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PART II: Deep wells are transforming the desert to a land of milk and honey

PART II: Deep wells are transforming the desert to a land of milk and honey
Mexico water wars, Part 2 Violence erupts over water shortages Deep well drilling threatens to dry up the underground aquifer.

EDITOR'S NOTE: In Part II of a two part series, the non-compliance of a 1944 water treaty by Mexico is examined in light of a developing water problem in the arid, desert region of Chihuahua state just south of the New Mexico-Chihuahua line. While Mennonite farmers expand commercial farming operations by digging excessively deep wells to reach a subterranean aquifer, Mexico may be delaying water deliveries due South Texas as a result. With the threat of violence and extreme heavy political pressure triggered by what appears to be the first water wars spawned by a changing climate, Mexico is struggling to deal with water pressures from both sides of the international border. Connect to PART I of the story here, and read PART II below.


According to a report by the Center for International Policy in Washington D.C., while the deep water wells being dug by Mennonite farmers in Northern Mexico have largely proven successful, they have also caused an unfortunate side effect.

The wells are being blamed for lowering aquifer levels deep beneath the desert of Chihuahua, causing the more shallow wells of the Mexicanos (a term used by the Mennonites to describe local Mexican farmers and ranchers) to drop in production or completely dry up in some cases.

As a result, many of the locals have been forced to sell their rangelands to Mennonites or to enterprising individuals from Sinaloa state who have also expressed an interest over the last two years in drilling deep wells to establish their own successful commercial farming operations in the region.

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In recent years while many of the age-old traditional values of the Mennonites have been preserved, accelerated growth and expansion has apparently forced them to forgo traditional methods of farming and embrace modern technology as a means to survive.

Leaving behind wooden plows and oxcarts, they purchased the latest models of farm machinery and technology, including laser-guided precision farming equipment and rotary irrigation systems that continually provide water to miles and miles of row crops including cotton, soybeans, corn, alfalfa, potatoes, chili peppers and more.

Violence erupts over water shortages

Local Mexican farmers and ranchers are unhappy about the expansive transformation of the desert by what they term illegal wells and have been mobilizing into organized groups to stop the development as production from their shallow wells has greatly diminished. According to reports, one such local farmer's organization, known as El Barzón, was targeted by unknown assailants last year. The group's leader and his wife were brutally assassinated, according to local newspaper accounts, after publicly speaking out against a Canadian well drilling operation near Flores Magón. And that wasn't the only violent incident associated with growing friction between agribusiness expansion and local farming families.

In the summer of 2012 a group of about 250 local farmers gathered at another well drilling operation and accused Mennonite farm operators of bribing local officials or forging well permits in order to expand drilling operations across the region. As protestors marched on the well location, shots rang out causing the group to abandon their protest efforts out of fear of violence. Local reports charged regional police were guilty of firing the shots, though those allegations could not be substantiated by government investigators.

When interviewed by local reporters, a spokesman for another farmers’ group said it is not just the expansion of Mennonite farms causing local farmers to suffer but also extended drought conditions caused by climate change. Local reports quickly tagged escalating tensions, marked by the assassination and the use of gunfire, as an indication the region is becoming the first example of spreading tensions and possibly the first of many conflicts to be caused by climate change and water shortages in the Americas.

As a result of these incidents and others, newly elected Mexican President Peña Nieto began an initiative called the Programa Nacional Contra La Sequía earlier this year, a cattle and crop insurance program designed to compensate local farmers and ranchers from losses caused by the extended drought.

But local farming operators say the government's effort falls short of bringing a lasting solution to the problem, namely, to stop deep well drilling which ultimately threatens to dry up the underground aquifer over the next several years, sending the region back to its desert state.

Meanwhile, as Mennonite farming operations continue to expand at a record pace, most of the members of the sect remain isolated from their Mexican counterparts in small colonias spread throughout the transformed desert. Here they work on their expansive farms, live in simple homes and strive to keep up with the changing tools of farming technology like bio-tech seed varieties, precision farming and chemical-assisted agronomy.

In spite of farm modernization, they continue to dress and act much the same as their ancestors who settled the Chihuahua desert a century before. The only visible difference is the modern machinery that transforms the desert where not long ago horse-drawn plows worked the dry sand and soil.

Mexico's new government points to another new initiative—a task force of government officials and farmer organizations working together to identify illegal wells and new drilling operations.

But local farmers have expressed grave concern, saying they doubt anything will change soon. Meanwhile, finding a way to sustain the expanding farming operations in the desert, protecting the rights of local farmers and solving the bigger issue of how to deal with climate change and a continuing drought and water availability problems remain a major political issue for Mexican officials.

While there seems to be a degree of sympathy on the government's part for local farmers, as one local politician noted, the Mennonites are legalized citizens with full voting rights, and they tend to vote as a group. As a result, political change in the region may be little more than dream.

As to how the drama in the Mexican desert is affecting or will affect Mexico's treaty obligation to deliver water to South Texas, no one on the Mexican side of the border seemed willing to speculate or even discuss the issue, leaving South Texans to reach their own conclusions.

For further reading: Border Lines, a publication of the Center for International Policy.


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