Mexico’s president says he has to repay a water debt to the U.S. or Trump might retaliate

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico —  President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Friday said Mexico has no choice but to pay its water debt to the U.S., or else face retaliation that could include new tariffs from the Trump administration, even as clashes continue over plans to release more of the precious liquid.

The populist López Obrador is in the tricky position of having to meet Mexico’s obligations under the shadow of the Trump administration while farmers, many of whom voted for  López Obrador, worry that they won’t have enough water for their crops if that happens.

“Unilateral measures could be taken that affect Mexico with the excuse that we are not meeting the treaty’s agreement,” López Obrador said Friday. “Like the creation of tariffs, taxes, on the products we sell and export to the U.S.”

The drought-stricken northern state of Chihuahua, across from Texas, has seen violent protests over the government’s decision to pay back water owed to the U.S. One protest led to a shootout on Sept. 8, leaving one dead and one wounded.

As a result of the treaty between the two nations over waters from the shared Rio Grande basin, Mexico is expected to deliver about 1.75 million acre-feet of water every five years to the U.S. Texas officials say Mexico owes about a year’s worth of water that needs to be delivered by Oct. 24.

“If we do not deliver what we are supposed to, we can give them footing to breach the treaty and revise it, which could harm us,” López Obrador said Friday while here in Ciudad Juarez  to inaugurate new infrastructure projects.

In a Sept. 16 letter, Gov. Greg Abbott urged U.S. Sec. of State Michael Pompeo to push for the enforcement of Mexico’s treaty obligations.

“The Mexican-controlled waters of the international Rio Grande Basin are vital to ensuring that Texas’ water right holders can irrigate crops, supply water to municipalities, and conduct industrial operations along the Rio Grande,” Abbott wrote, adding that Texas farmers will be forced to “secure alternate sources of water, change crops and reduce operations” if Mexico does not deliver the water.

People wait in line to cross the border to El Paso, Texas through the Paso Del Norte Port of Entry in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, on Friday, June, 26, 2020.

Abbott wrote that the U.S. sends about 1.5 million acre-feet of water annually from the Colorado River into the Rio Grande and that Mexico is more than capable of delivering what it owes.

“Since 1944, there has been a water treaty with the U.S., one of the few treaties in which our country benefits more,” López Obrador has said. “They give us three times the amount of water than what we have to give back, that’s the agreement.”

But farmers in the state of Chihuahua and their supporters say rain has been scarce and farmers do not expect any to fall soon, which means reservoirs are not being filled up with an adequate supply of water for crops. Many farmers fear there will not be enough water left by the time the next season comes along and they need to irrigate their crops.

There has been months of rising tensions between farmers and national guardsmen who were sent in to guard three of the area’s reservoirs.  Farmers in Boquilla, a small town about 350 miles south of the border, have taken to the streets, clashing with Mexico’s National Guard, and wielding sticks and rocks, on Sept. 8 seized control of the dam at the largest reservoir in the state.

One of the supporters of the thousands of farmers protesting has been Irasema Calderon, 60, who also marched toward La Boquilla dam the day it was taken from the National Guard. She said about 5,000 people gathered from across the state.

As the daughter, wife and mother of farmers, Calderon feels strongly about defending Chihuahua’s water. Women like her have rallied alongside the farmers to show support, worried about the livelihood of the tens of thousands of families in the region.

“We’re not criminals like the federal government is treating us, the president, with so many guards in the dams,” Calderon said. “We don’t deserve this. We only want for them to let us work … I don’t know if they plan to continue with other dams in other states, but right now they are looting Chihuahua.”

Patricia Jimenez, 54, who lives in Delicias, about an hour away from the dam, has been supporting the farmers because she believes this will have heavy repercussions throughout the state. Farmers are scattered throughout her family tree and friendship group — almost everyone she knows is being affected by the fight on water with Mexico’s federal government.

“Our city, our region, we live from agriculture,” Jimenez said. “If it ends, our way of life ends … Without water, agriculture or livestock cannot be sustained.”

Chihuahua Gov. Javier Corral, who has condemned the violence in his state, was not invited to López Obrador’s visit to Juarez.

On Friday, during his daily morning briefing, López Obrador said Chihuahua officials, including its governor, did not want to support Mexico’s efforts to meet terms of the international water treaty. He added he did not invite Corral because “partisan interests were prioritized because elections are coming up in Chihuahua.”

“I don’t want to be involved in this dispute and I don’t want to seem used,” López Obrador said before traveling to Ciudad Juárez. “The good relationship we have with the U.S. government is being put at risk and we do not want retaliation for not complying with an agreement and this was not understood by the Chihuahua authorities.”

Olivares is a Ciudad Juarez-based special contributor for The Dallas Morning News and Al Dia.

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