We appreciate Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s promise to pay the United States the water that is owed under a 1944 water-sharing treaty.
Keeping the promise is another matter. He faces opposition from Mexican farmers who have stormed dams and blocked bridges to protest the water releases.
About 2,000 people took over the Boquillas Dam in northern Chihuahua state last month to keep operators from opening the gates and sending water into the Rio Grande. Mexico needs to release more than 1 billion gallons into the river by Oct. 24 to comply with the treaty.
The Mexican farmers insist they need the water to irrigate their crops, and without it their families go hungry. Their U.S. counterparts likewise say they need the water for their crops, and are entitled to it under the treaty.
The longer the issue remains unsettled, however, the more complicated it gets. Health officials and community activists have said that losing the water would create a public health crisis in Mexico, as the country doesn’t have enough clean water to enable its residents to employ the hygienic steps necessary to help fight the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has caused the global COVID-19 pandemic. Mexico historically has paid inadequate attention to its infrastructure needs, and those concerns are valid.
Few if any people would want to see the issue pit the public health and economic wellbeing of one country against another, and we hope a solution can be reached that is palatable to all.
It must be noted that much of the current problem stems from Mexico’s decades-long habit of waiting until the last minute to pay its water obligations. The treaty calls for annual releases from both countries into our common river, but it provides five-year window of compliance to allow for droughts and other unexpected events. Mexico has tended to ignore that annual releases, and made up the arrears in the final year. Frequently that has left U.S. farmers dry and Mexico scrambling to meet its obligations every five years.
AMLO, as Mexico’s president is known, would do well to see the prudence in staying current, which would have avoided facing a large water debt in the middle of a health crisis. He also needs to address the obvious need for better security at his country’s dams, which are seized with alarming frequency. If farmers can take control of them so easily, how can they prevent a cartel or terrorist group from seizing a dam and threatening to flood communities if their demands aren’t met?
If AMLO can’t release the water, he should seek to negotiate a short-term schedule of releases that pays down the debt in steps without leaving his own residents dry.
Once the debt is paid off, the pandemic subsides and the U.S. presidential race decided, he should then set his energies to seeking a new treaty to address the one that is outdated and allows these problems to happen.