Credit: Jackie Roche for Years of Living Dangerously and Symbolia Magazine

Mennonite farmers in Mexico, who face rapidly depleting groundwater, are considering leaving their homes and immigrating to another part of the world in search of better water supplies, according to an article Monday in The New York Times.

The farmers live about 50 miles northwest of Chihuahua, where the aquifers below their fields are forecast to go dry in about 20 years as a result of overfarming and aggressive irrigation of arid land.

As more groundwater wells in the area are drained, tensions are rising among the Mennonites and surrounding communities.

From The Times:

A group of activists known as El Barzón has campaigned to shut down illegal wells and break dams on Mennonite land. Joaquín Solorio, a Barzón activist whose parents had to sell their cattle after their well, next to a Mennonite farm, dried up, said the group had lodged complaints about illegal water use.

The article goes on to describe deadly conflicts arising from water disputes in the area.

It is the latest example of a world grappling with depleting water sources and increasingly violent conflicts erupting where water shortages have taken hold.

This cartoon from last year depicts the role water disputes played in the political conflict that led to the Syrian civil war, which has displaced millions of people:

Credit: Audrey Quinn and Jackie Roche for Years of Living Dangerously and Symbolia Magazine

The issue appears to be drawing wider attention from the public. Following the Paris terrorist attacks, an opinion column by Google executive Yonatan Zunger was circulated widely on social media, where he expressed his belief that water shortages play a critical role in the growing conflicts in the Middle East:

But theres one profound factor which has driven the violence in the Middle East far more than oil ever could: water.

The entire Middle East has been in a water, and thus food, crisis for decades. In Egypt, for example, the Nile Valley has been drying out ever since the Aswan Dam was completed in 1970; as this once-fertile soil turned to desert, people have streamed into Cairo, doubling and tripling its population by forming tremendous shantytowns. Unemployment was extreme, as its not like the cities suddenly had tens of millions of new jobs in them; the government kept order as well as it could by importing grain in tremendous quantities (the governments by-far largest annual expense) and selling bread cheaply. Unfortunately, a drought in Russia and Ukraine, Egypts primary suppliers, caused those countries to cut off wheat exports in 2011 – and the government collapsed soon after.

Syria is a similar story: the lead-in to the collapse of Bashar al-Assads dictatorship was steady droughts in the Syrian countryside driving people into the cities by the hundreds of thousands, leading to mass unemployment and unrest. Peoples livelihoods had simply disappeared. Stories like this repeat across the entire Middle East.

When we talk about the ultimate causes of the situation, this is the fact we tend to ignore: at the root of it, there isnt enough water, and there isnt enough food, and droughts have been hitting the area harder and harder for a decade. When there isnt enough food, people move from the countryside to the cities; and now you have giant groups of people who still dont have jobs or food, and thats a recipe for the collapse of governments as surely today as it was in Europe in the 1840s.

The New York Times article cited Reveal’s investigation into a Saudi dairy company that bought 15 square miles of land in the Arizona desert and tapped into local aquifers to grow hay, shipping the dairy feed back to Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s groundwater has been largely depleted, and now its government has told its companies to import food commodities from overseas. A water expert from Arizona State University predicated the aquifer supporting the Saudi hay farm in the state would be dry in a generation or two.

Still, some people don’t think the aquifers will run dry, according to the The Times:

Several Mennonite farmers said they were skeptical that Chihuahua would run dry. Water was God-given, one farmer said, and only God could take it away.

“Doesn’t water go in a cycle?” Mr. (Abraham) Wiebe asked. “You pull it from the ground, and then it rains from the sky.”

Scientists paint a different picture. They say even water-wealthy countries such as the United States are draining their groundwater at unsustainable rates. California, which produces about half of the country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables, is draining its aquifers, which already is causing expensive havoc in the state.


Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Nathan Halverson (he/him) is an Emmy Award-winning producer for Reveal, covering business and finance with a current emphasis on the global food system. Before joining Reveal, Halverson worked on projects for FRONTLINE, the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and PBS NewsHour. He was the principal reporter on Reveal's story about the Chinese government’s involvement in the takeover of America’s largest pork company, Smithfield Foods Inc. He was awarded a 2014 McGraw Fellowship by the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, and he received a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Minnesota. He has won a New York Times Chairman’s Award and has received reporting honors from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, California Newspaper Publishers Association, San Francisco Peninsula Press Club and Associated Press News Executives Council. Halverson is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.