When it rains in Tijuana, it pours in San Diego. Runoff crosses
the international border in gushes of floodwater, clogging
everything in its path with dirt and debris.
A river, a wildlife-filled estuary, and the sea are all victims
of this rainy-season menace, the product of a sprawling Mexican city
where the poor often live without paved streets, running water, or
Now, a cross-border team hopes to stem the tide of US-Mexican
tensions and turn a Tijuana slum into an example of environmental
activism. Their goal: Convince the community to devote its own time
and effort to pave the roads in San Bernardo, a bustling
neighborhood that becomes a bleak, muddy lake during heavy rains.
The plan, at least its initial stages, is to cover dirt roads
with concrete blocks designed to hold water and allow it to seep
into the earth. Residents, mainly women, are making the 70,000
"permeable pavers" needed for just the first half mile of road.
There are obstacles. For one, support by locals has been spotty.
For another, the project is aiming to link both countries in a
region long divided by language, disparities in wealth, and age-old
resistance to cooperation.
Still, the project has plenty of potential beyond the small
neighborhood. "The intent is to create an example," says Oscar Romo,
an environmentalist and professor at the University of California at
San Diego who's leading the effort. "I don't have the resources or
the will to start paving the [entire] city. What I'd like to do is
convince authorities on both sides of the border that this is an
environmentally friendly way to pave the roads."
Differences aside, San Diego and Tijuana do have plenty of
similarities: rapid growth in recent decades, massive sprawl, and
tourism. But while San Diego is known for its sun-kissed beaches and
world-famous zoo, Tijuana still carries the reputation it developed
in the 1920s and 1930s as a place where Americans can let loose at
free-wheeling bars and restaurants.
While still a haven for certain kinds of vice, "TJ" has turned
into a huge and crowded city devoted to manufacturing in the form of
factories known as maquiladoras. It's also become a "staging area,"
a place where immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and South
America wait to cross into the United States, says Paul Ganster,
director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at
San Diego State University.
As a result of its role as both destination and way station,
Tijuana's population has skyrocketed from 235,000 in 1964 to more
than 1.5 million today. Along with the growth has come acres upon
acres of slums, known as barrios or colonias.
"There's a tradition all over Latin America of people simply
squatting in unoccupied land and developing communities," Mr.
Ganster says. "They'll come in and build out of whatever materials
they can find. Over time, the quality of housing improves and urban
services work their way in. Eventually, you get reasonably developed
Typically, electricity arrives quickly, followed by water, though
the process can take seven to eight years, Ganster says. …