Have you ever wondered what you would do without water? Water is indeed life. And without access to clean water, life’s hardships become further amplified. For many people in the US, water is a resource that they take for granted as it reliably flows through our fingers when we open a faucet in the kitchen or bathroom. Despite nearly 71% of the earth covered by water, large segments of people have little to no access to water. Recently, farmers in Chihuahua, Mexico, realized the precarious situation they found themselves in while enduring the drought at the same time that impending water payments were due because of a treaty with the United States that intended to promote water security in both countries. Mexican farmers faced with the harsh reality that they might not have water for their next harvest. The idea of this possibility prompted farmers and other citizens around the state to protest by blocking highways and showing up at dams. Tensions between the Mexican government and its constituents reached an all-time high when a protester was killed on September 8, 2020 by a Mexican national guard. So, how did the fight over water turn deadly?
To understand the severity of the issue, one must first go back to the ratification of the water treaty between the two countries. In 1944 The United States of America and Mexico signed the treaty “Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of The Rio Grande”. This treaty was created to ensure the water security of both countries through the sending of water between each country.1 Every year the United States sends nearly 489 billion gallons of water from the Colorado River to their neighbor Mexico. Unfortunately, Chihuahua receives little to no water from this treaty. Most of the water sent by the United States is delivered to bordering states such as Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas. Moreover, while they receive a small portion of the United States’ water payments, the state of Chihuahua sends more than half of the 114 billion gallons Mexico sends to the US each year. This has burdened the farmers of Chihuahua in recent years as they try to irrigate their own crops.2 Chihuahua is home to the biggest production of nuts and chilies in Mexico. In fact, Chihuahua produced 79,934 metric tons worth of pecans in 2015. This accounted for 65% of all pecan production in Mexico. when one considers that pecan trees require an estimated 34,000 gallons per year, it is easy to see why Chihuahua needs to retain as much water as they can in their dams for their farmers.3
Still, in 2020, Mexico fell behind in its payments to fulfill the requirements of the treaty of 1944. The country reportedly owes 345,600 acre-feet of water which is due by October 24th. This deficit accounts for 88% of what Mexico owes within the five-year quota. The President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, wants to make the payment and is relying heavily on Chihuahua to deliver most of that payment through its dams. As he sees it, it is in the best interest of the country to make the payment, since the United States sends more water to Mexico than Mexico sends back. The Mexican President also fears that President Trump will impose tariffs on Mexican products if Mexico fails to meet the requirements set forth by the treaty.4 However, Chihuahuan farmers know the effect the payment would have on their livelihoods. The transfer of the water Mexico owes to the United States would drastically decrease the water levels within Chihuahua, which would result in an exponential decrease in production as well. Fearing the future implications that the fulfillment of the treaty would have on their farms, Chihuahuan residents decided it was time to take a stand.5
Since the start of the year, Mexicans have been protesting the decision to pay for the treaty with Chihuahua’s limited water resources but the biggest protest came in September. In September, 2,000 farmers marched up to the dam name La Boquilla after hearing that the Mexican government had diverted increments of water to the United States instead of meeting the agreements it had with the farmers.6 Protesters were able to gain control of the dam when they overpowered law enforcement. As the news broke about the protest, the Mexican National Guard was deployed to La Boquilla Dam. Farmers first tried to dialogue and to preserve this resource, but they soon started feeling as though their needs were not being heard and escalating into violence. Confrontations between the two parties became more violent as farmers started setting fire on the dam’s infrastructure and damaging police vehicles in hopes that it would send a message to the government or gain more recognition from the media. Amidst all the commotion of the protest, a national guard shot and killed a woman protester and severely injured her significant other. Jessica Estrella Silva Zamarripa was the daughter of pecan farmers and the mother to three children. She was bravely fighting for her human right to water when she was killed. Her death shed a light on the issue of water distribution and has become a source of motivation from people all over Mexico.7
Meanwhile, President Andrès Manuel Lòpez Obrador attempted to downplay the protests and the severity of the issue. He went on record stating the protests had been staged by his political opposition.8 In a press conference, the President named 17 politicians who he says funded the fake protests. Andrès Manuel Lòpez Obrador has also attempted to gain more support from the Mexican population at large by stating he will request for the United Nations to complete a study to ensure that the United States is actually sending the amount of water that they say they are sending. Moreover, the President of Mexico assured his constituents that he will take matters into his own hands, saying he will personally appeal to the President of the United States to renegotiate the amount that Mexico owes or at least the terms by which that payment is made.9
With low rainfall and a large water debt payment looming, the Mexican government faced a dilemma. On one hand, the Mexican government wanted to keep good diplomatic ties with its neighboring country. Failure to make the payment could potentially result in sanctions on Mexican goods, which would affect more than the agricultural production of Chihuahua. On the other hand, if the payment of the water owed was made, President Andrès Manuel Lòpez Obrador could further alienate the people of Chihuahua. The transfer of the 345,600 acre-feet of water to the United States would leave Chihuahuans unable to water their crops for the following season. The President’s negligence regarding the issues provoked protests all over the State of Chihuahua against the violation of their human rights to preserving their water, their crops, and their lives.
Finally, on October 22, 2020, two days before the deadline for the water payment, Mexico and the United States reached an agreement that would account for the 345,600 acre-feet of water that was owed. The last-minute deal would hand over the rights of Mexico’s share of the water from the Amistad and Falcon dams to the United States. The terms of the agreement would reportedly spare Chihuahua with enough water for the next farming season. The deal would also implement “workgroups to analyze and develop water management tools to provide for increased reliability and predictability in Rio Grande water deliveries to users in the United States and Mexico”.10 While Mexico was able to fulfill the treaty requirements, it came at a huge cost to the country. Ultimately, the potential risk of water insecurity in the state of Chihuahua cost Mexico thousands of dollars worth of infrastructural damage plus the loss of life for one of its citizens, a young mother.