Drought and Suffering: The Americas Battle for Water

By Colin Vaida

The Western world often takes water for granted, but recent drought in the Southwestern United States has driven home the acute importance of water to our health and our economic livelihood. Dramatic photos of Californian bodies of water demonstrate the stark change in water levels over the last few years. However, California, Arizona and Texas are not the only regions suffering from drought.

Recent headlines in South and Central America have bemoaned the economic and public health consequences of rapidly depleting water sources. The cause of this region-wide drought is largely unclear, and it is important to not draw conclusions too quickly. Often political factions find themselves fighting over the consequences of climate change, when the livelihood and survival of these families is most important. The cause of this drought is probably a combination of climate change and natural weather variability. Climate change may increase the frequency and severity of weather variability. Paulo Barbosa, a researcher with the European Commission on Drought, explains “there might be a relationship between climate change and the increase of the frequency and severity of these extreme events, including droughts. But, of course, sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between climate’s variability in itself and climate change.”

According to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) 2.81 million people are struggling to feed themselves due to recent severe droughts in Northern Central America. Guatemala has recently declared a state of emergency as more than 250,000 families have lost their crops. The staple foods of Guatemala, beans and corn, have been absolutely decimated creating an incredibly concerning food shortage. Almost 70% of the corn crop in the country has been lost due to the drought and lack of rain. Nicaraguan President, Daniel Ortega, has allowed beans and corn to be imported at much lower prices to stave off the shortage. Foreign aid and relief is desperately needed and should rise well above normal levels for the region. Some estimate that the foreign aid should exceed the amount given in the aftermath of the disastrous Hurricane Mitch in 1998, when most of Central America was decimated by the storm. Though drought in California and Texas may be severe, costing agricultural economies millions, the situation in Central America looks much bleaker. It is important regardless of the cause of these droughts to provide the aid needed for the area and to brace for a possible movement of refugees as food and other resources become scarce.

Along the Texas-Mexico border, one that shares plenty of disputes exists a damn that is receiving much more attention than it is used to. The Amistad Damn sits along the Rio Grande, maintaining 16 floodgates that are equally distributed between U.S. and Mexican control. In 1944 President Truman signed a treaty in which both states are subject to water sharing along this damn. However, in recent years because of drought Mexico has fallen behind in its duties to pass along water. Texas state representative Eddie Lucio III (D) explains the impact, “This issue is life or death for some of our farmers, their ability to support their families and make a living.” A Texas A&M study estimated that 5,000 jobs and $229 million in revenue were lost due to Mexico’s failure to share water. Texas officials at all levels are pleading with the State Department to do more in its engagement with Mexico. However, it is difficult to argue that Mexico may not need this water for itself and its crops and people. How does one honor a treaty that may bring the demise of its own economy and people? It is difficult to argue that Mexico should not act in self-interest in order to preserve its people and the surrounding area along the border.

The recent drought throughout the region is very worrisome and may lead to unwanted and harmful consequences. The lack of water resources over the last several years has certainly put a strain on Central American people, adding to the reasons for migration and travel to the United States. When more than 250, 000 families in Guatemala lose their livelihood it is difficult to argue against the need for foreign aid and development. The possible migration of these families away from barren farmland could cause refugee issues if the drought does not end soon. Surrounding countries including the U.S. should be aware of these consequences and be prepared and understanding of the issue at hand. The more countries invest now, the smaller the problem will be if the aid is appropriately distributed and financed. Hopefully, the rain will soon come, but as weather variability becomes more severe and frequent it is important for countries to invest in technology that will protect them.

Image Source: World Bank

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