Mexico’s water disaster heats up as switch to US looms


Mexico Metropolis, Mexico –  Carrying sticks and stones, 1000’s of farmers descended on La Boquilla dam in Mexico’s northern state of Chihuahua in early September to voice their anger over a looming switch of tens of millions of cubic metres of water to the US.

Ready for them on the web site on the Rio Conchos river on September 8 was a gaggle of a number of hundred Nationwide Guard troops, who rapidly deserted their posts. Farmers turned off the valves, and weeks later, they continue to be at La Boquilla – demanding the switch be cancelled.

The scene highlights a long-brewing battle between Mexico’s federal authorities and native farmers over the water switch, which is remitted underneath a 1944 treaty between Mexico and its northern neighbour.

The farmers, onerous hit by drought, say the switch would depart them unable to maintain their livelihoods, and the battle has worsened tensions between the state and federal authorities in Mexico over the supply of dwindling water assets.

Members of the Mexican Nationwide Guard patrol as farmers participate in a protest in opposition to the choice to divert water from La Boquilla dam to the US [Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters]

“The foundation of the issue is the misuse, mismanagement and distribution of water by Conagua,” stated Salvador Alcantar, president of the Affiliation of Irrigation Customers of the State of Chihuahua (Aurech), referring to Mexico’s federal water regulator.

There was a scarcity of transparency, Alcantar instructed Al Jazeera, and roundtable discussions between the varied stakeholders have floundered. Aurech members have been among the many protesters who occupied La Boquilla (“The Nozzle”) final month.

“Not having the ability to show technically or legally what they have been doing, they [Conagua] determined to make use of power,” Alcantar stated in regards to the crackdown on protesters.

Brewing tensions

The water transfers between Mexico and the US are ruled by a 1944 treaty to make sure the mutually useful use of water in agricultural areas on either side of the border. Underneath the settlement, Mexico receives from the US 4 occasions the quantity of water it sends north.

Extra particularly, the US sends roughly 1,185 million cubic metres (MCM) to Mexico annually, in response to Mexican authorities figures, whereas Mexico is required to ship 431 million cubic metres to the US yearly.

Most of that water comes from the state of Chihuahua’s Rio Conchos, the principle tributary of the Rio Bravo, which begins within the Sierra de Chihuahua. Often known as the Rio Grande within the US, the Rio Bravo begins in Colorado and flows into the Gulf of Mexico, for lengthy stretches forming a pure border between Mexico and the US.

However the treaty permits Mexico to make its transfers over 5 years – a safeguard in opposition to unpredictable rainfall, or different situations – which means that it could ship its complete of two,155 MCM at any level over that interval.

Farmers, amongst different individuals, protest in Delicias, Chihuahua state, on September 20 in opposition to the choice to divert water from La Boquilla dam [Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters]

Mexico now owes the US 426 MCM of water, and it should switch that complete quantity by October 24.

“Chihuahua has to [provide] 54 p.c [of that amount], as a result of the principal river which contributes to the Rio Bravo is the Rio Conchos,” defined Víctor Quintana, a social activist, author and sociologist, and member of the Morena celebration of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

“It’s an settlement which is advantageous for Mexico, however disadvantageous for Chihuahua,” he stated.

The 1944 treaty is overseen by the Worldwide Boundary and Water Fee, collectively comprised of the US Division of State and the Mexican Secretariat of International Relations.

Because the federal authorities physique liable for water all through the nation, the Nationwide Water Fee, Conagua, has been the main target of constant criticism and the goal of farmers’ anger. A number of occasions over the past months Conagua autos have been set alight.

The company has repeatedly rejected claims it has acted inappropriately. The group’s normal coordinator of communications, Jose Luis Juarez, instructed Mexican investigative journalism outlet Contralinea final month that Conagua “categorically rejects” the allegation “that corruption practices are tolerated”.

The foundation of the issue is the misuse, mismanagement and distribution of water by Conagua

Salvador Alcantar, president of the Affiliation of Irrigation Customers of the State of Chihuahua

Nonetheless, tensions between farmers and the federal authorities are exacerbated by a extreme drought in Chihuahua, the place the state authorities referred to as on federal authorities to declare a pure catastrophe because of drought in 52 of the state’s municipalities.

Unlawful extraction, weak infrastructure

The water disaster in Chihuahua is fuelled by two major points, in response to investigative journalist Ignacio Alvarado, who’s from Chihuahua and has investigated conflicts tied to pure assets: the unlawful extraction of water and the rudimentary infrastructure of dams and canals.

