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Will drought in Mexico spur surge in emigration to the US?

By Michael Clark - 03 Dec 2011 15:25:44 GMT
Will drought in Mexico spur surge in emigration to the US?

Drought via Shutterstock

The worst drought in seventy years has left nearly 2.5 million people in Northern Mexico without a secure food or water supply, resulted in significant crop yield reductions, and caused the death of nearly half a million cattle. The Mexican government has reduced crop yield projections twice this year. The most recent predicts a loss of 3 million tons, from 23 million to 20 million. Typical output is 28 million tons per year.

Reservoirs, some of which are only 30-40% full, are drying up, leaving little or no water for irrigation or drinking. The government is trucking water to affected towns for drinking purposes only. Farmers are out of luck. Many have little or no water, and so have switched focus from growing crops to filing insurance claims to cover losses. Residents, many of whom depend on local agriculture for food, are in danger of starving. And it appears that things will only get worse before they get better: the drought is expected to continue until at least June and it is predicted that crop killing hard frosts will occur between now and then.

The drought, and resulting loss in agricultural output, may result in a significant surge in migration to the US. A Princeton study found that climate change related crop yield reductions could lead to the emigration to the US of an additional 6.7m Mexicans by 2080. By analyzing historical data and predicted trends, the study concluded that an additional 2% of the Mexican population will flee the country for every 10% reduction in agricultural productivity. Based on these findings, there is potential for a 6% surge in immigration. Crop production is predicted to be down 30% and around 2% of the cattle population has died thus far.

However, the US seems in no position or mood to take these folks on. The economy is in the dumps. Unemployment remains high and jobs are scarce. The political environment isn't friendly. Southern tier states, long struggling with large immigrant populations, have begun turning to draconian measures to manage it. Arizona passed its notoriously harsh immigration earlier this year and this fall Alabama passed what could very well be a harsher immigration law. Unlike Arizona, Alabama forbids the state or any other political entities from entering into business transactions with undocumented individuals. This compelled some water utilities, including the ironically named Town of Allgood, to require proof citizenship from customers in order to continue water service. Like Mexico, the Southwest and Texas are wracked with drought. Crop losses in Texas have amounted to an estimated $5b in crop losses, several towns are in real danger of running out of water, and the state's burgeoning hydrofracking industry was hit by water use restrictions.

The Mexican government is sending aid, but their ability to continue to meet needs is questionable. After all, we're talking about 2.5m people, a not insignificant population, and it is predicted that the drought will continue until at least the middle of 2012. So what happens when the aid runs out? Do they go to the US? With the prevailing economic, political, and environmental conditions in the US, the answer isn't clear. Their northern neighbor doesn't seem like a gleaming option.

Mexico isn't unfamiliar with drought and famine. Theories abound that drought brought down the Mayans, and the country was plagued by the Little Drought Age, a period from 1690 to 1800 marked by prolonged drought and famine. The potential for a long term decline in agricultural output brought on by climate change and the potential for a concomitant surge in immigration should spur the US and Mexico to work together for solutions. At this point, solutions are scarce, but likely necessary in order to prevent future famine.

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