Stanford historian unearths greed-drenched origins of Mexico’s groundwater crisis

Photo retrieved from Stanford News

“A historic three-year drought has left California bone dry. But the state, along with much of the Southwest, is not alone in its water crisis. Mexico, too, is facing a severe water shortage, and Stanford scholar Mikael Wolfe says the Mexican version was decades in the making, and probably preventable.

Wolfe, an assistant professor of Latin American and environmental history, has brought to light the shady story of groundwater pumping in 20th-century Mexico. As Mexico’s water problem is now described as a matter of national security, Wolfe’s research is especially timely. He found that today’s groundwater crisis can be traced back to the 1920s, in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), much earlier than most water scholars and policymakers have assumed. His research draws heavily from the Historical Water Archive in Mexico City. The only collection of its kind in Latin America, the archive contains tens of thousands of documents produced by hydraulic engineers, landowners and peasants, from the 19th century to the present.

“Although the Revolution happened a century ago,” Wolfe says, “decisions about groundwater extraction continue to impact water quality and supply issues in Mexico today.”

Even more surprising, Wolfe found evidence that the Mexican government was warned about the overuse of groundwater resources in the 1930s. Mexican agriculturalists – by far the biggest groundwater users – were paving the way toward environmental disaster.

Within a decade after the Revolution, Mexico already showed signs of groundwater shortage. As Wolfe’s research demonstrates, the engineering elite was responsible for building canal networks, dam projects and groundwater pumps to distribute and maximize access to water. Wolfe found a confidential 1944 U.S. consular report predicting that ecological “disaster lies ahead” for Mexico – despite, or perhaps because of, the burgeoning water infrastructure.

Unfortunately, the insatiable demand for water, fueled by developmental imperatives, “persistently trumped concerns for conservation,” Wolfe said, adding, “it’s a pattern that persists to this day.”"

Read more at: Stanford News

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