EL PASO -- Life on the edge of El Paso is about as hard as it gets in the United States. Jobs, housing and health care are sorely deficient, just as they are at the poorest Indian reservation or inner-city project. But something else is missing here that sets this place apart: running water.

More than 10,000 people try to survive the searing west Texas climate without this most essential public service. To say that the water is missing is not quite right; there is enough potable water around, but these Hispanics are not getting any.

They live in swelling, unregulated developments known as colonias that ring the city from the valley on the east to the windswept sandhills of the north. It is a striking perimeter of poverty, and a telltale sign that El Paso, while geographically part of Texas and of the United States, sociologically is a metropolis of the Third World, where it is common for makeshift slums to arise on the outskirts of cities. Not surprising, because El Paso (population 542,000) is the largest U.S. city on the border and sits across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juarez (population 1.2 million), the fifth-largest in Mexico.

The plight of the colonias has haunted El Paso since the 1960s but has severely worsened in the last 10 years, as their populations doubled, then tripled, with a modern border version of western homesteaders -- many from the city, others illegal immigrants from across the river.

For years, local officials seemed unwilling to acknowledge that the colonias existed, as if they would stop growing or disappear if denied basic utilities. But now the realization is hitting home that they are a fact of life along the changing border, that they must be controlled and humanely helped.

"Water and air are two basic human rights that can't be denied," said El Paso County Judge Luther Jones. "For too long, there was an attitude here that this was some planning debate or something. It's not. There is no possible good reason in the world for human beings to be deprived access to running water."

"There are conditions here that would not be tolerated in the worst slum in Washington, Chicago or the Bronx," said Dr. Herbert Ortega, regional director of the U.N.-affiliated Pan American Health Organization. "What we're talking about is a Third World within our border. It is a very serious problem that can no longer be ignored, locally or nationally. Can you imagine, for a minute, what it is like to wake up every day and not have running water, to wash, to drink?"Drinking From Ditches

For those unable to imagine, here is a tour among the more than 100 colonias on the rim of El Paso.

First stop, San Isidro, where Willie Madrid set the mood with a description of the well water he and his family and friends use. "The water smells bad," Madrid said. "It is polluted because of the cesspools. If you bathe in it, usually you get a bad rash. Your skin will dry up, and most of all you will itch terribly."

On to San Elizario, where Darlene Brown, administrator of public schools in a district that includes several of the poorest colonias, said that half of her 1,200 students live without running water. Hundreds arrive at school an hour early so they can clean up. In most parts of America, girls outdo themselves with excuses to avoid taking showers in physical education class. Here they beg for first-period gym so that they can get early showers. In the summers, many children stay cool, and try to clean themselves, by swimming in the irrigation ditches that cross the valley.

Many people try to drink the irrigation water. Ed Pfifer, director of the valley's irrigation district, remembered the time a San Elizario man came into his office to complain. He had been going down to the canal and loading water into a 55-gallon drum, then taking it home and straining it through three T-shirts. "And he was mad at us because it was still brown," Fifer said. "He was using that water to drink."

The rates of dysentery, hepatitis and lice here are twice the regional average. Many children and their parents have dark yellow stains on their teeth. All of this is attributable in large part to the water. Those without running water dig shallow wells on the their property (in the valley, water can be reached at about six feet), usually within 20 yards of their outhouses. The water is dangerously contaminated.

"In effect they are drinking their own sewage," said Dr. Laurence Nickey, the region's health director.

This year, Brown crafted a large map of all the colonias in her district and colored in pink the properties where wells were dug within 50 feet of outhouses or cesspools. Pink splotches dominate the map. In Valle Villa, there are 30 cases of outhouses near wells. There are 20 more in Las Azaleas, 20 in Dalias, 10 in Bernal, 10 in Madrilena and 30 in Las Pampas.

"The well water is not meant for drinking, but I'm afraid some of our kids are using it," Brown said. "They just don't look right most of the time. They feel weak and tired. They have trouble concentrating. They are victims of water. It is all I can do to keep from crying. When I first moved to El Paso and wrote to my parents in New Mexico about the condition of my students, my mother wrote back and said, 'I thought you lived in El Paso, not Juarez.' "Scarcity in the Midst of Plenty

Now to Socorro, an incorporated village of 22,000 that sprawls through the lower valley to the east of El Paso, embracing more than half the colonias that lack running water.

