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Profligate Water Use in the U.S. Is Fueling the Flight of Mexicans Across the Border

Green lawns, swimming pools, and corporate farms in the desert Southwest are taking their toll on our neighbors to the south.

By Jo-Shing Yang, AlterNet. November 11, 2008.

On October 21, 2008, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne inaugurated the ground breaking of the new Imperial Valley water reservoir near the U.S.-Mexico border. The 500-acre $172.2-million reservoir, to be completed in August 2010, will store surplus Colorado River water for use by coastal Southern California, southern Nevada, and central Arizona; previously this water had been flowing to Mexico and used by its cities and thousands of Mexican farmers.

This reservoir, along with the $250 million project to line a 23-mile stretch of the All-American Canal, also in the Imperial Valley, with concrete to prevent water seepage to an underground aquifer, Mexicali Valley aquifer, which is used currently by Mexican cities and farmers, means that there will be substantially less water from the Colorado River and dire consequences for Mexico.

An estimated 67,000 acre-feet of water seeps from the canal annually. In 2006, the Mexican government and two California environmental groups filed a lawsuit to stop the canal-lining project-ultimately unsuccessful. This captured seepage water will be sent to San Diego for municipal use. Now, Mexico has even less water to use, although theoretically it will still get its share of water of 1.5 million acre-feet under the 1944 treaty. The new Imperial Valley reservoir and the All-American Canal lining are two nails in the coffin of Mexico’s water future. The triumphant U.S. water and irrigation districts, the winners of the two latest battles in the U.S.-Mexico water wars, are gloating over their victory in capturing the last drops of water in the Colorado River before they reach Mexico. Now, in the drought-stricken southwest, they can continue to irrigate vast corporate farms planted with thirsty crops, hose millions of suburban lawns, sprinkle golf courses, and fill tens of thousands of private swimming pools.

The losers are, naturally, poor Mexican peasants and subsistence farmers. Drought-induced social strains are the hardest for the most vulnerable people in Mexico and will further fuel illegal migration to the United States.

The problem with U.S. water negotiators is that they do not see water as a basic human right: they see water as a commodity in this war over natural resources; this view is reinforced by a decade-long catastrophic drought in the Colorado River Basin and the entire region of southwestern United States and northern Mexico. There are other nails, of course, in the coffin of Mexico’s water future: a mega-drought induced by global climate disruptions; chronic lack of funding for water infrastructure and utilities throughout the country; rapid development and population growth; increasing pollution; water privatization and inequality in water allocation (i.e., the wealthy-such as agribusiness, cattle ranchers, and mining corporations-get about 70 percent of water for virtually nothing, while the poor must buy costly water from trucks and often die of waterborne diseases); and in general, governmental corruption, incompetence, infighting, and mismanagement of water.

As more than 85 percent of Mexico is arid or semi-arid, Mexico’s government considers deforestation and the lack of clean water two national security issues, and before he left office its former president Vicente Fox repeatedly said that water is a national security issue. In the past year, Mexico’s poor have had to contend with skyrocketing food prices, general inflation (which also raised the price of water they must buy from water-delivery trucks driving long distances), a calamitous drought, rising unemployment, and increasing hunger and malnourishment.

The poor have staged street protests-the so-called tortilla riots-since January 2007 when tens of thousands of Mexicans marched to protest against a 50 percent price hike of corn tortillas. Now the subsistence farmers have even less water to irrigate their crops, which means decreased harvests and more expensive food staples further out of reach of the urban poor; but the livelihood of those living on subsistence farming will be affected as well by drought and water scarcity and higher food prices for the food they cannot grow and must buy themselves. Thus, this water scarcity and water insecurity is triggering food insecurity in Mexico, which has implications for its national security.

Global Climate Disruptions and Extreme Drought in Mexico and Southwestern United States

Like the southwestern United States, which has been suffering from a decade-long drought which began in 1998, northern Mexico also has been afflicted by a punishing drought since 1992. This year, the extreme drought in Mexico continues, unrelenting. Climate scientists have predicted that the entire region from southwestern United States to north-central Mexico will be hit especially hard by global climate change and its associated extreme weather disruptions and extreme droughts. For example, researchers from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography forecasted that Lake Mead will be empty by 2021 at the current rate of use. According to a United Nations-commissioned report published in August 2008, there will be more increased dry periods and significant drought hazards in most of Mexico and Central America due to global climate disruptions.

