The waters of the Rio Grande, another diplomatic front between the United States and Mexico

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The division of the border waters between Mexico and the United States has opened a new diplomatic front between the two neighbors. Last weekend, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, received a letter from the governor of Texas asking for a tough hand with Mexico to comply with the volume of water it must deliver, according to a 1944 binational treaty by which both countries established a water exchange. A week earlier, a group of farmers harshly protested the lack of water for their crops and took control of the La Boquilla dam in Chihuahua by force. The clashes with the National Guard resulted in at least two dead and several wounded. The conflict thus climbs a new step and enters fully into the political arena, with the presidential elections in the United States on the near horizon.

Along the more than 3,000 kilometers of border, Mexico and the United States share two great rivers, the Colorado, to the west; and the Bravo, to the east. He treaty of 1944 regulates the rights and obligations of both neighbors. The United States must deliver 1.8 billion cubic meters of water from the Colorado River each year in exchange for the Mexican government giving up 2.2 billion cubic meters of the Rio Grande every five years. Traditionally, Mexico has had problems meeting its commitments on time, accumulating delays and debts without major consequences from the US Administration. Until now.

After inheriting the debt accumulated during the end of the administration of Felipe Calderón and the mandate of Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico must deliver some 319 million cubic meters to the United States before October 24. And this time, the neighbor to the north is tightening the nuts. And even before the letter from the Republican governor of Texas to Pompeo, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had shown between the lines that the pressure is increasing as the demands of Mexican farmers themselves join.

In July, the demands of Chihuahua producers were already increasing. The Government sent the National Guard and the Mexican president promised to guarantee water for his crops this year. In addition, López Obrador slipped the importance of not entering into any diplomatic war with Washington: “We have to fulfill the agreement in October, in November there are the elections in the United States. If one takes the flag that we do not comply with the agreements, they begin to demand reprisals and close the border with tariffs ”.

The odds that Trump will force a tightening of the terms of the treaty are remote. The legal text itself establishes that the next deadline for its review is 2026. But what can happen is that it uses the border waters conflict as a new electoral battering ram, stirring up the specter of victimhood and wielding punishments in the form of tariffs. In addition, Texas is one of their voting barns and, specifically, the white businessmen of the southern US countryside.

The growing tension in Chihuahua also has a key reading of national politics. López Obrador has accused that behind the disturbances of local producers is the state governor, Javier Corral, of the right-wing PAN. “The northern area is PAN and this encourages party interests to mix. But it cannot be denied that there is a problem and a legitimate concern on the part of Chihuahuan agricultural producers, ”says Víctor Quintana, a researcher at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez.

Among the four northern states that must cede waters from the Rio Grande, Chihuahua is the only one that in turn does not receive US water from the Colorado River. In addition, it is responsible for contributing more than half of the total volume in a context of harsh drought – this summer has registered temperatures of up to 45 degrees Celsius – because it has the largest tributary of the Bravo, the Conchos River. “This basin is particularly vulnerable due to the serious problems of deforestation caused by the growth of urban planning. In 1944 there was no growth in cities like the current one, nor, above all, the pressure of climate change ”, points out Helena Cotler, a researcher at the Geo center, dependent on Conacyt. According to a recent report from its study center, the Conchos river basin will suffer, in the conservative scenario, an increase in air temperature of two degrees Celsius towards the end of the 21st century, as well as an increase in potential evaporation of up to one 7%.

Chihuahuan producers fear not so much for this year’s crops, since the president guaranteed their water supply during this season, but for those of the coming years. The National Guard, provisionally in charge of the three reservoirs in the area, is opening the doors of the dams to transfer the water to the United States as agreed. “This is generating a lot of nervousness among producers because deliveries have never been made like this, but rather through rainwater. They fear future shortages, in addition to stating that they have already paid their fee but that Conagua [la entidad federal responsable] It has not used that water to load the debt with the United States, but for irrigated crops in Tamaulipas ”, adds Quintana.

If the diplomatic pressure continues to increase, border waters could become a new headache for Mexico, as happened last summer with migratory flows, when Trump managed to get his neighbor to militarize the border in exchange for the United States withdrawing the threat. to impose tariffs. The electoral battle for the White House is approaching and Mexico is already preparing to try to cushion the blows that will come from the Republican side. The last threat was last Wednesday, when Trump threatened to sanction Mexico if it does not “do more” in the fight with drug trafficking.

The Mexican president thus continues with his policy of open arms towards Trump as a measure to contain the threat that the United States will recover the strategy of the carrot and stick. “Since Donald Trump’s arrival at the White House in 2016, the demands within the Administration for tougher terms of the 1944 treaty have been growing. To the point that right now they have transcended the local sphere and have already become an electoral issue just like migration or illegal traffic on the border ”, points out Jesús Gallegos Overa, professor at the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the UNAM.

The water reserves in international dams in Mexico are at historical lows according to data from the International Limits and Waters Commission (CILA). Many voices anticipate that Mexico will not be able to fulfill its delivery duties on October 24. The most likely scenario seems to be a deferral of payment, a variant allowed in the Agreement that has already happened on other occasions and that concentrates many of the complaints from the US side. We will also have to wait to confirm whether Trump, bound by legal deadlines, takes out the commercial bazooka again to pressure his neighbor and get a cut in election time.


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