Drop by Drop: Water’s Role in Our Interconnected World
Producer/Reporter: Joy Diaz, Editor: Terri Langford
Digital Editors: Shelly Brisbin, Caroline Covington
Logo and Illustrations: Ashley Siebels, Photography: Sandra Dahdah
Produced with support from The International Women’s Media Foundation
Water divides – and unites – communities all over the world. The Texas Standard series Drop by Drop explores how water shapes life in Texas, Mexico, Central America and around the world.
A Mid-Century Water Treaty: In 1944, the U.S. and Mexico negotiated a pact to divide the waters of the Rio Grande between them. Is it time to bring this 75-year-old agreement into the 21st century?
Water and Migration: Texas is at the epicenter of the so-called Central American migrant crisis. We know people arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border are fleeing violence. But, could they also be fleeing drought?
Women and Water: In most countries, women are the ones who are called upon to manage the household’s water supply. We focus on one woman whose water strategies may improve water distribution for the entire country.
The Cost of a Meal in Water: What if, instead of cash or credit, we used water as currency? And what if we had to haul the gallons of water it costs to produce our meals?
It Started With A Treaty
In 1944, the United States and Mexico hammered out an agreement to divide the waters of the Rio Grande River. The name of the pact – the Treaty Series 994 for the Utilization of Waters of the Colorado and Tijuana Rivers and of the Rio Grande – is hardly memorable.
While many Americans likely don’t know much about the treaty, those living in water-conscious Mexico certainly do. That’s because while just one-third of the river between the two countries is located in the United States, the deal gives half of the water to the U.S.
The water from the Rio Grande – or Rio Bravo as it’s known in Mexico – is used on both sides, for power generation, agriculture and flood control. Every five years, when there isn’t a drought, Mexico must deliver more than 430 million cubic feet of water to the United States. Mexico can make up any deficit in its water supply during the following five-year cycle. But population growth over the past 75 years, and growth that’s expected in the future, mean it could be difficult for Mexico to meet the terms of this agreement.
Population growth and drought along the border have taken a toll on the water levels of the Rio Grande. And those factors have, at times, hampered Mexico’s water delivery schedule. Jayne Harkins is the U.S. Commissioner for the International Boundary and Water Commission, which governs the Rio Grande’s waters. She often hears from American ranchers and farmers who want to know if Mexico’s water delivery is on track.
“The question that I get asked a lot is, ‘where is Mexico in their five-year cycle?’” she says. “And they’re currently up-to-date. So, right now, that component is not an issue.”
But it has been an issue in the past. For most of the 1990s and into the 21st century, Mexico fell behind in its delivery schedule because of extreme weather patterns, including drought. But in 2016, Mexico finally caught up.
This summer, during a press conference in Mexico, we asked Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador whether it was time to renegotiate the 1944 treaty. Obrador seemed open to it.
“It is a conversation we need to have, but the objective should be that Mexico is not affected by a new agreement,” he said.
Water Pushes Central American Migrants North
The northward migration of Central Americans is one of the biggest stories involving the Texas-Mexico border, today. Border agents apprehended more than 50,000 people at the Southwest border in August 2019. But the story isn’t big just in terms of numbers; it’s also big in terms of human impact. Thousands of families have been torn apart while attempting to cross into the United States to start new lives.
So far, much of the reporting on this issue has focused on how those from Central America are fleeing violence and poverty. That’s true, but there’s more to the story. Water scarcity is another factor pushing people to seek refuge far from their home country.
To learn more, I interviewed migrants as they followed the well-worn migration route through Mexico, hitching rides on cargo trains headed to the United States.
In the small town of Huehuetoca, just north of Mexico City, I met 23-year-old Nahún Coello Díaz as he waited for a chance to climb into the car of a fast-moving train. The young Honduran man had already failed several attempts, but he wasn’t deterred.
“I’ve left all fear behind,” he said.
Originally from a farming community called El Escaño de Tepale, Coello Díaz said he used to pay a daily toll to members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, also known as MS-13. That was the price he paid for a chance to live in peace. But the day came when he lost his job and couldn’t pay the toll anymore. Like him, almost 60% of people in his community don’t have jobs.
But Coello Díaz said people are also leaving El Escaño de Tepale because they don’t have water for their crops.
“Agriculture is not what it used to be,” he said.
He remembered that, as a child, he would see farmers grow corn, beans and other crops. But not anymore.
Carrie Seay Fleming is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado-Boulder. The environmental sociologist has lived and worked in Central America and says water scarcity is affecting millions.
“At least half the population [in Central America], their livelihoods come from agriculture. So you can’t overstate the importance of agriculture,” she says.
