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Two Americas: Humane Borders' water tanks preventing more desert deaths

Dozens of tanks help migrants survive journey
Humane Borders chair Doug Ruopp refills a water tank in the remote Sonoran Desert.
Posted at 6:00 AM, Feb 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-03 10:36:40-05

PIMA COUNTY, Ariz. (KGUN) — Ever year, hundreds of migrants cross the southern border into the Pima County in order to make the dangerous trip north on foot through the Sonoran Desert.

Facing dehydration, hypothermia and intense heat, many don’t survive the journey.

Tucson-based Humane Borders is hoping to save more lives in the desert. The group—which relies heavily on volunteers—maintains about 40 water tank stations marked by tall blue flags spread out in remote areas across the desert, on both sides of the Tohono O'odham Nation Reservation.

Chair Doug Ruopp says those stations are placed near traditional migrant routes.

“We try to put them in strategic places that we know they’re gonna get used,” he said, conceding that more recently migrants seem to be taking more remote routes to avoid being caught.

“Putting water out is a really basic survival need. And we can do it.”

Ruopp says small groups of staff or volunteers will go check on and refill water stations multiple times a week. They will also test the water for total dissolved solids to make sure it’s safe to drink.

Ruopp says occasionally, the stations are vandalized or damaged by wind or rain.

He estimates Humane Borders groups come across a migrant about once a month during those check-ins, usually when they want to be found because they need medical attention.

“It’s not a solution to anything,” Ruopp said of the water tank stations. “It’s just a way to do our best to make sure there’s less lives lost in the desert.”

Humane Borders has been putting out water tanks since 2001 and counting migrant deaths in the desert since that time, with help from the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Data show 226 migrants were found dead in Arizona in 2021.

“The numbers are the numbers. People who have been found. But you know, look around. You can see that it would be very possible for someone to die out here and not be found for a long time,” Ruopp said. “So there’s a whole other level of tragedy in all this in that a lot of people are never found. Or if they are found, nobody knows who they are.”

A University of Arizona study suggests the tanks may be preventing migrant deaths.

But Ruopp says the tanks aren’t encouraging migrants to make the journey.

“When they cross the border, they’re not thinking about where there’s water,” he said. “They’re thinking about what they’re getting away from. And it’s always been that way. People have been crossing the border forever. Before the water and after the water [became available]. People cross where there is water and where there isn’t water. The water is not an attraction in any way at all.”

What the water has done is bring a community of people together in Southern Arizona.

Ruopp says other groups—such as Tucson Samaritans and No More Deaths—also provide humanitarian aid in the desert, leaving water bottles in even more remote areas where water tank stations are not feasible.

“It connects everybody in a way that says there’s some kind of positive response to everything that’s so tough right now along the border,” Ruopp said.