Tensions between Mexico and the United States over water intensified this month as hundreds of Mexican farmers seized control of La Boquilla dam in protest over mandatory water releases.
The protesters came from parched Chihuahua state, nearly 100 square miles of land pressed against the U.S. border, where farmers are opposing the delivery of over 100 billion gallons of water to the United States by October 24.
The two countries have shared water from their border rivers for decades. According to a treaty signed in 1944, Mexico must deliver 114 billion gallons of water a year from the Rio Grande and its tributaries to the United States every five years, while the United States must release 489 billion gallons from the Colorado River to Mexico every year. With Mexico’s deadline just weeks away, the country is behind on its obligations for the second consecutive payment cycle.
For the past few months, amid increasing demands of payment from U.S. officials, unrest has bubbled under the surface in Mexico. If the water is sent up north, Chihuahua farmers say their harvests will suffer. Cotton, tomatoes, nuts, and other crops grown in the region need a lot of water, and production will be diminished for the next year without the supply.
The growing tension finally erupted earlier this month as 2,000 farmers and protesters took La Boquilla dam. The protest turned violent after the Mexican national guard was subsequently sent to put an end to the unrest. One woman was shot and others were injured, but the protesters, equipped with sticks and rocks, kept control on the dam. Generators at the dam have since been set on fire, leading to a massive power blackout in the region.
One local farmer explained to the Washington Post that they have tried dialogue, but nobody listened.
“There are thousands of farmers desperate for water. We have had no rain in months and there will be nothing left for the spring crops,” he said. “We are prepared to stay here and defend our rights to this water.”
Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who believes that there is enough water for the farmers even if the contract is fulfilled, announced that the country must pay the entire water debt. The president has also expressed concerns of retaliation from President Trump if Mexico fails to do so, such as closing the border or implementing new tariffs. López Obrador noted he may ask for clemency under the treaty or appeal to the United Nations for an official water audit.
With Mexican legislative elections coming up next summer, López Obrador sees other motives in the unrest. He claims the protests were engineered by his political opponents. Water rights will be a hot topic for citizens – especially in Chihuahua. Rainfall was down 30 percent this year, and as the climate continues to dry up Mexico, droughts throughout the area will only increase in severity. Water scarcity along with it.