CHIHUAHUA, Mexico — Clouds of dust swirl around the desiccated cattle carcasses scattered across the sun-scorched field.
The buzzards have gorged on the corpses, picking out the eyes and ripping their way into the remains through the empty stomachs. Nothing but skin and bone is left.
The unprecedented drought that has parched northern Mexico — and stretched into Arizona, New Mexico and Texas — has been as good for these scavengers as it has been calamitous for the region’s ranchers and farmers.
Over the last 12 months, 350,000 head of cattle have starved to death here in Chihuahua, Mexico’s largest state, according to El Barzon, a national association that represents the owners of small and medium-sized farms.
Without rain, there is no pasture.
“With the capital, I could start another business,” rancher Ismael Solorio, 24, says wistfully as he considers selling his remaining herd. “If it doesn’t rain, I will have no choice.”
Solorio inherited 200 cows from his grandfather in 2008, in the community of Constitucion, about two hours northwest from the state capital, Chihuahua city. The unusually dry, difficult conditions slowly whittled that figure down to 160 a year ago.
But the last year has been disastrous. A total of 26 cows have starved to death over the winter and spring, and he was forced to sell another 10. He borrowed money to buy pasture to put a little fat and meat on their lean frames.
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In recent weeks, seasonal rains have helped reduce the number of Mexico’s 32 states acutely affected by drought from 18 to five. But most of Chihuahua remains in a state of emergency.
If strong rains do not come here soon, the decision will be taken out of his hands, Solorio says. He will either sell or watch his entire herd die in front of him. “If I don’t sell them while they are still healthy, it will be a write-off,” he told GlobalPost.
Solorio could be waiting in vain, according to Carlos Gay, an atmospheric physicist and head of the Climate Change Program at Latin America’s largest university, the UNAM in Mexico City.
“Northern Mexico has always been arid, and there have often been droughts,” he said. “But what is strange is the duration of this drought, and the fact that it has been preceded by other droughts. Is it really a drought, or the region’s new climate?”
It is not just the cattle ranchers who are suffering.
So far, this year, some 60,000 families, including many impoverished Tarahumara Indians, living in the remote Copper Canyon, have needed food aid from the regional and federal governments.
In April, the Mexican Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill that would force the country to slash its carbon footprint 30 percent by 2020, making it only the second country, after the UK, to set itself legally binding targets.
And no wonder. Normally, Chihuahua produces 100,000 metric tons of corn a year. But in 2011, the harvest was all but wiped out. The entire state — Mexico’s largest — produced just 500 tons. According to the state government, local farmers lost 897.5 million pesos ($65 million) as a result.
Although corn was the hardest-hit crop, it was hardly the only one. Chihuahua’s bean harvest in 2011 was just 20,000 tons, down more than 100,000 tons from the previous year. That cost local growers around $112 million.
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The lack of rain is forcing the region’s farmers to draw ever more heavily on the aquifers lying below their fields. Yet that is no solution either.
The aquifers’ sole source of replenishment is the rain itself. And just 3 percent of the precipitation that falls here ever makes it to the aquifers. Most of the rest evaporates.
As a result, the farmers are having to dig their wells deeper and deeper into the rocky ground.
Rafael Armendariz, 65, is president of the community of Benito Juarez, a few miles from Constitucion. He says that wells, which a generation ago produced water from a depth of 250 feet, now have to be excavated, at great cost, to around 800 feet.
To make matters worse, CONAGUA, the national water commission, has not done any hydrological studies of the local aquifer. No one in Benito Juarez knows how close they are to the aquifer running dry.
“We don’t know what else to do,” says Armendariz, as he predicts that the current generation could be the last in Benito Juarez to work the land. “Farming is the only thing we have ever done. That is why we keep at it.”
And the costs of deeper wells go beyond their excavation. Alejandro Rodriguez, 46, uses three wells to irrigate his 338-acre peach and apple farm on the outskirts of Chihuahua city.
His monthly electricity bill for pumping that water from an aquifer 350 feet down can reach almost $10,000. As the wells go deeper, the electricity required increases exponentially.
The regional government talks about climate change but has done little, says Martin Bustamente, of the Chihuahua branch of El Barzon.
“We have never learned to live in the desert and now that climate change has arrived, we are finally going to have to catch up or face disaster,” he warns.
He is calling for government support for farmers to acquire more efficient, state-of-the-art irrigation systems and for no aquifer to be used unsustainably. He is also pushing for a way to have thirsty urban areas pay the region’s farmers, who, effectively, manage the natural watersheds that supply the cities’ water.
Above all, he wants existing laws to be enforced so that the amount of water actually withdrawn from aquifers does not exceed the concessions authorized by CONAGUA.
Outside observers may think northern Mexican governments are overburdened trying to contain drug war violence.
But for residents like Armendariz, water is the real security issue.
“Violence? If the rains don’t come, it will only get worse because more people will be out of work. You cannot fix that problem if you don’t secure the water.”
With support from a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.