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Wa­ter ten­sions gush into vi­o­lence

Mex­i­can farm­ers fight pres­i­dent, US in bid for sur­vival

- By Natalie Kitroeff Water Security · U.S. News · Disasters · Ecology · Agriculture · Social Issues · Politics · Drought · Society · Industries · Natural Disasters · Mexico · Politics of Mexico · Texas · United States of America · Colorado · Rio Grande · Scott · Arizona · Republican Party (United States) · Republican · Greg Abbott · Mike Pompeo · Andrés Manuel López Obrador · Donald Trump · Air National Guard · Facebook · Blanca · Houston Texans · Newport County A.F.C. · NAFTA · Victor · Rio, WV · University of Arizona · Abbott, Virginia · Hidalgo County · Hidalgo County · Hidalgo, TX

BOQUILLA, Mex­ico — The farm­ers armed them­selves with sticks, rocks and home­made shields, am­bushed hun­dreds of sol­diers guard­ing a dam and seized con­trol of one of the bor­der re­gion’s most im­por­tant bod­ies of wa­ter.

The Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment was send­ing wa­ter — their wa­ter — to Texas, leav­ing them next to noth­ing for their thirsty crops, the farm­ers said. So they took over the dam and have re­fused to al­low any of the wa­ter to flow to the United States for more than a month.

“This is a war,” said Vic­tor Velder­rain, a grower who helped lead the takeover, “to sur­vive, to con­tinue work­ing, to feed my fam­ily.”

The stand­off is the cul­mi­na­tion of long-stand­ing ten­sions over wa­ter be­tween the United States and Mex­ico that have recently ex­ploded into vi­o­lence, pit­ting Mex­i­can farm­ers against their own pres­i­dent and the global su­per­power next door.

Ne­go­ti­at­ing the ex­change of wa­ter be­tween the two coun­tries has long been strained, but rising tem­per­a­tures and long droughts have made the shared rivers along the bor­der more valu­able than ever, in­ten­si­fy­ing the stakes for both na­tions.

The dam’s takeover is a stark ex­am­ple of how far peo­ple are will­ing to go to de­fend liveli­hoods threat­ened by cli­mate change — and of the kind of con­flict that may be­come more com­mon with in­creas­ingly ex­treme weather.

Along the arid bor­der

re­gion, wa­ter rights are gov­erned by a decades-old treaty that com­pels the United States and Mex­ico to share the flows of the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers, with each side send­ing wa­ter to the other. Mex­ico has fallen far be­hind on its obli­ga­tions to the United States and is fac­ing a dead­line to de­liver the wa­ter this month.

But this has been one of the dri­est years in the last three decades for Chi­huahua, the Mex­i­can bor­der state re­spon­si­ble for send­ing the bulk of the wa­ter Mex­ico owes. Its farm­ers have re­belled, wor­ried that los­ing any more wa­ter will rob them of a chance for a healthy har­vest next year.

“These ten­sions, these ten­den­cies, are al­ready there, and they’re just made so much worse by cli­mate change,” said Christo­pher Scott, a pro­fes­sor of wa­ter re­sources pol­icy at the Univer­sity of Ari­zona. “They are in a fight for their lives,

be­cause no wa­ter, no agri­cul­ture; no agri­cul­ture, no ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties.”

Since Fe­bru­ary, when fed­eral forces first oc­cu­pied the dam to en­sure wa­ter de­liv­er­ies to the United States con­tin­ued, ac­tivists in Chi­huahua have burned gov­ern­ment build­ings, de­stroyed cars and briefly held a group of politi­cians hostage. For weeks, they’ve blocked a ma­jor rail­road used to ferry in­dus­trial goods be­tween Mex­ico and the United States.

Their re­volt has alarmed farm­ers and politi­cians in Texas. Repub­li­can Gov. Greg Ab­bott ap­pealed to Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo last month, de­mand­ing he per­suade Mex­ico to de­liver the wa­ter by the dead­line next week or risk in­flict­ing pain on Amer­i­can farm­ers.

Mex­ico’s pres­i­dent, An­drés Manuel López Obrador, who has re­peat­edly bent to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s de­mands on im­mi­gra­tion, has vowed

that his coun­try will make good on its wa­ter obli­ga­tions to the United States — whether the state of Chi­huahua likes it or not.