Mexico’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Chapala, in the state of Jalisco, has been steadily shrinking since the 1970s. Scientists said that the lake has lost approximately 80 percent of its water due to rapid development in central Mexico. Researchers at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory have linked the mega-drought to the impacts of NAFTA and water privatization in Mexico in a February 2008 study:

The Mexican drought has coincided with major changes in the Mexican economy and agriculture triggered by the North American Free Trade Agreement and moves to privatize water supply in much of Mexico. The combination of drought and economic change has created serious social impacts in Mexico with impacts on internal and cross-border migration. Both the southwestern United States and Mexico are robustly projected by climate models to dry in the current century intensifying social impacts in Mexico where water resources are already stretched.

Scholars of climate and water resources have cited stories of poor farmers who find it more difficult to tap into groundwater to irrigate their subsistence crops using traditional, manual techniques due to a combination of factors: deforestation, drought, over-withdrawal of water by cities, and over-pumping of water by agribusiness and large ranchers. In Tamaulipas (the Mexican border state across from the Lower Rio Grande River Valley), there were news reports of farmers who have not been able to irrigate their crops since 1996 and have had to switch from the lucrative corn crop to sorghum. In other words, the drought and water scarcity have exacerbated Mexico’s food crisis for the urban poor and for medium-size and small subsistence farmers. According to Los Angeles Times, Interior Secretary Kempthorne said he “remained hopeful that the two countries would find solutions to their common problem: drought.”

Unfortunately, with the construction of the new Imperial Valley reservoir and the lining of All-American Canal, it is difficult to imagine how the United States would work with Mexico to find solutions to their common drought problem. Are any of the powerful water districts from Las Vegas to San Diego offering to send additional water to Mexico? Or has any of the seven states volunteered to help rebuild Mexico’s crumbling water infrastructure or help its small and medium-size farmers invest in water-conserving irrigation equipment?

For the past eight years, the Bush administration has not placed climate change and finding solutions to cope with extreme climate disruptions on of its list of priorities, nor has upgrading its domestic infrastructure been a priority: instead, fighting the war on terror and the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were its priorities.

What Really Drove Mexico’s Food Crisis

Several factors have contributed to Mexico’s food crisis and led to food riots (the “tortilla riots”), although there were no food shortages and no decreases in food production in the country, including the following:

* Neoliberal policies and NAFTA’s destructive impacts on Mexico’s agriculture

* Biofuel and ethanol production leading to soaring corn prices

* Commodities speculation by index funds and hedge funds

* Hoarding, speculation, and market consolidation by multinational food corporations

NAFTA. Millions of Mexico’s medium-size and small farmers went out of business when they couldn’t compete with much cheaper, U.S. government-subsidized agricultural exports to Mexico at zero or low duty (in fact, U.S. taxpayers directly subsidized corn in the U.S. to the tune of $8.9 billion in 2005).

According to a 2003 Carnegie Endowment report, at least 1.3 million farmers were displaced by NAFTA and many of them eventually migrated (often illegally) to the United States in search of work. Farming accounts for approximately 23 percent of Mexico’s 100 million people. The result is that Mexico could not supply its internal food markets by itself-it must rely on imports from the United States. When prices of grains and food staples soared in the international commodity markets, Mexicans became hostages to the skyrocketing imported-food prices. Walden Bello wrote an excellent analysis of Mexico’s food crisis earlier this year.

Biofuels. A suppressed World Bank study completed in April 2008 revealed that at least 75 percent of recent escalating food prices can be attributed to biofuel production in the U.S. and Europe. Even the conservative think tank Council on Foreign Relations said that biofuels could starve the poor.

Speculation. Analysts have also attributed much of the sudden rise of food prices in the international market to Wall Street traders and speculators who speculated on oil and other commodities as a hedge against U.S. recession and a weak U.S. dollar.

Multinationals. Laura Carlsen wrote an in-depth analysis of Mexico’s food crisis in the middle of this year and attributed the steep food price hikes to four corporations’ hoarding and speculation to achieve consolidation (to drive out the small players) in the corn-flour market and to maximize speculative profiteering: the corn-tortilla cartel of Cargill, Maseca-ADM, Minsa-Arancia Corn Products International, and Agroinsa. But in most serious analyses of Mexico’s food crisis, water has not been mentioned as a factor. With worsening global climate disruptions, scientists have already predicted a potential 30 percent reduction in Mexico’s crop yield (UN’s IPCC 2007 report, citing a 2004 study published in peer-reviewed journal Global Environmental Change).

