A treaty signed in 1944 between Mexico and the United States is behind the fact that thousands of people have been on the warpath for months on the Mexican side of the border.
The agreement regulates how the two countries must share the water of the Rio Grande and Colorado rivers, which are part of the territorial limit between the two.
The government of Mexico has just over a month to deliver its share to its northern neighbor. For this, he assures that he must use the one stored in the La Boquilla dam, in the state of Chihuahua, in the north of the country.
And although it affirms that the supply is guaranteed for the population, the farmers in the area refuse to extract because they assure that it would leave them without enough resources to be able to cultivate after having suffered a pronounced drought.
Tension increased at a dizzying pace in the last week with serious clashes between members of the National Guard and peasants, who have since taken over the dam to prevent the vent.
A woman farmer was killed on September 8 after participating in the protests. According to witnesses, she was hit by shots from national guards. The State Prosecutor’s Office investigates what happened.
The Mexican president himself, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, blamed “political groups” for the protests and expressed his concern that this conflict would prevent compliance with the treaty signed with the United States and for what their reaction could be.
In fact, the president assured this Thursday that the governor of Texas – a border state with Chihuahua – sent a letter to the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, “claiming that Mexico is not complying with the payment of water and making some proposals “.
The governor of Chihuahua, Javier Corral, for his part accused the National Water Commission (Conagua) of hiding those who “take advantage in an irregular way” from within the body by stealing water from the area, a practice that has already been baptized as “huachicoleo de agua” or “aguachicoleo”.
Meanwhile, several deputies from Chihuahua consider precisely that the treaty in question is the basis of the problem and announced that they will go to international courts to request that the agreement be reviewed and thus be able to guarantee the water supply to the state’s producers.
What does the treaty say?
In some way, it could be said that the so-called International Water Distribution Treaty signed by Mexico and the US in 1944 has its origin in another agreement reached almost a century earlier.
The Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Definitive Settlement (better known as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo), signed in 1848 at the end of the war between the two countries initiated by the Texas dispute, was the one that established that Mexico would yield to the United States. more than half of its territory back then.
But in addition, it also established the border between the two countries on the Rio Grande – known as the Rio Grande by the Americans – and whose waters are today the center of the conflict in Chihuahua.
The strategic location of the river required a distribution plan between both actors. After years of negotiation and several failed proposals, Mexico and the United States signed the treaty currently in force in Washington.
According to the agreement, Mexico keeps two thirds of the main stream of the Bravo and cedes the rest to its neighbor, which may not be less than about 432 million cubic meters (Mm3) per year.
As a counterpart, the US cedes to Mexico every year 1,850 Mm3 of the Colorado River, which is mostly on US soil but also passes through the border between the two countries until it empties into the Gulf of California, between the Mexican states of Baja California and Sonora.
“It is a treaty that was not easy to negotiate and in which many engineering projections had to be made because it defines the limits between the two countries and this distribution of the waters,” Roberto Velasco, general director for North America from the Mexican government.
It also establishes that the International Boundary and Water Commission (CILA), a binational body, is in charge of resolving possible differences in terms of boundaries.
The pact stipulates that the US will comply with its water delivery every year, while Mexico may do so in five-year periods.
“It is one of the best agreements that have been reached in history in relation to the United States,” López Obrador said last week.
But the current five-year period ends on October 24 and, according to the Mexican government, it still lacks 378 Mm3 of water to be able to fulfill its part of the agreement.
What is the current situation?
The center of the conflict is in the La Boquilla dam of the Conchos River, the largest tributary of the Bravo of the six tributaries that have to provide water to comply with the treaty.
According to the farmers, venting liquid from this point would compromise their irrigation capacity and seriously endanger the future of some 20,000 families who live off the fields in the region.
“In August we had the driest month in the last 90 years, there is no water. We cannot be the only semi-desert state that exports water with an average annual rainfall of 250 mm,” says Mundo Salvador Alcantar, president of the Association. of Irrigation Users of Chihuahua.
Conagua assured that the irrigation for the 2019-2020 agricultural cycle has already been guaranteed and that only 100 Mm3 of the La Boquilla dam remains to be delivered to the peasants, which it criticizes cannot be completed due to the taking of the facilities.
According to official data, this dam had 920Mm3 of stored water on September 16. It is just over 3 2 % of its maximum capacity.
