As conditions such as population growth and climate change evolve, residents of the U.S.-Mexico border region, home to over 12 million people, face new challenges. A group of binational researchers recently met at UTEP to offer possible solutions.
“Living on the U.S.-Mexico border brings unique challenges and opportunities, as well as the chance to serve a population with a great pool of talent, much perhaps untapped, and perspective,” said Nate Robinson, assistant vice president for facility security in the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects at The University of Texas at El Paso.
Robinson is one of the founders of the Border Solutions Alliance, which includes top U.S. and Mexican researchers and representatives from agencies in the fields of food, climate, energy, border safety and cybersecurity.
Many of them participated in the Southwest Binational Workshop June 10-12, 2019, in UTEP’s Tomás Rivera Conference Center. Topics included how to deal with an increase in the threat of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs,” the escalated strain on the area’s water resources, and the limitations inherent to a binational region.
“Border communities have two national governments, a mix of many federal, state and municipal government organizations, nonprofits and so on,” Robinson said. “This situation presents unique challenges in aligning policy, data sharing, and similar efforts that would benefit the border.”
The workshop featured a series of policy discussions, poster presentations, Q&A sessions, and a keynote address by George A. “Tony” Robinson, regional administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region 6, which represents Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.
Robinson spoke about FEMA’s efforts to streamline its response to catastrophic events such as hurricanes and floods, and he suggested ways the agency’s private, public and non-governmental partners could make the region more resilient.
Workshop attendees included representatives from some of the alliance’s founding members: UTEP, the University of California San Diego (UCSD), the University of Arizona, New Mexico State University (NMSU), and the University of Texas at San Antonio. Other participants were officials from the City of El Paso, the Environmental Protection Agency, and local offices of the Texas Department of Transportation, Office of Border Public Health, and others. Also in attendance were representatives from Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, El Colegio de Sonora, El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, and Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez (UACJ).
Border Solutions Alliance leaders strategically chose the Mexican partner institutions based on their faculty expertise, proximity to the border and to the U.S. alliance member institutions, and their strengths in social sciences and other key research areas.
Funded in part by the National Science Foundation, the alliance seeks to establish binational research priorities, identify prominent challenges that affect border states, and to develop smart technology and applied science solutions through the creation of collaborative proposals to address these issues.
According to Miroslav Krstic, Ph.D., senior associate vice chancellor for research at UCSD, one innovative solution that already is available is a mobile phone app, developed at UCSD, which makes recommendations for the least congested border crossing in the San Diego-Tijuana area based on information that comes from multiple phones that have the app running simultaneously.
“Future research would aim at far more advanced capabilities that reduce the time spent waiting and convert it into productive time,” Krstic said. “The aim is to boost economic development and at the same time enhance border security.”
Such technologies, Krstic added, would be similarly applicable to the management of health and water resources in a manner that is smarter and more beneficial to the taxpayer locally and nationally.
One of the many positive ideas to emerge from the recent workshop was the creation of a data-driven model of the border region. Vimal Chaitanya, Ph.D., professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at NMSU, and another founding member of the alliance, called the model a “digital twin” of the border. Chaitanya said it would allow stakeholders across the entire U.S.-Mexico border to understand how a major disruptive event, whether natural or manufactured, might affect the region. With this knowledge in hand, that impact could be minimized.
“It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s definitely achievable, and it will be very comprehensive,” Chaitanya said. “So that going in the future, people working in this area will be able to take advantage of this model, and maybe even improve upon it. It’s a continuously improving type of data modeling.”
The alliance will continue to work on this and other ideas for a few more months before it presents them to funding agencies and policymakers. To that end, the group will convene again in Washington, D.C., in early 2020. The alliance is hopeful about its prospects in the nation’s capital, and members agree that the level of energy and participation seen in its initial gatherings bode well for the group’s future.
One idea that was mentioned repeatedly during the UTEP workshop was that the border is an artificial barrier not recognized by the natural forces that shape the lives of its residents. That is why alliance members said that, regardless of the response they receive in Washington, they would continue to look for ways to make good on their mission to help communities become more resilient on both sides of the international boundary.
Author: Victor H. Arreola -UTEP Communications