Water Diplomacy and Shared Resources Along the United States-Mexico Border

The United States and Mexico are geographic neighbors with high economic asymmetry, but with intense shared history and deep social, cultural, economic, and security ties. Among these shared interests are 23 rivers and numerous aquifers along the 3,000 km border.1 Of these, two are the primary focus of the two governments, the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers. These scarce resources in the region, which ranges from semiarid in the west to arid in the center and humid in the east, require cooperation to manage and have been responsible for shaping much of the 170+ year relationship.

In 2015, over 15.3 million people resided along the United States-Mexico border in ten states, which include 24 counties in the United States and 35 municipalities in Mexico.2 Ninety percent of the residents on the border live in 15 sister cities linked through trade, employment, culture, and education, among others (see Figure 3.1)? Movement of goods and people across the border is part of everyday life in this region. For example, in 2016, over 180 million persons crossed into the United States from Mexico through the 55 ports of entry in personal vehicles or as pedestrians for purposes of tourism, shopping, or day trips.4 Also, the highest concentration of US manufacturing associated with foreign direct investment exists along the United States-Mexico border and is one of the most important sources of employment for this region.5 The population in the border region has grown at a faster pace than that of the general population in both the United States and Mexico.6 The accelerated growth along the border has aggravated the need for water and other basic infrastructure in a region where budgets allocated for such amenities are below required levels. As a result, human health and the environment in this region have been negatively impacted on both sides.

Common water supplies, including the border’s two major rivers, the Colorado and Rio Grande (see Figure 3.2), and numerous

United States-Mexico border region

Figure 3.1 United States-Mexico border region.

Colorado River and Rio Grande basins

Figure 3.2 Colorado River and Rio Grande basins.

transboundary aquifers, have been negatively impacted by drought, overdraft, and pollution that have increased salinity levels and degraded water quality. About 97 percent of the basin of the Colorado River lies within the United States. Originating in the state of Colorado, the river’s basin traverses Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California before reaching Mexico.7 Approximately 40 million residents rely on Colorado and its tributaries for municipal use, of which 2 million are in Mexico.8 The Rio Grande River also originates in the state of

Colorado and crosses New Mexico before forming the international boundary between Texas and Mexico. It is the fifth longest river in the United States and supplies water to more than six million residents in both countries.9 Since 1848, as populations and economic growth in the border region have continuously expanded, these two rivers have been the focus of cooperation between the United States and Mexico.

Today, the primary institutions involved in cooperation over water resources along the border include the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC) and the North American Development Bank (NADB).10 Scholarly literature consistently associates these two organizations with transboundary water issues and concurs on five basic premises: (1) much work has been accomplished along the border to address disputes and the discharge of wastewater into shared water bodies; (2) the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) injected much-needed attention on the need to address transboundary water pollution through wastewater infrastructure, as well as funding for such projects from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Mexico’s National Water Commission (Conagua);

  • (3) the IBWC and NADB are unique institutions with fairly robust systems for funding infrastructure and water governance respectively;
  • (4) in the last 75 years, nearly every dispute related to transboundary water was resolved through cooperation;11 and (5) more work on transboundary water issues is needed related to supply, pollution, and usage, especially as it pertains to drought and climate change.12

Each organization has contributed to different elements of cooperation over shared water resources and pollution prevention in the border region. The IBWC has managed water allocation and water pollution, and the NADB has developed and financed infrastructure projects for local communities to address water pollution. Collectively, these activities have contributed to the prevention, mitigation, and resolution of water conflicts throughout the United States-Mexico border through cooperation13 and supported dispute prevention ahead of the need for resolution.

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