For the farmers, the current situation shows that it will be extremely difficult to guarantee that there can be enough water for next year’s agricultural cycle and they believe that Chihuahua “has done more than its share” so that Mexico can fulfill its international commitment. .
“We dispensed with one of the two crops that we used to have per cycle and rights of more than 7,000 hectares were also sold. We did it so that the dams work like a piggy bank, to take care of the little water that there is now, or we will not plant a single meter next year, “ says Alcantar.
Velasco acknowledges that 2020 has been a dry year, but the government is confident that it will continue to rain and assures that some 780 Mm3 stored “is adequate availability” to guarantee the next irrigation cycle.
“They could tell us that the next 40 cycles have to be guaranteed, but the reality is that it doesn’t work like that except with annual concessions,” he replies.
What alternatives are there to comply with the treaty?
Farmers do not understand why it is necessary to “pay in advance” and propose as an alternative to wait until the end of October to wait for possible water runoff and then evaluate the amount due to the US.
In case there is a deficit on the part of Mexico, they propose that the water be extracted from one of the international dams built and managed by both countries.
“Why just the Conchos? There are other tributaries that must provide water to comply with the treaty assignments, and they just turn to see Chihuahua,” criticizes Alcantar.
But after Mexico closed the last five-year period owing water that it had to return later, Velasco assures that the rules agreed between the two international sections of CILA do not allow the country to end a period with debt again.
Regarding the proposal that international dams provide the missing water, Velasco describes it as “irresponsible”, since they are used mainly for human consumption in cities in northern Mexico, and the amount currently stored makes it “very difficult” use it for other purposes.
According to government figures, the Conchos river should contribute 54% of the water contemplated in the treaty, although so far this cycle has only contributed 44%.
“In Chihuahua what has to be loaded is being loaded. Right now, all the attention is on them because the rest of the tributaries have already done their part,” says Velasco.
How could the US react?
The confrontation has escalated to the top of the political sphere in Mexico.
Both the governor of Chihuahua and mayors in the area showed their support for farmers, while President López Obrador has made no secret of his concern about the possible consequences of the country not complying with the agreement.
“It is very delicate that in these 45 days of the campaign (electoral in the US) it will be used that we are not complying with the treaty and unilateral measures are taken that affect Mexico,” he warned days ago.
The president insisted on asking for the confidence of the Chihuahua farmers. “They are not going to run out of water. If not, (…) I would speak to President Trump to say: ‘You know what? Give us an extension, help us with this because we are not going to be able to fulfill the commitment.’
Although he acknowledges that no formal warning has been received from the United States in the event that Mexico does not deliver its share, Velasco also agrees that the electoral campaign is causing a more tense climate in the neighboring country against which precautions must be taken.
He assures that what they intend to avoid is that Washington could impose sanctions in response, “that they begin to tighten commercial flows or establish tariffs on merchandise from Chihuahua.”
“They have expressed their concern that the government of Chihuahua, which is also a neighbor of Texas and its main partner, is not cooperating to find a solution in something that is in the interest of both countries,” reveals the Foreign Ministry official Mexican.
Alencar rejects that the federal government uses this possible reaction as a measure of pressure to allow the extraction of water from the Nozzle.
“That they do not try to scare us by saying that if it is not complied with, trade relations between the two countries will be suspended. For it to be paid, there must be a demand from the US, and I have not seen any diplomatic note where they are. asking for water, “he replies.
Should the treaty be reformed?
Reforming or updating the conditions of a treaty that was signed 76 years ago could be one of the options to try to solve this conflict.
But Alencar believes that there are sufficient alternatives to avoid reaching that point. And the Mexican government does not support the idea either, considering that both the agreed liters of water and the possibility of delivering its share every five years instead of annually are advantages that the country should not lose.
Another of the few things that both parties agree on is when they claim to be open to dialogue to reach an agreement, although the peasants criticize that the federal government is not meeting their demands.
“We are open, but not to a dialogue that seeks to put the interest of some groups over others, but has its center in the national interest (…). The water is not from Chihuahua or from a group of people, it is from a cross-border river, “recalls Velasco.
The spokesman for the farmers warns for his part of what his greatest fear is if, as expected, next year they do not have enough water for irrigation.
“In 1995 the dams were not opened to sow and there was a massive migration from our municipalities. The men of productive age left to support the family, it was a strong family disintegration that we are still suffering,” he recalls.
“And that is the social problem that we can see again if we do not sow next year.”