The scarcity of water in northwestern Mexico has created a conflict between the Yaqui Indians in Sonora and the federal and state governments regarding control of the scarce water that flows on the Rio Yaqui. The controversy concerns an aqueduct constructed by the administration of Sonora Gov. Guillermo Padres Elias, which captures 634 gallons of water per second from the Rio Yaqui and diverts it through 130 km of pipeline between Presa El Novillo and the state capital of Hermosillo.
The Yaquis, which have opposed the project from its inception, argue that the Sonora government has usurped their water rights and violated the law by ignoring court orders to halt construction and then to stop operations of the aqueduct.
The Acueducto Independencia, completed in November 2012, is just one of several options the Sonora government has pursued to provide water for residential and industrial uses in Sonora after almost a decade of consistent drought conditions in northwestern Mexico (SourceMex, June 7, 2006, April 28, 2010, and April 10, 2013). The efforts to supply the state with water include the proposed construction of a desalination plant near Hermosillo (SourceMex, Nov. 2, 2011).
"Sonora is a state where arid conditions prevail," author and journalist Humberto Musacchio said in a guest column in the Mexico City daily newspaper Excelsior. "The capital city of Hermosillo, the fastest growing city in the state, is thirsty and requires more and more water, regardless of the cost."
Musacchio said water and political campaigns have become inseparable in Sonora. "The political class is aware of the scarcity, and that is why the issue is inseparable from the campaigns," said the author. "During his electoral campaign, Gov. Guillermo Padres promised to build two large desalination plants to bring water to the state capital."
Padres Elias, a member of the conservative Partido Accion Nacional (PAN), moved forward aggressively with the construction of the Acueducto Independencia with the support of the federal government, which was then headed by ex President Felipe Calderon (2006-2012), also a member of the PAN.
The Rio Yaqui, the largest river in Sonora, flows for about 320 km from the Sierra Madre Occidental to the Gulf of California, ending near the coastal city of Ciudad Obregon.
Supreme Court orders environmental-impact study
However, the project was met with strong opposition from Yaqui communities, which have seen their water supplies decrease rapidly. The Yaquis, who have filed injunctions with the courts to halt the project, eventually succeeded in bringing the issue to Mexico's high court (Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nacion, SCJN) with support and assistance from the Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA).
"The history of our people has been linked with the Rio Yaqui water for our cultural and economic survival," the Yaqui community said. "The river is part of our rituals and worldview; it is the main productive element, it is connected to creation and is a symbol in the mythical world of the Huya Ania where both benign and malignant beings give meaning and identity to our existence."
"For three years we have seen our very survival seriously threatened by the building of the Acueducto Independencia ... depriving us of the most valuable resource we have for subsistence," added the petition presented by the Yaqui administration in Vicam, one of eight seats of traditional government that historically oversee the Yaqui territory in Sonora.
To ensure that the complaint before the SCJN received as much international exposure as possible, members of the Yaqui community launched a parallel campaign on World Water Day, March 22, to bring attention to the issue. "It bears mentioning that the Yaqui Tribe has recognized rights to the mentioned resource, since President Lazaro Cardenas signed a decree restoring territory and creating a title for the Yaqui Tribe, authorizing the right to retain 50% of the water in the channel of the stated river," said the declaration. …