ANALYSIS - With Mexico facing severe drought conditions again this year, the federal government has announced stringent conservation measures to preserve already tight water supplies, particularly in a large area just south of the border with the US, writes Carlos Navarro of SourceMex.
Estimates released by the Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT) and the Confederación Nacional Campesina (CNC) indicate reservoirs in northern Mexico have fallen to between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of capacity because of extremely low precipitation for an extended period.
The situation is most dire in the northern and central states of Sonora, Chihuahua, Durango, Zacatecas, Coahuila, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosí, and Nuevo León, but even some southern states like Oaxaca and Guerrero are facing drought conditions.
A report from Mexico’s national weather agency Servicio Meteorológico Nacional (SMN) indicated that roughly 43 per cent of Mexico was suffering from some degree of drought as of the end of February, although only 2 per cent was classified as extreme or exceptional. But the weather models do not project any improvements. Conditions have remained dry in critical areas during March and into April, and the SMN predicts that rainfall will be about 26 per cent below the historical averages for the month.
The western states of Baja California, Nayarit, and Sinaloa will be especially dry, said the SMN. The dry conditions thus far this season have affected a broad area of Mexico, including some states not affected by drought in the past, such as Tlaxcala, Morelos, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Campeche, and Chiapas.
"We are experiencing drought-like conditions in many areas of Mexico," said Felipe Arreguín Cortés, a deputy director at the Comisión Nacional del Agua (CONAGUA). "One would have never imagined that places like Chiapas and the Pacific Coast—areas that traditionally have had plenty of water—are now experiencing dry conditions."
Crop, livestock losses anticipated
While there are as yet no official estimates or broad projections of potential agricultural losses this year, the expectation is that this year will be worse than last year. Production of corn, Mexico’s staple crop, was better than expected last year because of timely rain that made up for dry conditions at the start of the year.
For many farmers in traditionally moist states like Tlaxcala and Morelos, particularly those without access to irrigation, the main problem has been the inability to sow seeds in a timely basis, which could eventually affect overall production.
"We cannot move forward with our planting because there is a lot of land that we have been unable to prepare," Tlaxcala farmer Eulogio Roldán said in a television interview on OnceNoticias. "We do not have any irrigation systems."
In Tamaulipas, Mexico’s leading sorghum producer, officials estimate that the state might have lost about 10 per cent of the projected crop for this year because of a lack of precipitation, and more losses are anticipated if there is no rainfall in coming weeks.
"More than anything, the problem is going to be with yields," said Jorge Reyes Moreno, secretary of rural development in Tamaulipas.
While the impact of drought on crop output is of some concern in northern states, a much bigger problem is the loss of cattle in states like Coahuila, Durango, Chihuahua, Tamaulipas, and Nuevo León. Dry conditions have caused problems for livestock producers in these states for many years, but there is concern that this year could be even worse.
"We are already seeing a negative impact for the cattle ranchers in production costs," said Octavio Jurado, president of the Asociación Mexicana de Secretarios de Desarrollo Agropecuario (AMSDA). Cattle numbers are already down 30 per cent, in part because of cattle deaths, but also because many producers are choosing to export their animals since they cannot afford high feed costs and buyers in the US are offering good prices.
"As a result of high costs and good export prices, many producers are selling their cows, which is hampering efforts to boost cattle numbers in Mexico," said Pablo Sherwell, a senior analyst for Rabobank International.
Rabobank says Mexican cattle growers were only exporting about 10 per cent of their cows before the drought of 2011, but the percentage increased to about 25 per cent last year. And the prospect of replenishing cattle numbers appears dim because a lack of water has caused many cows to lose their calves before birth, CNC officials reported recently.
Authorities in Nuevo León are especially worried about the situation in the state.
"The latest period of drought between 2011 and 2013 can be considered the most severe in the state in the past 50 years," Monterrey-based daily newspaper El Porvenir said in an editorial calling for state and federal authorities to take emergency action. "In 2012 alone, we lost more than 40,000 hectares of crops and 9,000 head of cattle because of a lack of rain. This came at a cost of 400 million pesos (US$33 million)."
The El Porvenir editorial also cited the need to help thousands of families in rural areas who are facing water and food shortages as a result of the drought.
Forest fires a huge concern
Concern is also widespread that the tinder-like conditions might result in an extremely difficult season for forest fires. The situation appears to be a repeat of recent years, when a lack of rain caused a spike in forest fires. But, in its most recent report, the Comisión Nacional Forestal (CONAFOR) said this could equal or surpass the damage in 1998, a year when El Niño weather phenomenon brought extremely dry conditions to Mexico, destroying about 98,000 hectares of forests and grasslands.
