A water war is looming between Mexico and the US. Neither side will win

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As tensions simmer between the United States and Mexico, it’s not about migration, but water. A long-standing treaty, dating back to 1944, governs the sharing of waters from the Colorado River and the Rio Grande. However, severe drought and scorching temperatures have put Mexico behind in deliveries, raising concerns about its ability to meet its obligations.

Farmers in South Texas are particularly affected, struggling with a lack of rainfall. They claim that Mexico’s failure to deliver water is pushing them into crisis, threatening the future of farming in the region. Some politicians argue that they cannot provide what they don’t have, leaving many farmers in limbo.

The situation underscores the immense challenges of sharing dwindling water resources in a hotter and drier world. The Rio Grande River, which stretches 1,900 miles from Colorado to Mexico’s Gulf Coast, is one of North America’s longest rivers. Yet, years of over-extraction and climate change have taken a toll on its flows.

The treaty requires Mexico to send 1.75 million acre-feet of water to the US every five years from the Rio Grande, while the US sends 1.5 million acre-feet of water to Mexico from the Colorado River annually. However, Mexico has fallen far behind in its obligations, with only a year’s worth of water delivered so far.

Experts caution against relying on short-term solutions like praying for rain, as this approach is risky and does not address the long-term problem. The current drought-stricken cycle ends in October 2025, leaving many wondering what the future holds for this critical water resource.

The US-Mexico treaty was designed based on data from the early 20th century, assuming short-term droughts but not multi-year megadroughts. Mexico’s two previous five-year cycles ended in deficit, leading to heightened political tensions between the two countries. This time, the situation is more severe due to the worsening water crisis.

A confluence of factors has contributed to this crisis, including population growth, urbanization, and climate change. The steady drumbeat of the climate crisis fuels more frequent and prolonged heat and drought, making it challenging for treaties designed in a stable climate to be enforced today.

As the US-Mexico border dispute simmers, it’s clear that finding a solution will require a collaborative effort from both sides to navigate the complex issues surrounding water sharing in this hotter and drier world.

The water crisis along the US-Mexico border is causing pain on both sides of the fence. The Rio Grande River, which straddles the border, has seen its reservoirs drop to historic lows, leaving farmers and residents struggling for a vital resource.

In Texas, farmers are facing dire circumstances due to low water deliveries from Mexico and a severe drought in the region. “Farmers in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas are either out of water or running out of water quickly,” said Brian Jones, a farmer who grows irrigated cotton, corn, sorghum, and soybeans.

The situation is particularly dire for the sugar industry, which has been severely impacted by Mexico’s failure to deliver on its water-sharing obligations. The state’s only sugar mill shut down in February after more than 50 years of operation, leaving over 500 workers without jobs.

Some state leaders are calling for punitive measures against Mexico, but experts warn that a full renegotiation of the 80-year-old water- sharing agreements is unlikely. Instead, amendments can be made through a “minute” process, which can address issues such as data-sharing and water delivery changes.

Mexico itself is facing its most extensive and severe drought since 2011, affecting nearly 90% of the country. Water has become an increasingly fraught topic, with fears that cities like Mexico City could run out of water in what’s being called a “day zero.”

The situation is particularly dire in northern Mexico, where the entire state of Chihuahua has been in drought since February. “Not a single drop of rain has fallen in more than eight months,” said Salvador Alcántar, a congressman in Chihuahua. “Climate change is here to stay, we have to learn to deal with it.”

The conflict over water sharing is causing pain on both sides of the border, and experts warn that it’s not just a matter of changing the treaty, but also understanding the reliance that has been developed on a vital resource.

As Mexico faces its most severe drought since 2011, experts are emphasizing the need for long-term solutions to address water scarcity rather than relying solely on tropical storms or hurricanes.

While a strong storm season could bring some relief, UNAM’s Victor Magaña Rueda warns that “totally exposing” Mexico to nature’s whims would be unwise. Instead, he advocates for building drought resilience and promoting water conservation and efficiency measures in the short term.

Giner, an expert on the US-Mexico water treaty, agrees that the current situation is challenging. “If there’s no water to distribute, there’s nothing we can do,” she said. However, she remains optimistic about finding solutions through cooperation between the two nations.

The upcoming election of a new president in Mexico, Claudia Sheinbaum, brings hope for prioritizing water issues on the national agenda. Meanwhile, the US could also be facing a new administration in 2025, which may complicate relations and negotiations.

Rueda emphasizes that water sharing agreements must adapt to the changing climate. “We’re suffering the same thing because of climate change,” she said. Instead of viewing water as a zero-sum game where one party’s gain is contingent on the other’s loss, both sides should recognize their shared struggles and work together.

“This way, you start eliminating that zero-sum game, you start saying we’re both losing essentially. Nobody’s actually winning,” Rueda concluded.

Source: CNN