The drought that started there in 2014 has led to food scarcity. Even vulnerable populations like women and children are leaving. One group I noticed while traveling through Mexico consisted of four young mothers with their 10 children. The women were sisters; two of them were pregnant. One of them, Mariella Padilla, said no one in her family wanted to leave their home, but their farming community had been deeply affected by the drought. Feeding the children became increasingly difficult.
“We are migrating out of need,” she said.
People like Coello Díaz and the Padilla family are called Climate Change Refugees. The term describes migrants facing adverse environmental conditions, which can be even more widespread than gang violence. But their stories, until now, have been overly simplified, Fleming says. The narrative has been exclusively about narcotrafficking and street gangs. But it goes beyond that.
“You can’t overstate the role of agriculture to these folks’ well-being,” Fleming says.
She says a more nuanced story about their plight would have to include recent droughts, heavy rains that severely damaged maize, bean and coffee crops and even wild swings in the global commodities markets. All these forces are pushing people out.
To help, Coello Díaz, the migrant from Honduras, said the United States and other countries should help farmers invest in better water infrastructure.
But the U.S. is not making new investments in Central America. And it rolled back two executive orders from the Obama era: one funded the Global Climate Change Initiative, the other contributed to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund.
David Gootnick is director of international affairs at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan agency that investigates how the federal government spends tax dollars. He says that on the surface, the executive orders didn’t explicitly fund climate change programs. But they did target populations “at risk for migration” due to climate change.
Gootnick says data evaluated by the GAO showed that the funding was effective. It’s unclear why the Trump administration decided to revoke it.
Without more investments aimed at the well-being of Central Americans, it’s unlikely any U.S. immigration policy will stop people from trying to come here. And their stories reveal that water, or lack of it, may be an even stronger driver for that migration than anyone realized.
Why It’s Women Who Navigate Access To Water
The stories of women and water are deeply interconnected.
All around the world, even in developed countries, the art of caring for children and a household falls more heavily on women than it does on men. That means that water collection and water management also tend to be done by women.
In communities where there is no way to know when water will come out of the tap, the dynamic of caring for children and a household while holding a job and working on other things, becomes a difficult balancing act.
Across the Texas border, in Mexico, there is a neighborhood called Rancho Anapra. It is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. 59-year-old Martha Solis lives there. And even though the community sits right across from the Rio Grande, there is very limited water access.
Water from Solis’ tap is only available two hours every morning. That makes her days feel like a race against the clock because she has to complete as many chores as she can while the water is flowing. One of the chores is to store as much water as possible for later in the day.
“I fill up one or two plastic barrels so my kids can bathe before heading out to work,” she says.
Solis manages every drop of water her eight children and multiple grandchildren need. But the water from her faucet is not good for drinking or cooking.
In Ciudad Juárez, there are several government-sponsored water distribution centers where potable water is free, but limited to 10 gallons a day per family. People come from all over town, including Solis, to fetch their water there. It is mostly women –even very young ones.
Dana Yaneli Durán Aniceto is only 10. But she skillfully carries her five-gallon plastic jug and ties it to a small metal dolly. Her walk home is a challenge. She has to pull her dolly and the water supply down a hill, then cross a busy highway without spilling a drop.
Water insecurity is an issue, from Ciudad Juárez in the border region to the capital city of Mexico and beyond. That’s because Mexico is considered a “water insecure country,” not due to lack of water, but due to a broken distribution system.
Dr. Wendy Jepson of Texas A&M University is an expert on household water insecurity. She says communities and government agencies in Mexico have come up with a patchwork system to deliver water.
“[The water] may be provided by a tanker truck,” Jepson says “[or] it may be provided by a water vendor.”
It is an inconvenient system. And people in Mexico are ready to change it. Proof of that is last year’s election of a new mayor in Mexico City. For the first time, voters did not elect a career politician, instead, they chose Doctor Claudia Sheinbaum, an environmental scientist who was part of the team that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
“The challenge for my administration,” Sheinbaum said at her swearing-in ceremony “and the goal, is to give everyone daily water access.”
Sheinbaum’s pledge is significant because solving a water crisis in Mexico’s capital city of 21 million people could mean solving a water crisis in the rest of the country.
Texas A&M’s Jepson says that is a well-played political card, because when water access is consciously withheld, it is an act of “power and control and dehumanization.” But, Jepson says when the mayor centers her political agenda on water access “[it] makes perfect sense because it is about equity, citizenship, it is about human development.”
The fact that it took a woman to start a water revolution in Mexico also makes perfect sense.