The big Alameda water pipeline runs through the heart of Socorro, from the city of El Paso out to the ranchers in the community of Clint. But this pipeline is of no use to most Socorro residents. For the last decade, the El Paso water utility has prohibited them from tapping in, trying to use a moratorium to curtail growth in the colonias. The policy has not worked, and it may soon change as a result of intense pressure from county officials and a community organization known as EPISO. More about that when the water tour is over.

The disparity of water distribution is everywhere in Socorro. On one side of the street are youth baseball fields -- hot, unshaded and without running water. On the other is the Lujan Trucking Co., which has a free-flowing spigot from which it fills 2,500-gallon trucks 25 times a day with city of El Paso water that it began receiving before the 1978 moratorium. Hauled water has become the trucking firm's major source of revenue.

One stop the Lujan water trucks make on their daily runs is at the construction site of Bauman Elementary School, where all summer, as temperatures surpassed the 100-degree mark, scores of workers have been without access to running water. The school will not have running water when it opens in September. Lujan will be its lifeline, filling special above-ground tanks behind the school.

Many Socorro residents cannot afford hauled water (the price is about $22 per 1,000-gallon delivery, compared with about $1.50 for the same amount of piped water from the city utility) or do not have the tanks needed to store it. They rely on friends and relatives.

Every day, Francisca Jimenez, the mother of eight children, gathers up a few of her kids and a trunkful of plastic jugs and drives five miles to her sister's house, where they turn on the outdoor hose and fill the jugs with enough water for the family's drinking, cooking and cleaning.

From Socorro to the Sparks Addition, on the northeast fringe of the city, above Interstate 10, 300 acres of mobile homes and shacks rest precariously on shifting sand dunes and the edge of a dry arroyo. The colonia is surrounded by free-flowing water. Down the hill, there is an enormous truck wash. And over the ridge to the north are the sprinkled greens of Horizon City Country Club. But there is no running water in Sparks.

The consequences are alarming. Last year Rafaela Harvey, a public health nurse in the area, noted that 85 percent of the children from Sparks suffered from skin rashes, yeast infections, insect bites, diarrhea or vomiting.

Forrest Sprester, an environmental engineer for the El Paso City-County Health Department, thinks he knows why. Sprester conducted a study of Sparks Addition that showed that 51 percent of the residents stored water in 55-gallon drums obtained from various sources in Mexico and the United States.

"About 70 percent were labeled indicating the contents were toxic, such as methylene chloride, stoddard solvent and trichloroethane," Sprester's study concluded. "Several children were treated for skin rashes caused by chemically contaminated clothes after the clothes were washed in these drums."

Two questions burn:

How did this happen?

What can be done about it?

Although the symbolic contrasts of wealth and poverty are striking (the untouchable water line that rushes through Socorro; the country club over the horizon of Sparks), the story here is not that El Paso has less sense of its social responsibility than other places in the United States. Although the colonias represent the peculiar problems of the border, they are also a manifestation of the American dream -- the best and worst of it.

In the 1950s, the valley east of El Paso was mostly cotton farms, owned and tended by Hispanic families whose roots in the area stretched back for centuries; their church, La Purisima, was built as a Spanish mission church 306 years ago. As the cotton market began collapsing, the farmers sold off their land little by little -- an acre here, five acres there -- to developers, who sliced it up into subdivisions and offered plots for as little as $1,000 down and $1,000 a year. The plots were sold on land contracts, meaning that they belonged to the developer until all payments were made.

Sweat equity, this is called, but the sweat seemed to be worth it to impoverished and working-class people who yearned for a place in this new land.

Most of these subdivisions, or colonias, began without basic services: water, light or gas. In many cases, developers promised the residents that utilities were on the way.

Texas law made it particularly easy for unprincipled developers beyond the city limits. Counties have no zoning authority in Texas and little regulatory power. The developers did have to meet some minimal requirements for waste treatment, but none for providing water. Some of the subdivisions received water from the city of El Paso's water utility, which was providing it to areas near its pipelines and within five miles of the city borders; others had no source.

By the late 1970s, the colonias were growing at a 10-year rate of 200 percent, even exceeding the rate across the Rio Grande in Juarez, where it was 134 percent. Socorro, which had no school district and bused children to distant schools, now has one of the largest school districts in the region. And in 1979, the El Paso water utility imposed a moratorium on water connections to Socorro's colonias and all the others, citing economic and planning considerations.