The federal forestry agency said more than 3,500 fires had been reported between the start of the year and March 25, triple the number recorded during the same period in 2012. The fires thus far have decimated more than 53,000 ha in January-March, and the potential is great for the damage to surpass the totals set 15 years ago.
"We are about to face a very difficult situation," CONAFOR spokesperson Juan José González Salazar said in an interview with the daily newspaper Vanguardia, based in Saltillo, Coahuila state.
The dry conditions are compounded because many small farmers continue the long-time practice of clearing land by burning off brush, which at times can cause a fire to go out of control. But CONAFOR officials noted that authorities are better prepared to prevent and react to fires than they have been in the past, including by having the presence of thousands of firefighters and volunteers around the country. The forestry agency has implemented a number of actions to prevent and detect fires.
"Our efforts range from increased citizen information to reconnaissance flights over areas that are difficult to reach by land," CONAFOR spokesperson Alfredo Nolasco Morales told Vanguardia.
CONAFOR also makes use of a satellite system to measure heat levels in various regions that would be prone to fires. The information is then shared with local authorities. Nolasco says the number of sites varies from day to day. For example, he said, on March 24, the satellite recorded 500 danger locations, but the number was reduced to 162 on March 25.
The damage has also varied from state to state. For example, fires destroyed 10,000 ha in San Luis Potosí during a single week in March. In contrast, Coahuila state—which suffered a devastating fire season in 2011—has reported only five small fires thus far in 2013.
Restrictions on aquifers imposed
The extremely dry conditions have prompted President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration to enact a new set of emergency measures.
On April 6, SEMARNAT announced the creation of a coordinating committee comprising representatives of 12 Cabinet ministries, CONAGUA, and the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) to respond to emergencies resulting from drought and floods. The committee will have the power to develop preventative measures and identify appropriate actions to deal with emergencies.
"The committee will coordinate with state and municipal governments and determine what actions are necessary to deal with weather-related emergencies," said the text of the decree to create the commission.
SEMARNAT also developed a new set of restrictions regarding water extractions from the country’s aquifers. In early April, the environment ministry announced water extractions would no longer be allowed at 333 aquifers without prior approval from authorities. SEMARNAT had originally set the restrictions on March 24 for 96 aquifers, but extreme drought forced the list to be expanded.
The aquifers on the list are either running short of water, in areas where the drought is severe, adjacent to aquifers that are already overexploited, or at risk of intrusions of salinated water caused by overexploitation.
The restrictions are in place primarily in central and northern states, including 40 aquifers each in Chihuahua and Coahuila, 29 in Sonora, and 26 in Durango. But the directive also covers aquifers in a few southern states, including Guerrero and Oaxaca.
Also on the list are aquifers that supply water to the metropolitan areas of Mexico City and Monterrey. Authorities in Mexico City recently discovered a new aquifer in southeastern Mexico City, which could eventually ease concerns about water supplies in the capital.
In addition to requiring permission to extract water, SEMARNAT is prohibiting drilling new wells and constructing new infrastructure to draw water from the subsoil. And, for those who have permits, penalties will apply for surpassing designated extraction limits.
SEMARNAT said another problem has been the rapid expansion of irrigation infrastructure, which is contributing to a depletion of water supplies. "Some regions of the country, particularly in the north, have adopted new technologies for agricultural production, resulting in the construction of new wells in a short period," said the report. "As a result, extraction is rapidly surpassing availability."
Mexico is also facing problems with low water levels at reservoirs, particularly in northern states. In a report presented in early April, the CNC said that many of the largest reservoirs in Mexico are currently at 25 per cent to 30 per cent of capacity.
CNC president Gerardo Sánchez García said the situation has caused great concern among many agricultural producers and ranchers, who have been unable to prepare land for the next production cycle because the earth is too dry.
Sánchez García urged state and federal authorities to intervene promptly to provide direct assistance to members of the agriculture sector affected by the drought.
"[Producers] should not have to bear the full impact of the drought," said the CNC leader.
One example of a depleted reservoir is the Presa Don Martín, which provides water for about 29,000 ha of agricultural land in Nuevo León state. The reservoir is currently at 35 per cent of capacity because of persistent dry conditions.
"Even though water is not being extracted from the Presa Don Martín, water levels continue dropping in a very alarming manner," said the El Porvenir editorial. "If the trend continues, the reservoir could quickly drop to 20 per cent of capacity."
Peso-dollar conversions in this article are based on the Interbank rate in effect on April 10, 2013, reported at 12.10 pesos per US$1.00.