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Mexico’s Water Dispute With the U.S. Is a Symptom of Its Governance Crisis

Via World Politics Review, commentary on US / Mexico water tensions:

For nearly 75 years, the United States and Mexico have transferred giant quantities of water to each other each year as part of a system set up to ensure the equitable sharing of water sheds that straddle their border. The terms and obligations are clearly laid out in a treaty the two sides signed in 1944: The U.S. sends 489 billion gallons of water southward via the Colorado River, and Mexico allocates 114 billion gallons northward, from the Rio Grande and the Rio Conchos. To deal with the technical aspects of this water exchange and settle any issues, the two countries created the El Paso-based International Boundary and Water Commission and its Mexican counterpart, the Comision Internacional de Limites y Aguas, located across the Rio Grande, in Ciudad Juarez.

Most experts consider the treaty fair, and the joint river commission is widely seen as a model of effective bilateral cooperation. Problems do arise occasionally though, primarily due to severe droughts, which can cause Mexico to fall behind on its water payments, as it has this year. Pressured by the U.S. to pay a shortfall of around 100 billion gallons of water by Oct. 24, the Mexican government took control of three dams in northern Chihuahua state this summer, with the intention of opening the flood gates to pay its water debt to the U.S. as stipulated in the 1944 treaty.

But farmers in Chihuahua, already suffering from a bad drought this year, view the water reserves as insurance against the possibility of more dry conditions in 2021. The farmers took matters into their own hands this summer to try to prevent the water from being released, even clashing periodically with the Mexican National Guard, a force originally created to confront organized crime.

Then, on Sept. 8, a group of thousands of farmers swarmed two dams that contain most of the water reserves for the agricultural sector in Chihuahua, overrunning the National Guard and closing the floodgates. At least one person was killed by soldiers during the unrest. Despite sending reinforcements, the Mexican government has yet to retake control of the dams, especially the large La Boquilla dam. As of this writing, troops seem to be amassing just outside the La Boquilla dam, readying another attempt to dislodge the farmers.

The standoff has come to symbolize three overlapping and worsening crises facing Mexico, which also affect the United States. The first crisis has to do with water management and the effects of climate change on the current treaty system. The second is Mexico’s enduring problem with corruption, including over water management. And the third is Mexico’s deepening governance crisis.

Conflict over water near the U.S.-Mexico border is likely to increase in the future. The U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico are set to experience some of the most pernicious effects of climate change, including warming temperatures, significant and prolonged droughts, and declines in river flows. These challenges exacerbate certain deficiencies in the 1944 treaty. For example, the pact does not include adequate rules for rationing water under extreme drought, for dealing with underground water deposits, or for coping with border sanitation issues, such as sewage discharges. As water becomes scarcer, these issues will increase tensions between the U.S. and Mexico and make it harder for them to meet their treaty obligations. Ultimately, the two countries may need to renegotiate the treaty and expand its scope to account for recent developments.

A map showing the river sheds that straddle the U.S.-Mexico border.
Source: Congressional Research Service

There have also been concerning reports of corruption in Mexico’s water management system. Marisela Terrazas, a member of the Chihuahua state legislature, explained to me in an interview that water is often siphoned off from the reservoirs and water flows by corrupt brokers who pay off functionaries of Mexico’s National Water Commission, known as CONAGUA. The brokers then sell that water to desperate farmers who could not otherwise obtain it, making a handsome but illegal profit. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, has referred to this as water huachicoleo, a term normally used to describe fuel theft from oil and gas pipelines.

This practice is made possible by the high demand for water in Chihuahua, which becomes immediately clear simply by driving through the southeastern part of the state. Beer breweries are common, and the roads are lined with miles and miles of pecan groves, all of which require inordinate amounts of water to function—in land that has been reclaimed from the desert.

CONAGUA’s director, Blanca Jimenez, is widely regarded as a competent bureaucrat, but she needs to do more to address the apparently widespread practice of water theft abetted by her agency. If CONAGUA does not start fighting corruption within its ranks, Mexico’s water management system will remain hugely inefficient and the dimensions of its own water problems opaque, risking its ability to meet its treaty obligations.

More broadly, the standoff in Chihuahua has also become a symbol of Mexico’s growing governance crisis. The staunchly anti-establishment AMLO has maintained high levels of public support since taking office in December 2018, but Mexican politics has become more fractious and less conducive to consensus-building during his presidency. The fight over water is a case in point; it has been turned into a proxy conflict between the president and the opposition. After Chihuahua’s conservative governor, Javier Corral of the opposition National Action Party, blamed National Guard troops for escalating tensions with the farmers, AMLO’s administration accused him of being part of “a network of politicians hoarding water and alleged criminals.” What should have been a technical issue, subject to data-driven negotiations, was thus needlessly politicized. The war of words has essentially shattered any hope of dialogue between the federal government and opposition governors led by Corral.

The U.S. and Mexico have been able to resolve water disputes bilaterally in the past. This time, however, the situation devolved into a conflict between Mexican farmers and the National Guard, and between the federal government of Mexico and the state of Chihuahua. It has become a sign of AMLO’s inability to deal with the opposition through dialogue.

In order to prevent these internal conflicts from spinning further out of control, the U.S. must strive to understand them, as well as the interlocking challenges Mexico faces with regard to climate change, the rule of law and the need for a new political consensus. Rather than apply more pressure on Mexico to seize control of its dams and release the water, officials in Washington and Texas should work together with their neighbors to address these challenges together and devise a more effective water-sharing system. The alternative is more conflict at all levels.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 10th, 2020 at 2:55 pm and is filed under Colorado River, Mexico, United States.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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