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NAFTA extractivism and the human right to water in San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende is a municipality located in the eastern part of the state of Guanajuato in central Mexico.

Tourism is a large part of the local economy. The New York Times notes, “San Miguel de Allende is almost 500 years old, and for more than 50 it’s been a beloved tourist destination. Nevertheless, it’s still possible for newness to wash over this famous Mexican mountain city of snaking cobblestone streets and colonial buildings in delectable fruit-bowl-meets-spice-rack colors (think mango and avocado next to paprika and turmeric).” That said, Trip Advisor cautions, “Remember that here, as elsewhere in Mexico, tap water is not drinkable. Bottled water is widely available and short-term visitors are advised to use it to brush their teeth too.”

Tourism accounts for almost 40 per cent of the municipality’s jobs and most of its income, but industries (such as the production of electrical energy, metal products and mineral processing), and agriculture (notably corn, beans, wheat, and alfalfa) are also major parts of the local economy.

Mexico faces increasing water scarcity, the over-exploitation of freshwater resources and deteriorating water quality. Water supplies have been diminishing dramatically in Mexico and water availability is expected to drop another 75 per cent over the next 15 years. In Mexico some 170 aquifers are now being over-exploited, a number that is expected to double over the next five years.

Central Mexico, where San Miguel de Allende is situated, is under heavy water stress. Eighty per cent of Mexico’s population lives in central and northern Mexico, while less than 20 per cent of its water is in that region. Water stress in Guanajuato has been attributed mostly due to demographic pressure, but also to a large dam, a thermo-electric generation plant, the heavy petrochemical industry, leather products manufacturing, and intensive agriculture.

The New York Times reports, “The farms in Guanajuato count as one of the great success stories of [the economic model that puts pressure on people and nature], codified in the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. Every day, workers stack crates of fresh produce aboard giant refrigerated trucks that roar straight to the Texas border. As far back as the 1980s, even before the free trade agreement, the government imposed a ban on most new wells in Guanajuato. But water extraction increased exponentially. Every year, farms bore farther into the aquifer, and scientists warn that as they go deeper they are reaching tainted water deposited between 10,000 and 35,000 years ago.”

The San Miguel Atencion notes, “The main water source for the municipality of San Miguel de Allende is the Laja River Upper Basin, also known as the Basin of Independence. Dr. Marcos Adrian Ortega, a researcher at the Mexican Institute of Geosciences, says that currently the Basin of Independence supplies 3,000 wells, of which 1,500 should not have been drilled because they are causing surface water depletion of the aquifer. Most of these wells are used for agriculture. Dr. Ortega explains that while surface water is being depleted from overuse, water from deep in the ground rises to the surface and is already being consumed in several communities. This water is more than 10,000 years old and has reached great depths, so it has been in contact with subsurface volcanic rock, which has increased its concentration of fluoride, arsenic and sodium above permissible levels for human consumption.”

The water crisis also impacts people differently depending on their income. A blogger (who lived in San Miguel de Allende for six months) informally writes, “Of course, you can’t actually drink this water. Nor can you wash your produce in it. Instead you buy bottled water to drink and wash your produce in a colloidal silver solution. Of course, the well-to-do among us solve the water woes by building or renovating their homes with spanky-new whole-house water systems. They use ozone-kill-it-all thingys, super-duper gravity pumps, and reverse-osmosis stuff. But if you’re coming to Mexico on a pauper’s budget like me, be prepared to develop an entirely new relationship with water.”

Despite all this (though perhaps not surprisingly), federal and state authorities have not acknowledged the water crisis in Guanajuato.

El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden, a 170-acre botanical garden set in an ecological preserve situated near San Miguel de Allende, reports that a Water Forum took place in March that resulted in a Declaration of Charco del Ingenio signed by members of the general public, scientists, environmentalists, farmers and organizations. A newsletter highlights, “This manifesto summarizes the dire water situation in the basin, emphasizing the increasing pollution of both the aquifer and the shallow channels, derived from an irrational and unsustainable extractive model. The manifesto also requires state and federal authorities to implement public policies to address the alarming crisis that threatens public good and a fundamental human right: water.”

On October 27, The Council of Canadians, along with its Ottawa chapter, will be hosting a public forum featuring – via Skype – Mario Arturo Hernández Peña, the director of the Botanical Garden talking about the water crisis in San Miguel de Allende. The gathering will take place on the 2nd Floor of the 25One Community building (at Bank and Cooper). Look for more details on that public forum soon.