Photo: Farms in Guanajuato, central Mexico, where the intersection of climate change, water scarcity and more demand for agricultural products are subjecting the region to more long-term risks.
Mexico is among the largest and most important trading partners of the U.S. In September 2020, total U.S. import-export trade with Mexico topped both China and Canada. That does not even come close to accounting for the ebb and flow of labor, across the U.S., and especially in states like Texas, which shares almost 2,000 miles of border with Mexico.
But Texas doesn’t only share geographic proximity and economic factors with Mexico. Both also face water, agriculture and energy challenges, especially in the face of a changing climate. Recently Mexico and Texas also shared in the power outages caused by the winter storm. In fact, one reason for Mexico’s blackouts were because of delayed natural gas shipments from Texas. And all of those factors are tied to Mexican immigration to Texas and beyond, which will only be exacerbated by climate change.
Water has long been an issue between Mexico and Texas, made worse by the frequent droughts and flooding on both sides of the border. In addition to water for consumption and industrial needs, water for agriculture is a critical problem across the board: no more so than in San Miguel de Allende, a historic town about 150 miles north of Mexico City in the state of Guanajuato, and home to over a thousand U.S. expats. This state in central Mexico is also a center for agricultural production and is at the crossroads of an ongoing battle over water.
Mexico is the U.S. largest agricultural trade partner in combined imports and exports, accounting for about 20 percent of U.S. agricultural imports. Of that, about two-thirds of U.S. imports from Mexico are fruits, vegetables and beer; hence climate change looms heavy over the food, beverage and agriculture sectors.
While employment nationally in the agricultural sector is around 11.5 percent, agriculture is an important part of the culture and identity of Guanajuato in addition to the economy. The area is semi-arid, but the region grows several water-intensive crops, such as broccoli, alfalfa and lettuce. And these farms continue to tap the region’s water, leading to not only concerns with quantity, but also quality.
TriplePundit recently interviewed Dylan Terrell, Executive Director of Caminos de Aguas, a nonprofit working on open-source solutions for water-stressed areas in central Mexico. Terrell noted that about 85 percent of water extracted from the Alto Río Laja Aquifer, which serves several thousand communities including San Miguel, goes to agricultural products for export. “We’re over-extracting our water substantially,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re also now pulling up ancient fossil water since we have to go so far down, and it’s mingling with fresh water, leading to high levels of arsenic and fluoride in the water.”
According to Tetra Tech, an engineering firm working in the region, more than 80 percent of the region’s communities have levels of arsenic that exceed the World Health Organization’s recommended limits by nine times and fluoride levels by 15 times. More research research indicates that the levels continue to increase. The severest impacts are on children, who are huge risk of dental and skeletal fluorosis, as well as cognitive problems. Neither a standard household filter nor boiling will eradicate the minerals. The solution requires specialized treatments such as reverse osmosis or chemicals.
Further, because of the growing demands for water and the importance of agriculture to the state's economy, priority is given to the industry rather than the supporting communities. According to Terrell, during the 1980s, once it became known that water was being extracted at unsustainable levels, the federal government prohibited new wells being drilled without approval. Yet despite that legislation, the number of wells in the watershed still grew from about 1,500 in the early 1980s to approximately 3,500 now, with many drillers claiming grandfathered drilling rights. And with climate change likely leading to more water quantity uncertainty, addressing that problem increasingly becomes paramount.
Caminos de Aguas has been teaming up with organizations such as Engineers Without Borders UK, the work of which was in part funded by a grant from Tetra Tech, to secure supplies of safe drinking water for residents in San Miguel de Allende. The organization has also worked with academic institutions in Mexico and the U.S. to help address the water problems in the communities throughout the wider region. Beginning in 2012, in partnership with four universities, researchers mapped the area’s water quality, overlaying it with state water data, and began offering free water testing for communities as well as water quality monitoring.
Pinpointing water pain points has enabled targeted solutions like rainwater harvesting at the community, school, and household level during rainy season. But rainwater harvesting is a tool in the arsenal rather than a long-term solution, especially with the predicted long-term decreased rainfall due to climate change. In order to solve the problem, the root cause of over-exploitation must be addressed, which will require difficult conversations with Mexico’s federal government and the agricultural sector.
The German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) - which has a mission similar to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) but with more of a business focus - has begun working in the region. The organization is especially focused on engaging the tourism sector to invest in climate change solutions linked to watershed rehabilitation.
A documentary about groundwater exploitation in Guanajuato, in Spanish with English subtitles.
Terrell explained that while the solutions involve all relevant stakeholders, “the priority should be on the sustainability of the watershed and the communities it serves.” As countries across the globe tackle difficult, entrenched climate-related problems, the economic interests must not be prioritized at the expense of the preservation of the resources and the communities that rely on them. Without the balance of sustainability, health, and economy, no one wins.
Image credit: Ramy Loaiza/Unsplash
Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.