According to the North American Drought Monitor, there are an estimated 33.1 million people living in drought areas throughout Mexico; that’s about 26% of the entire population. Without water, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay healthy, pursue education, water crops, feed livestock, and make money. Water scarcity induced by climate change impacts local economies, with costs of up to 6% of the nation's GDP. Additionally, not having enough water has been linked to increased social conflict and sometimes even domestic violence, which leads to people fleeing their country out of fear for themselves and their families.
The majority of our partner families – about 33% – are from Mexico. Most are seeking asylum due to persecution, criminal and political corruption, and/or a credible fear for their life. We can also assume they have experienced climatic hardships as well. As a board member of the ALIRP Direct Support Committee, I recently had the opportunity to ask our Mexican partners about their experiences with climate change and droughts. Here’s what they shared with me:
Droughts and Floods Create a Cascade of Issues
Although it may seem that droughts and floods are extreme opposites, they are connected. Researchers have defined a relationship between both hazards and air pollution. Air pollution may be responsible for retaining atmospheric moisture, effectively prolonging drought periods and inflicting heavier downpours, causing flooding. All of the Mexican partners I interviewed reported a high incidence of droughts. One partner explained, “With no rain or natural bodies of water nearby, we began having wildfire seasons, burning foliage and wildlife.” In contrast, another partner added, “Of course we felt the loss of our crops due to drought, but sometimes we would still experience the loss of our crops after flash foods – our crops would rot – it felt like we couldn’t win.” When crops supply grew scarce, livestock fatality increased, leaving rural Mexicans with very little variety in food choices and few nutrient-dense options, which are necessary to build a resilient immune system and protect against chronic disease. In this way, the effects of climate change such as drought and flash flooding can have a direct impact on a population’s health and wellbeing, and the health and well-being of Mexicans are negatively impacted by these events.
The Impacts of Climate Change are Felt Across Occupations
Research has shown that the release of Greenhouse Gases, or effectively, carbon dioxide, increases the temperature of the earth’s surface. The occurrence of heatwaves, however, has increased due to the downward change in atmospheric pressure, and these heatwaves are amplified and prolonged. Although farmers were highly impacted by climate change, the general consensus was that the heat waves were intolerable to people who worked in outdoor settings and facilities without proper ventilation or air conditioning. The inaccessibility of potable water made working outside even more dangerous due to the increased chance of experiencing heat-related illnesses like heat stroke. One partner complained, “the heat in Mexico almost felt twice as hot as the summers [in Alabama].”
The Underdevelopment of Infrastructure Impacts Access to Water and the Quality of Air
Infrastructure and development can have a significant impact on how climatic shifts and weather events are experienced. Lack of infrastructure can exacerbate issues like air pollution and water quality. For example, some partners recalled that the absence of paved roads coupled with severe drought events would decrease the quality of air as cars passed by or gusts of wind lifted the dirt. Additionally, the absence of centralized waste disposal services created respiratory health hazards: “There was litter everywhere, rotting food and animal carcasses would just make your eyes water” one partner reflected. “It's not like we wanted to live like this, we just didn't have a way to dispose of trash, so we burned and buried what we could. But some things just don't stay buried under dry dirt and burning trash had its own risks.” The release of extremely small solid particles, otherwise known as “particulate matter,” can cause cardiac and respiratory problems.
These health outcomes coupled with the inaccessibility of quality healthcare in rural settings propose disastrous consequences. One partner recounted a wildfire in 2012 that destroyed a significant portion of her village and killed two people, leaving friends and family devastated. “It was up to [the residents] to extinguish this fire because we had no fire department, and this water...we would purchase from a truck hauling potable water,” she added, “ it was awful.”
The effects of climate change on Mexican migration are complex and significant. As Greenhouse gases and global temperatures continue to rise, so do extreme weather events leading to crop failures, food insecurity, ambient air pollution, water scarcity, and eventually, the displacement of entire communities. Although currently being a victim of climate change is does not merit a claim for asylum, it may contribute to a migrant’s decision to flee Mexico, often to the United States. This situation calls for the prioritization of reducing Greenhouse Gases and the expansion of rural and urban infrastructure to mitigate the impacts of climate change and support vulnerable communities.
You can take action on this issue by becoming a volunteer with ALIRP's Direct Support Committee and helping displaced individuals right at home. If you feel moved to do so, you can also donate to ALIRP or just share this article. Lastly, stay informed on climate action by visiting the United Nations Climate Action webpage.