"The water extensions just promoted substandard development out there," said John Hickerson, director of the water utility. "Our policy didn't help anyone in need one bit. All we were doing was encouraging the breakup of farms and other land. The developers could promise the buyers they would have water and then the developers could justify increasing the price of the land. The illegal subdivisions were getting out of control."Colonias Without Water Did Not Shrink

So there was no more water for the colonias. But they did not shrink. In fact, they kept growing, fueled by economics far beyond the control of El Paso.

As Mexico's economy deteriorated in the early 1980s, more immigrants found their way across the river and out to the colonias. While there is no reliable method of counting undocumented immigrants, most experts here estimate that perhaps two-thirds of the residents moving into the colonias in this decade are in that category.

But that is not to say that the waterless people of El Paso are also voiceless and powerless. Their numbers include a great many U.S. citizens who moved to the colonias out of hope, not despair, and that hope may be their salvation.

The first politician outside El Paso to promise to help the colonias get water was William P. Hobby Jr., the lieutenant governor of Texas. It was in February 1983, and although Hobby's office was able to direct some state money toward the problem, his real contribution was his presence among the waterless people. Hobby, a wealthy Houston Democrat, a pillar of establishment Texas, lent legitimacy to a group that for two years had not only been fighting for water but also struggling for recognition.

The group was EPISO, the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization, one of Texas' community action groups founded by Ernie Cortes, a disciple of organizer Saul Alinsky. The most overworked part of Cortes is his brain. His method of organizing is not to do all the work, but to teach community residents how to organize themselves, how to realize the power of numbers and ideas and how to use that power. He has always used the church as a base.

During its first two years in El Paso, EPISO spent more time defending itself than organizing. The city's Roman Catholic churches were split: some were socially active and embraced EPISO; others were old-line conservative and attacked it, claiming it was run by outside agitators.

Hobby helped settle that argument by showing up at an EPISO rally. The water issue helped, too, because it was a fundamental issue around which thousands of people could be organized.

By September 1983, EPISO was able to draw 3,000 supporters to another water rally, this one addressed by Mark White, then the state's Democratic governor. As the crowd chanted "Agua! Agua! Agua!," White not only promised to help bring water to the colonias, but also said he would return to El Paso and dig a ditch for water. He kept that promise, coming back in July 1985, to dig a trench at the home of Sandra Solano in the colonia of Moon City. Solano was one of the lucky people who had been on the city water pipeline before the moratorium but had been unable to pay for a hookup until White and Hobby persuaded the state to provide special funds.

While White's intentions may have been noble, his actions in El Paso created more tension than they resolved. Only 60 people like Solano were able to get water, while thousands of others, whose homes were farther from the pipelines, still went without.

Sister Pearl Ceaser, one of Cortes' professional organizers, arrived in El Paso at about that time and the water pressure increased. Water rallies were held every month or two, at which local politicians were asked to account for how the conditions could persist. With help from the Southwest Voter Education Project, EPISO registered 21,000 new voters in the city and county.

Under heavy lobbying from the community groups, the city council passed a resolution urging the water utility to change its moratorium policy. Socorro residents approved a referendum establishing their water utility district. And county voters elected a new team of officials, led by Judge Luther Jones and County Attorney Joe Lucas, who threatened to sue the city to force it to provide water to the colonias.

Earlier this month, the colonias won a major victory. The city water board voted to provide running water to some of the colonias -- those in the Socorro area that belong to the new valley water district -- contingent on a trade in which the city would get some allotments of irrigation water.

To be able to use the city's water, however, the valley water district will have to fund somewhere between $7 million and $25 million in water and sewer pipe construction, which would significantly raise local taxes in one of the most property-poor districts in the state.

Ceaser, the community activist, and Jones, the county judge, consider the agreement a landmark in the long fight for water. But they say that it may still be several years before all the people of El Paso's colonias can drink water from their taps, cheaply and safely. To Herbert Ortega of the Pan American Health Organization, the burden of El Paso's waterless people should not be carried by this region alone.

"Somehow the people in Washington have to realize that what happens in El Paso and Juarez is important to everyone," he said. "This is where the relationship between Mexico and the U.S. is played out, where the problems first arise, and where solutions can be reached before it is too late. Unless you build sewage plants, good housing and provide adequate water -- do the things you need to do in a Third World country -- the sheer numbers of the poor are going to increase."