Mexicans see current drought as sign of drier years to come

Reuters / Authorities fear a severe drought in Mexico is just a foretaste of a drier future.

As water tankers race across northern Mexico to reach far-flung towns, and crops wither in the fields, the government has allotted US$2.7 billion in emergency aid to confront the country’s worst-ever drought, which has caused $1.2 billion in crop losses and killed 60,000 head of cattle.

“Droughts are cyclical — we know that — but they are growing more frequent and severe due to climate change,” said Elvira Quesada, the country’s environment minister.

The drought helped push Mexico’s food imports up 35 per cent last year, a trend likely to persist through the 2012-13 crop cycle. Zacatecas state, the country’s main bean producer, harvested only a quarter of the usual crop after months without rain, and water shortage has forced Mexican farmers to cut back cattle herds.

“There was talk of drought when I got here 16 years ago,” said Ignacio Becerra, a priest working in the rugged town of Carichi in Chihuahua state, which has suffered massive water shortages. “This year, not even corn or beans came up. Watering holes that never ran dry are empty.”

A dry future

Mexican President Felipe Calderon, an outspoken advocate for mitigating and adapting to climate change, has ordered his government to start getting ready for tougher times.

Experts estimate Mexico will have to spend billions of dollars in the next two decades to maintain the water supply for irrigation and drinking water. Water authority Conagua says it must invest $24 billion by 2030 to safeguard and modernize infrastructure by sealing leaky pipes, expanding reservoirs, and even recycling household waste water.

As policy-makers plot their response to climate change, Mexicans must simply come to grip with years of little rain — and higher food bills for staples like beef.

Darrell Hargrove, owner of farming and trucking firm Southwest Livestock in Del Rio, Texas, said the price of Mexican cattle has risen to about $2 per pound from $1.50 since February.

“We have the lowest cattle herd count here that we’ve had since about 1950,” Hargrove said.

The human cost has also been harsh.

The government said it provided food rations to more than two million people, while more than 400,000 residents in the six driest states were without water at the end of December and an estimated eight million are grappling with water shortages.

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