Mexican Protests Over Water Treaty With U.S. Turn Violent

La Boquilla Dam Photo: Opción de Chihuahua

By Monica Medina and Natasha Lasky, ODP Contributing Writer

The Guardian reports that farmers in the Chihuahua region of Mexico are violently protesting their government’s exports of water to the U.S. in the midst of a major drought there.  The protests have been going on for months — the protesters even took over the La Boquilla dam — and the government responded by calling in their national guard to quell them. Under a treaty with the U.S., Mexico is obligated to transfer more than 289 million cubic meters from the Rio Grande Basin to the U.S. by October 24th — Mexico is behind on its water deliveries.  The U.S. in exchange is obligated to send Mexico water from the Colorado River, further to the west.  Mexican farmers claim they are defending their rights — that they own the water and it was never part of the Treaty.

Why this Matters: The climate crisis has been worsening droughts in both Mexico and the US, causing water to become an increasingly contested resource. Last year, the Mexican government agreed to give up some of the water the U.S. was to export south in order to help the American southwest maintain needed water in Lake Meade.  As a result, water barely flows in the Colorado River south of the Morelos Dam—in Mexico, the Colorado River only flows at 0.5 cubic meters per secondThis dispute could get ugly given the already contentious relationship between Mexico and the Trump Administration. 

An Obsolete Treaty?

Mexico and the US created a treaty in 1944, after a dispute over which country owns the water along the Rio Grande. Under the treaty, Mexico sends the US water from the Rio Grande Basin, and the US sends water to Mexico through the Colorado River. But because the treaty didn’t allocate any water for the Mexican leg of the Colorado River, the river has dried up, a devastating loss. Thus, the worsening drought conditions have made this agreement disadvantageous for Mexico.

However, the government refuses to renegotiate the treaty out of fear of retaliation from the US. Mexico’s president, Alfndrés Manuel López Obrador told the press that “It is very delicate that in these 45 days of the (US Electoral) campaign, if we do not comply with the treaty unilateral measures could be taken that affect Mexico.” These measures could include closing the border or increased tariffs on Mexican goods.

But there are risks to the U.S. by forcing water exports now when the drought is so bad in Mexico. In the mid-1990s, during a similar severe drought, many farmers in the region couldn’t make it and ended up migrating. Jesús Valenciano, a member of the legislature explained to The Guardian, “They went illegally to the United States – and never returned. People don’t want this to happen again. That’s why there’s such a conflict.”

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