MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s president vowed to repay the country’s water debt to the United States, even if it means asking farmers in Mexican states along the U.S. border to pitch in.
Time is running out for Mexico to pay the debt by the Oct. 24 deadline, especially after protesters seized a dam in Chihuahua state to stop water transfers.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has said in the past he would appeal to U.S. President Donald Trump for “understanding” if Mexico couldn’t make the deadline, and on Thursday he once again thanked Trump for being “respectful” of Mexico on other issues.
“It is one of the things I have to thank President Trump for, that he has been respectful,” López Obrador said, noting the United States had interfered in Mexico in the past on other issues. “Before they used to get involved, as if we were not free and sovereign,” he said, adding “not anymore, and for that we are very thankful.”
López Obrador has been criticized by the left in recent months over his friendly relations with Trump; López Obrador has countered that it is in Mexico’s national interest to maintain friendly relations with the United States.
But it is unclear how much Trump can help in an election, with Texas farmers angry that Mexico has fallen so far behind in cross-border water sharing agreed to under a 1944 treaty.
More than a week ago, hundreds of farmers angry about losing water seized a dam in the northern state of Chihuahua, seeking to block the transfers that benefit farmers and towns along the Rio Grande.
With just over five weeks to go, Mexico still has to transfer almost a year’s worth of water to meet the deadline. The United States gives Mexico four times more water from the Colorado River farther west under the treaty, and López Obrador is apparently worried about the possibility of losing that.
López Obrador raised the possibility of asking farmers in other Mexican border states — an apparent reference to Tamaulipas — to pitch in if the situation in Chihuahua cannot be resolved.
“If it gets difficult, we are looking for solidarity from other northern states, if nothing can be done in Chihuahua, for other northern states to help out,” he said.
He acknowledged that threatens to broaden the conflict, which has became a cause for the conservative opposition party National Action. López Obrador accused protesters of planning to seize the offices of the National Water Commission in Tamaulipas.
“They want to make this (conflict) regional, for political and electoral reasons,” López Obrador said.
National Action Party leader Marko Cortés expressed his party’s total support for the protesters, who fought National Guard officers with sticks and rocks in Chihuahua, and he called for reviewing or revising the treaty.
“The international water treaty negotiated by Mexico and the United States in 1944 should be revised, if necessary, with a view to prioritizing the interests of the people of Mexico,” Cortés said.
As of Sept. 5, Mexico still owed 307,943 acre-feet of water before Oct. 24, in part because of debts built up in previous years. The United States says it still technically feasible for Mexico to meet the goal.
While the bulk of Mexico’s water debt is usually paid from Chihuahua, there is a dam in Tamaulipas that could be used to transfer water for use by the United States. But that runs the risk that farmers in Tamaulipas might join the protest movement.
It all places López Obrador — whose main stated policy is to defend the poor — in a strange position, being criticized by conservatives for being too eager to please the United States. He stressed “we have a good relationship with the U.S. government and we are not going to get into any political confrontation.”