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Flowing Across Borders: Navigating Binational Water Disputes between Mexico and the US

Special contribution by: Flor de Jazmin Fierro Silva, Ph.D. Candidate in Public Administration, Master’s Degree in Corporate Law, and Specialist in Business and Constitutional Law, in collaboration with Terry Ahtziry Cardenas Banda, Corporate Attorney, Internationalist, Law Professor, Social Activist, and Philanthropist.

The Growing Significance of Water Resources and Binational Cooperation

Water scarcity has reached alarming levels in recent years. While the Earth is comprised of 97.5% water, only 2.5% of it is freshwater suitable for human consumption. Many experts now compare water to gold, highlighting its pivotal role and predicting that future disputes, even warfare, could arise due to this precious resource. Water is not only vital for sustaining human life, but also essential for the natural growth of our environment, national development, and food production.

Recognizing the urgency of the global water crisis, the United Nations General Assembly approved the 2030 Agenda in September 2015. This Agenda includes water resources as a top priority under its sixth goal, urging governments to adapt their legal frameworks and formulate public policies that ensure the human right to water. This objective, named “Ensure access to water and sanitation for all,” consists of eight targets with specific indicators to evaluate member countries and identify areas for improvement.

Mexico and the United States face shared hydrological challenges within the regional basins of the Rio Grande, Colorado, Tijuana Rivers, and others. A hydrological basin refers to a delimited territorial unit where water is present in various forms, either stored or flowing towards a final point, such as the sea or an interior body. Consequently, the issues of sanitation and water scarcity have become a binational problem with its own unique legal framework.

The boundary and water treaty of 1944 governs the allocation of water resources between the two countries, as the Colorado and Bravo rivers originate in the United States and flow into Mexican territory. These allocations are subject to modification based on fluctuations in water volume. In each case, calculations are established, and parties sign minutes of conformity or addenda to the treaty. To oversee the implementation of the treaty, the International Boundary and Water Commission was created as a specialized binational body between Mexico and the United States. Each country has its own section within the Commission to address internal issues and negotiate with the other party. An Engineer Commissioner appointed by their respective President leads each section.

To date, approximately 328 minutes have been signed by both countries, covering agreements on water volumes, bilateral investments in hydraulic infrastructure, and financing for Mexican infrastructure in the form of loans. Among the most notable binational conflicts in the past decade was the cementing of the all-American canal and the sewage spill from the city of Tijuana to San Diego. These conflicts were resolved according to the provisions of the 1944 Water Treaty, with the involvement of binational experts who conducted studies and eventually reached agreements or addenda to address the issues.

As highlighted throughout this article, water holds immense importance for life itself, and its scarcity has prompted an international mobilization for its preservation. The establishment of binational bodies, legal instruments, and public policies reflects the growing recognition of this issue. It is crucial for individuals to adopt measures at home to ensure efficient and responsible water usage, as we all play a role in safeguarding this invaluable resource.

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