North America

Mexico: Water Rift Strains U.S. Relations

Escalating U.S. demands for Mexican compliance with a 1944 treaty governing water rights in the Rio Grande basin have placed President Vicente Fox in a tight corner as he struggles to placate Washington while quelling a nascent political rebellion. “The northern border region of Mexico, as a result of a decade of droughts, lacks sufficient water resources not only to cover its (treaty) debt, but even to satisfy regional domestic consumption,” observed El Universal (May 27).

A decision by the Fox government to order an increase in the release of scarce water supplies from the Río Conchos watershed in Chihuahua would risk collapse of the agricultural economy in northern Mexico and a showdown between state and federal authorities that could ignite a “crisis of governability,” El Universal cautioned.

At issue is a huge cumulative shortfall in Conchos watershed flows into the Rio Grande (Río Bravo in Mexico) over the past decade that has imposed a growing strain on agricultural production downriver across a swath of southern Texas as well as the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. In May, President Bush personally appealed to Fox for a firm commitment to comply with treaty provisions that call for settlement of outstanding water supply “debts” by September.

“While President Fox at first...promised to settle the debt, his government has been moderating that stance as it has recognized that things are more complicated,” La Jornada noted  (June 7). As the Rio Grande water dispute has become a central issue in this year’s Texas gubernatorial campaign, the affair “could become an episode of great difficulty in bilateral relations, even displacing trade and immigration conflicts in importance and transcendence,” La Jornada wrote.

Luciano Campos and Alejandro Gutiérrez reported in Proceso (May 26) that several of the main reservoirs in Chihuahua’s Río Conchos watershed have fallen to around one-quarter of capacity. Contrary to U.S. claims that agricultural and other diversions in Chihuahua account for much of the shortfall in water release to the Rio Grande basin, “A tour of irrigation zones along the border of Chihuahua state demonstrates...that the prolonged drought is devastating crops,” Campos and Gutiérrez wrote. State officials cite estimated 10-fold increases in population and 20-fold in urban, agricultural, and industrial water use since 1944 as justification for demanding renegotiation of the treaty.

Víctor Quintana lamented in La Jornada (June 3) that President Fox “must be very close to the White House and very far from...the farmers and ranchers of northern Mexico” to commit additional water resources...without regard to the impact on the drought-stricken region.

“An urgent program of forestry protection, soil conservation, pasture regeneration, and water recovery” is needed on both sides of the border, Quintana argued, to enhance the efficiency of water delivery and usage throughout the Rio Grande basin.