Monday, December 7, 2015

Year’s El Niño only offers temporary relief for water-strained Mexico

By: Sam Howard
Produced & edited by: Jaelynn Grisso

Rain could be coming to semi-arid Northern Mexico this winter — in the form of an El Niño.

But after years of what academics say has been political and economic misuse ofwater infrastructure there, it might come as too little, too late for Mexico’s small farmers and struggling families.

Even in the southernmost state of Chiapas, where rainfall has historically been much steadier, many rural Mexicans are strictly living off bottled water, said Esteban Castro, a professor at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom.

Castro, a sociologist, has researched water conflicts throughout Latin America for more than 30 years.

The north of Mexico has lower rainfall on average,
as shown in this map. | Photo courtesy of the 
website Geo-Mexico.
When Castro studied in Chiapas more than 20 years ago, he said, about 50 percent of the Mexicans there lived without tap water. Beyond the lack of support for agriculture or life itself, Castro said that had implications on the way those Mexican citizens thought of themselves.

“They feel outside public life (and had) the struggle to become citizens,” Castro said. “They don’t feel they are citizens.

“They don’t even have water.”

Official Mexican government maps of water conflicts, made in the 1980s, failed to chart disputes in Chiapas, Castro said. He said that is emblematic of the government’s apathy toward the issue.

“(In) the state (of Chiapas), I’m under the impression that not much has changed (since then),” he said.

Problems in northern Mexico

The north of Mexico, though, is another problem altogether, said María Torregrosa.

In those semi-arid regions, the professor at the Latin American Social Sciences Institute in Mexico City said, small farmers who depend on irrigation to grow food have “been going through decades of drought.”

This winter might be some respite, as it is the first El Niño season since 2010. The system traditionally brings more precipitation to the most arid parts of Northern Mexico near the U.S. border and has already brought more tropical storms, like Hurricane Patricia, in the Pacific to the country’s western coast.

But any rainfall would likely be a temporary solution, as Torregrosa said small Mexican farmers have been struggling for more than a decade.

That situation has worsened since the late 1990s, she said, when the Mexican government turned irrigation districts over to private user organizations. Many small-time farmers simply cannot compete with the interests of big farms, she said.

Those two looming problems, in addition to a free tradeagreement with the U.S., she said, folded many small grain and vegetable farms and sent workers packing for jobs north of the border.

That recipe is simple, said José Pimentel, a professor for the Postgraduate College just east of Mexico City. He said the “varias problemas” small farmers in Mexico face boil down to two things.

One is low precipitation,” he said. “Two is administration.”

Only the big agricultural firms remain in many places, committed to producing crops such as strawberries and tomatoes for sale in the U.S., Castro said, instead of traditional Mexican products such as corn. He added that those big landowners can afford to buy into and be vocal members of their local irrigation districts.

“Rich irrigation districts are probably doing better because they can produce for export,” Castro said. He said that means there is less “water for poorer people to continue farming.”

According to data from the United Nations, Mexico in 2011 exported about five times as many tons of tomatoes as it did in 1971. In 1971, corn was the fourth-most exported Mexican crop. As of 2011, corn was not even in the top 20 most-exported crops.

Unclean water in Mexico City

And the problem is not only limited to the rural areas. On the east side of Mexico City, Juan Santibañez estimates roughly 70 percent of schools do not have access to clean water.

If they get any water at all coming out of their faucets, the professor with the National Autonomous University of Mexico said that water mostly resembles “chocolate water.”

He credits that contamination with the inability for water to safely get pumped from the neighboring city of Toluca. Castro said Mexico City loses 50 percent of its water potential to leaks.

As the city tries to pump more water into urban areas to cut the difference, rural indigenous populations west of the city are losing more of their water supply, Castro said.

“They have destroyed, basically, the livelihoods of communities,” he said.

Santibañez’s university is working with local schools to build rain-catching systems that can help store some limited water supplies on Mexico City’s east side.

“The everyday life of the schools is dramatic,” he said. “There’s no water for the toilet. There’s no water and of course, if the water comes, the water is of very bad quality.” 
A vendor prepares bottle of water to sell to 
street food vendors in Mexico City. | Photo 
courtesy of The Guardian

Because water systems are in the hands of the users, Santibañez said the only thing that could make the situation better would be more private investment.

For the time being, he said, many children are living off one small bottle of water a day.

“We are every day living in the risk of catastrophe,” Santibañez said.

Many Mexicans are forced to live off of about 40 liters of water or less each day, said Jacinta Palerm. In contrast, the professor at the Postgraduate College estimates most Americans consume as much as five times of much water on a daily basis.

The contamination has not only affected water for drinking and farming. She said rivers in Mexico are “like the Hudson” in New York.

“All the rivers in Mexico are dirty,” she said, adding that many families are left having to “buy water from tankers and that’s really expensive.”

The situation for farmers is just as dire, Santibañez said, and it does not look like it will change any time soon — El Niño or not.

“The small farmers, the poor farmers, cannot survive in this context,” he said. “The short-term future of this population is trending to disappear.”

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