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Water at the heart of tensions between Mexico and the United States

The takeover of a dam by Mexican farmers protesting against their country’s water debt to the United States, demonstrates the increased tension over water in the context of resource depletion.

A revealing conflict

Last October, farmers took control of the dam of Boquilla, located on the river Conchos, a large tributary of the Rio Grande. This occupation aimed to prevent the supply of water due by Mexico to the United States, in accordance with the treaties.

Following an extremely dry year, the farmers feared running short of water for their future harvests. Agriculture is central to these communities: their sole source of income is threatened without water. So, confronted by a situation they considered desperate, some of them decided to take up arms and oppose the National Guard, responsible for monitoring the dam since February.



The lower part of the Rio Grande basin, with the Conchos tributary

Tensions in the State of Chihuahua, responsible for the delivery to its American neighbour, have continued to increase over the last few months. Official buildings have been burned, cars destroyed and mainline rail tracks blocked. The claims of the demonstrators were spurned by the government, clearly adamant in honouring its commitments and little inclined to enter into a conflict with the American administration. The demonstrations led to the death of one of the protestors.

This conflict between the farmers and the government has brought to light several malfunctions in local water management: overconsumption by certain large farmers; a hyper-centralised system in which the voices of small farmers are not heard, aging infrastructures, etc. There is also a diplomatic dimension.

Old treaties and the need to adapt

The treaties between the United States and Mexico relating to water sharing are old, dating from 1906 and 1944, and concern two rivers, the Rio Grande and the Colorado.

These treaties stipulate the quantities of water that the United States owes to Mexico and vice-versa. The agreements incorporate instruments of flexibility, with the possibility for the United States to reduce deliveries in the case of drought, and functioning in 5-year cycles that allow Mexico to organise deliveries as a function of its capacities every year. However, Mexico has often overstepped the delays, igniting tensions in the country’s relations with the neighbouring state of Texas.

The crisis of this year finally resulted in a last-minute arrangement, just before the delivery date of 24 October. The new agreement stipulates an even more flexible schedule for Mexico and the authorisation to supply water from other sources, thereby reducing the pressure on Chihuahua, which will be aided by the United States in case of urgent need due to drought.

Despite the tension, the two governments have shown their capacity to cooperate efficiently. In the case of the Colorado, the renegotiations of 2012 and 2017 (Minute 319 and Minute 323) led to the development of innovative solutions to optimise resource sharing that also include environmental provisions.

However, higher temperatures, recurring droughts and growing demographic pressure around the rivers make new adaptations necessary on both sides of the border. These include changes in farming practices and more globally optimising water use, regulations, controlling the use of groundwater, and the introduction of consultation procedures on resource management.


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