The shortage of water in Chihuahua has made it a profitable supply of earnings for a lot of, defined Alvarado, including that, aside from organised crime, the extraction of “water is probably, extra so than the extraction of minerals, the detonator of most violence within the state”.

Quintana, additionally an knowledgeable on the politics of water, argues that the North American Free Commerce Settlement (NAFTA) can be an element within the state’s water disaster, affecting rural Chihuahua and its dry, arid local weather, and making it tougher for native farmers to stay aggressive within the US.

The Chihuahuan desert, which runs from the US state of Colorado to the central Mexican highlands, has confronted rising challenges in recent times, particularly associated to the Rio Bravo’s water ranges. “Local weather change and over-extraction threaten the river’s future, and all who rely upon it,” a 2015 World Wildlife Fund report warned.

The scenario can be exacerbated by extreme overexploitation of wells and aquifers, Jeffrey Jones, a former senator for Chihuahua for the Nationwide Motion Get together (PAN), defined. “There proceed to be an increasing number of wells prolonged throughout areas the place the [extraction] rights have been overextended,” he stated.

“The overexploitation of wells is a particularly grave drawback.”

Political entrance

The water battle turned lethal on September 8, the identical evening that clashes occurred between Nationwide Guard troops and farmers on the dam. The Nationwide Guard has been accused of killing a protester, Yesica Silva, and significantly injuring her husband within the city of Delicias.

The company stated the loss of life occurred after its officers “repelled aggression” and Mexico’s president has referred to as for an investigation into whether or not Silva was killed by the Nationwide Guard, Reuters reported.

The dispute additionally has more and more shifted into the political realm, with some arguing that the dispute is being utilized by right-wing events to assault the federal government of Lopez Obrador forward of state elections subsequent yr.

Folks maintain placards to recollect a protester, Yesica Silva, who was killed on September 8 [Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters]

Quintana stated that whereas the farmers’ protests are respectable, “teams tied to Nationwide Motion [PAN], together with from Frena [the National Anti-AMLO front]” are more and more getting concerned within the battle, and will assist create a entrance in opposition to Lopez Obrador.

Frena – a self-described residents’ motion – is pushing for Lopez Obrador’s resignation. On September 23, the group arrange a protest camp in Mexico Metropolis’s major Zocalo plaza to demand the president step down.

Former PAN president, Felipe Calderon, has pledged his solidarity to the organisation, although Frena has publicly distanced itself from political events.

Alcantar, the Aurech president, acknowledged that some farmers and farmers’ organisations have made tactical alliances with politicians and political events, such because the PAN, as a option to put stress on the federal authorities to decide to a dialogue.

He confused, nonetheless, that “we’re united, however not in every others’ pockets”.

In a transfer that some speculated was an try to divide opposition to the federal authorities, a “dialogue desk” was agreed on between the federal authorities and mayors from 10 Chihuahua municipalities on September 21.

Mexico”s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador stated final month that he would ‘cleanse’ Conagua, the water regulator, amid corruption allegations [File: Henry Romero/Reuters]

The ten mayors, nonetheless, have been all from the PRI. Notably absent was the PAN governor of Chihuahua, Javier Corral.

In an indication of the deepening acrimony between the Lopez Obrador authorities in Mexico Metropolis and Chihuahua’s state authorities, Corral accused the federal authorities of withdrawing the safety cooperation of the military and federal police within the state.

He wrote on Twitter that the transfer was retribution for the scenario at La Boquilla.

US-Mexico relations

In the meantime, on September 24, Lopez Obrador introduced a “cleaning” of Conagua, saying the state had been “taken over” by the PAN. He additionally warned that it was “very irresponsible” to place Mexico’s relationship with the US in danger for the sake of “desirous to win an election in a state”.

Native media lately reported that the Mexican authorities is negotiating with the US to attempt to discover a manner of assembly its contractual obligations by taking water from different dams.

The US presidential election is simply over per week after the treaty deadline of October 24 and Lopez Obrador is very unlikely to permit the possibly unfavorable penalties of a missed water switch.

Whereas US President Donald Trump has not weighed in on the present water disaster in Chihuahua, Texas Governor Greg Abbott on September 15 wrote to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asking for his help to ensure Mexico’s compliance.

With a seamless drought, Chihuahua state elections subsequent yr and a political local weather that’s more and more polarised in each Mexico and the US, the fallout from Chihuahua’s water disaster might be important.

“There must be dialogue,” Jones instructed Al Jazeera, “nevertheless it ought to have been began a very long time prior to now.”