids accidentally step into them they fall deep into the mud.”

The lack of proper sewage system also represents an important health risk for the community, particularly to young children, because some homes still have outhouses or toilets that discharge directly to the dirt streets, and when they play the streets they are constantly exposed to this contaminated water.

“The solution is that the government installs sewage pipes so that waste water is properly drained out of these homes” said neighbor Alejandro Loza.

But the fast paced growth of Tijuana puts Terrazas de San Bernardo behind a long list of neighborhoods demanding sewage systems and it could take years before they attend their sanitary needs.

That is why Oscar Romo has coordinated with the non-profit organization Engineers Without Borders so they can build a waste-water treatment plant at the end of the canyon, where the treated water will be used to water a public park.

The project also includes a change in Mexican legislation to make this type of pavement a requirement for developing companies working in areas with similar topographic conditions.

Christy McCarthy, a senior at UCSD and volunteer worker, is very excited about this project because it is not only an environmental solution for the Tijuana River Estuary north of the border, but it also brings sustainable solutions for the community.

“I never realized that I am capable of being part of such a solution, and that the work we are doing in a localized project is a simple solution to a global problem.”

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