Water: Dispute and Cooperation at the Mexico-US Border

The bilateral relationship between the United States and Mexico is by definition asymmetric.

According to the diplomatic code in the White House and the capital, the word “cooperation” is read as: “persuasion on the part of Mexico to adopt typical decisions taken in Washington.”

This asymmetry of power turns out to be especially complicated when it implies the joint operation of shared natural resources.

On the border between our two nations, these shared resources include Big Bend National Park, which is on the Texas border next to Chihuahua and Coahuila, and whose Mexican side — Maderas del Carmen — is located in a protected area for flora and fauna. [Other shared resources include] the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in the south of Arizona, the El Pinacate biosphere reserve, and the Great Desert of Altar reserve between Sonora and Arizona.

Likewise, both countries share water in the basin of the Tijuana, Colorado and Rio Grande rivers, whose use is regulated by the treaty of Feb. 3, 1944.

The structure of the ecosystems does not respect political borders, and thus binational cooperation in terms of cross-border environmental topics is imperative.

As part of this cooperation, civil society organizations are increasingly involved — a situation that has evolved from a bilateral approach in which each party takes a different position with respect to a common theme, to a cross-border focus in which problems are tackled jointly, independent of the borderline.

The crucial issue for cooperation on water is territorial sustainability, and therefore the quality of life for populations on both sides of the border. The International Boundary and Water Commission manages the actions agreed upon by both countries, although final political decisions are taken in the two capitals thousands of kilometers away from the border.

The main challenge, beyond very different institutional frameworks, is the effect on water resources that are causing global warming and climate change.

Today the allocation of water between the two countries and between border states becomes critical because northeastern Mexico and the southwestern U.S., especially California, are in the midst of the most severe drought in their history. The causes of the disaster are, among others: little rainfall, rising temperatures, scarce snowfall in the mountains, and the overexploitation of underground mantles.

As President Obama has said, civil society is the conscience of the country, the catalyst for change, and thus, strong nations don’t fear active citizens but rather promote and support citizen participation.

The water management of the Tijuana River, for example, is conducted by the Mexico Border Environmental Education Project, the Autonomous University of Baja California, the College of the Northern Border, Pronatura, and the Citizen Board. For its part, the U.S. has involved the University of Arizona, the Environmental Defense Fund, and The Nature Conservancy, among others. More information here.

Water management efficiency will be based on its ability to evolve from a best practices approach of each side, to a new approach of joint management. The goal is to move toward solutions that address the interests of the stakeholders, regardless of where they live. The idea is to transform a bilateral approach to operating shared water management in a joint ecosystem in a common region: the U.S.-Mexico border.

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