He sent hun­dreds of mem­bers of the Na­tional Guard to pro­tect Chi­huahua’s dams, and his gov­ern­ment tem­po­rar­ily froze bank ac­counts be­long­ing to the city where many of the pro­test­ers live.

For farm­ers, the gov­ern­ment’s stance is a be­trayal.

Velder­rain, 42, said he never saw him­self as the type of per­son who would lead hun­dreds over a hill to over­whelm a group of sol­diers pro­tect­ing a cache of au­to­matic weapons. But there he was in a video posted on Face­book, es­cort­ing a Mex­i­can gen­eral out of the Boquilla Da­mon­the day he led the takeover.

Sur­prised and heav­ily out­num­bered, the Na­tional Guard quickly sur­ren­dered. Later that day, one pro­tester was shot and killed by the Na­tional Guard.

“We have al­ways dedi

cated our­selves to work; we’ve never been known as pro­test­ers,” Velder­rain said back on his farm, shuck­ing an ear of corn that wasn’t quite ready for har­vest. “What hap­pened at the Boquilla dam was im­pres­sive, be­cause we took off our farmer clothes and put on the uni­form of guer­rilla fight­ers.”

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment ar­gues that the protest­ing farm­ers are also hurt­ing other Mex­i­cans by pre­vent­ing wa­ter from flow­ing to their com­pa­tri­ots down­stream and that the grow­ers would still have ac­cess to at least 60% of the wa­ter they need for next year.

“Agri­cul­ture, like any other pro­fes­sion, has risks,” said Blanca Jiménez, head of Mex­ico’s Na­tional Wa­ter Com­mis­sion. “One of the risks is that there are years when it rains more and years when it rains less.”

With the in­ten­sity of the drought in Chi­huahua this year, Mex­ico has fallen far be­hind on its wa­ter ship­ments to the United States. It now has to send more than 50% of its aver­age annual wa­ter pay­ment in a mat­ter of weeks. The Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment insists it will still com­ply, de­spite the takeover of the dam, which spans the Con­chos River, a ma­jor trib­u­tary of the Rio Grande. But some Tex­ans have their doubts.

“It’s just not go­ing to hap­pen, un­less a storm de­vel­ops and helps Mex­ico, which is nor­mally what they count on,” said Sonny Hi­no­josa, gen­eral man­ager of an ir­ri­ga­tion district in Hi­dalgo County, Texas. “They gam­ble and hope that a storm or Mother Na­ture will bail them out.”

Tex­ans also con­tend that, on bal­ance, Mex­ico ben­e­fits more from the wa­ter-shar­ing agree­ment be­tween the two coun­tries, signed in 1944, than they do. Ab­bott, the state’s gov­er­nor, has pointed out that the United States sends Mex­ico about four times as much wa­ter as it re­ceives from its neigh­bor.

The treaty doesn’t pu­n­ish ei­ther side for shirk­ing its du­ties, but, ea­ger to avoid con­flict, Mex­ico is scram­bling to find a way to meet its wa­ter obli­ga­tions as the dead­line nears. One of the like­li­est solutions is that Mex­ico will hand over a sig­nif­i­cant amount of the wa­ter it owns in reser­voirs, nor­mally used by more than a dozen Mex­i­can cities. In ex­change, Mex­ico has asked the United States to lend it drink­ing wa­ter for those cities if Mex­ico ends up run­ning out.

Part of the prob­lem, sci­en­tists say, is that Mex­ico’s need for wa­ter has grown since the sign­ing of the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment in the 1990s, as more peo­ple set­tled in the coun­try’s dry bor­der re­gion and agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion ramped up to sat­isfy Amer­i­can con­sumers.

 ?? DANIEL BEREHULAK/THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? Mem­bers of Mex­ico’s Na­tional Guard walk across a dam in Chi­huahua as wa­ter is re­leased Sept. 20 to the United States.
DANIEL BEREHULAK/THE NEW YORK TIMES Mem­bers of Mex­ico’s Na­tional Guard walk across a dam in Chi­huahua as wa­ter is re­leased Sept. 20 to the United States.

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