As neoliberal policies and NAFTA have decimated many small farmers in Mexico, more intense droughts attributable to global climate disruptions are expected to worsen Mexico’s food crisis and hunger among its chronically impoverished and most vulnerable groups. Mexico’s internal governmental corruption, in addition to its chronic inability to maintain and upgrade its crumbling water infrastructure, in the midst of the extreme drought will not spell relief for its farmers and poor alike.

Mexico’s Environmental Refugees and Water Refugees

California’s legal entitlement to Colorado River is only 4.4 million acre-feet (MAF) plus 50 percent of any declared surplus, based on 1922 Colorado River Compact, but in recent years, the state has used as much as 5.37 MAF annually. (One acre-foot is 326,000 gallons.) This additional water usage above the 1922 compact occurs in the context of a historic, decade-long drought in California and elsewhere in the U.S. southwest.

The severe water shortages have intersected with soaring migration of Mexicans into the United States in the past decade and food crises in Mexico in the past two years. Among other critical issues such as NAFTA and biofuels production, Americans who seriously want to address the issue of undocumented immigration from Mexico into the United States must fundamentally address global climate disruptions which led to extreme drought in Mexico, the issue of water privatization in Mexico, and revisit water allocation and U.S.-Mexico water treaties to include how both countries will find common solutions to unrelenting drought in the face of climate disruptions affecting the Colorado River and the Rio Grande. Unfortunately, the anti-immigration groups in the United States see these “illegals” as taking over American jobs, rather than as refugees of environmental stresses (the global climate disruptions, which the U.S. is a major culprit of because of its CO2 pollution), refugees of NAFTA and refugees of IMF- and World Bank-imposed neoliberal policies, refugees of U.S.-based multinational food corporations and cartels, and refugees of agribusiness and U.S. corn lobby’s biofuel-production mandate.

Underlying undocumented immigration is poverty and hunger, and one underlying factor of poverty is chronic and severe water shortages in Mexico. The new Imperial Valley reservoir and concrete-lining of All-American Canal will capture more river water and seepage water for California, Nevada, and Arizona, but they spell more water scarcity and further destruction for Mexico’s peasant farmers and Mexico’s northern cities. Battered by the decade-long drought, the small and medium-size Mexican farmers have had their water taken away by their own Mexican corporate agribusiness via water privatization, their domestic markets taken away by U.S. agribusiness via NAFTA, and now they have to contend with the powerful water districts in California, Nevada, and Arizona.

The next time Southern Californians water their lawns or central Arizonans fill their swimming pools or the Las Vegas casinos display their elaborate waterworks in those fancy fountains as if they are actually in Venice and not in a desert, they should think that they are taking water away from their neighbors across the border, those desperately poor peasant farmers in northern Mexico who rely on that water for their very survival and who now must depend on extremely costly water trucked over long distances. More children, elderly, and sick people-an untold number of Mexico’s poor and frail-may die of waterborne diseases.

Many of our so-called illegal aliens may be, in fact, water refugees or environmental refugees. With intensifying global climate disruptions, there will be more of this category of people in Mexico. Water is a basic human right, not a commodity to be fought over in resource wars. Given the historic nature of the mega-drought in the Colorado River Basin, seven states and Mexico will be holding more talks over the allocation of Colorado River.

But will water negotiators and water lobbyists representing U.S. stakeholders have compassion for the plight of Mexico’s poor and subsistence farmers? Or even have the foresight to see that it is in its long-term self-interest to help Mexico’s poor? Water is not only a human rights issue-it is also a national security issue for Mexico. With increasing hunger and malnutrition, poverty, and political instability in Mexico, this water crisis will worsen Mexico’s food crisis, leading to more food riots, which may just trigger a national security crisis for Mexico. Don’t think for a minute that the United States can be insulated from Mexico’s crises.

Jo-Shing Yang is the author of Ecological Planning, Design, & Engineering, Solving Global Water Crises: New Paradigms in Wastewater and Water Treatment, Small and On-Site Systems for Water Self-Sufficiency and Sustainability and can be reached at jsyang@alum.mit.edu.

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