While You Weren't Looking
The Water War on the U.S.-Mexico Border Has Just Begun
Drought-hit farmers in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua have refused to cede control of a dam so that Mexico can repay its water debt to the United States.
Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly update on emerging global stories.
Here’s what we’re watching this week: A blockade by farmers in Chihuahua could preview the coming water wars on the U.S.-Mexico border, why Kyrgyzstan has a new dual president-prime minister, and tens of thousands of Thai pro-democracy protesters break a ban on large gatherings in the capital.
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Clash With Mexico Signals Future Water Conflict
Drought-hit farmers in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua have refused to end their occupation of La Boquilla Dam, which they seized in early September, ahead of the looming Oct. 24 deadline for Mexico to pay its annual water debt to the United States.
The two countries share the waters of the cross-border Colorado and Rio Grande rivers as part of a landmark treaty signed in 1944. Mexico receives four times more water from the Colorado than it gives to the United States via the Rio Grande. As part of the agreement, Mexico repays the United States by releasing 512 million cubic meters of water each year from dams in the country’s north.
But Mexico has fallen behind on its obligations to send a certain amount of water north as part of a five-year cycle that ends later this month. As increased demand and rising temperatures have strained water resources, farmers fear that sending the water north now could devastate their livelihoods. Throughout the year, farmers have periodically clashed with Mexican military troops at dams in Chihuahua, and at least one protester has been killed by Mexico’s National Guard.
Battles over water use have long plagued the arid states of the American West. But the cross-border clash with Mexico is likely a preview of the water conflicts to come, as population growth and climate change increase competition over the vital resource. Dry regions where a body of freshwater straddles international boundaries, such as the U.S.-Mexico border, are most at risk.
Keen to avoid being dragged into the contentious U.S. presidential election, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador vowed last month to repay the country’s water debt to the United States and has said that he would appeal to U.S. President Donald Trump for “understanding” if Mexico fails to meet the deadline.
In September, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, calling on him to enforce Mexico’s obligations under the international treaty and warning that it could disrupt farming operations in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. The treaty does not include any enforcement mechanisms or penalties for noncompliance, and it’s not clear what steps the United States could take if the water is not released.
The Week Ahead
An ultimatum for Lukashenko. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the leader of the Belarusian opposition, has set a deadline for President Aleksandr Lukashenko: to step down by Sunday, Oct. 25, or face a paralyzing general strike.
The move comes after riot police cracked down on peaceful protesters on Oct. 11 with a brutality not seen since the days immediately after the rigged Aug. 9 presidential election. Last week, Deputy Interior Minister Gennady Kazakevich said police were willing to use lethal force against protesters. More than two months since the vote, a stalemate appeared to be settling in, but Tikhanovskaya’s ultimatum could escalate the situation once more.
“Tikhanovskaya on one hand must prevent violent escalation, but on the other hand she must give people hope and a task, an instruction to do,” her international relations advisor, Franak Viacorka, told me last week.
Chile’s constitutional referendum. Chileans go to the polls on Sunday, Oct. 25, to vote on whether to overhaul the country’s constitution—first drafted in 1980 during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, although frequently modified since the country returned to democracy.
The referendum is the result of the widespread street protests over inequality last year that left more than 30 people dead. Pinochet’s neoliberal reforms in the 1970s, which were codified in the country’s constitution, have been credited with transforming Chile into an economic powerhouse, but they also made it one of the most unequal countries in the OECD group of wealthy nations. Opinion polls show that over three-quarters of Chileans support a new constitution.
What We’re Following
Meet Kyrgyzstan’s new president-prime minister. At the beginning of October, the Kyrgyz politician Sadyr Japarov was serving a 11-year jail sentence for kidnapping a provincial governor in 2013. In a remarkable turnaround, Japarov is now serving as both president and prime minister, as disputed parliamentary elections on Oct. 4 have plunged the country into chaos. After the vote, protesters released Japarov and several other imprisoned political figures. Japarov was appointed prime minister last week, and his dizzying rise from prison to power has baffled observers.
On Friday, Kyrgyz lawmakers also appointed him interim president, after President Sooronbay Jeenbekov resigned on Thursday when Japarov supporters threatened to launch an assault on the presidential residence. The European Union’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, said Japarov’s dual role “raises serious questions” about the country’s commitment to the rule of law and human rights. Japarov has pledged that new elections will be held in the coming months.
Pro-democracy protests in Thailand. Tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters took to the streets in Bangkok and across Thailand over the weekend, as the government stepped up its efforts to quash the movement. Gatherings of more than a handful of people are already banned in the capital, and public transport was shut down and water cannons deployed in a bid to disperse weekend demonstrations.
The protests have roiled Thailand in recent months, calling for reforms to limit the power of the monarchy, a new constitution, and new elections. The country has some of the world’s strictest lèse-majesté laws—punishing criticism of the monarchy with lengthy prison sentences—though that has not deterred some protesters.
Keep an Eye On
Socialists are back in Bolivia. Exit polls after Sunday’s presidential election in Bolivia show Luis Arce, the left-wing candidate from former President Evo Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo party, with a double-digit lead. Morales, who took power in 2006, fled Bolivia following last year’s presidential elections, when the opposition, protesters, and observers accused him of rigging the vote.
Morales’s supporters then described his ouster as a right-wing coup. If confirmed, Sunday’s results would mark a remarkable comeback for Morales’s party and could bolster left-wing movements across Latin America, Jaime Aparicio-Otero writes in Foreign Policy.
Electoral violence in the Ivory Coast. The home of former Ivory Coast Prime Minister Pascal Affi N’Guessan was burned down during clashes in his hometown of Bongouanou on Saturday as tensions escalated ahead of the presidential election on Oct. 31. N’Guessan and former President Henri Konan Bédié, the two main opposition candidates, have called for a boycott of the vote, accusing President Alassane Ouattara of plotting an “electoral coup.” Fears are mounting that the election could spiral into violence, as in 2010 when a disputed vote triggered a civil war that left over 3,000 people dead.
The election has been mired in controversy since Ouattara announced that he would run for a third term after his preferred successor died unexpectedly in July. While the constitution imposes a two-term limit, Ouattara has argued that his first two terms in office don’t count because Ivory Coast adopted a new constitution in 2016.
The next pandemic? Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest could pave the way for new diseases with the potential to become epidemics, the Thomson Reuters Foundation reports. As insects and wildlife are displaced and humans move deeper into the forest, the diseases could more easily jump from animals to humans.
Brazil’s Evandro Chagas Institute, which promotes public health, has already identified 37 viruses in the Amazon that can cause disease in humans, 15 of which could have the potential to cause epidemics.
Odds and Ends
Renaming convention. A court in Tunisia ruled on Wednesday that an 81-year-old man can change his name to remove a word that signifies he is the descendant of slaves. The word atig, which means “liberated by,” was added to names of formerly enslaved people, but the landmark court ruling could pave the way for many families to drop the word from their names.
In 2018, Tunisia became the first Arab country to criminalize racial discrimination, but activists say Black Tunisians, who make up 10 to 15 percent of the population, still face discrimination and socioeconomic marginalization.
That’s it for this week.