FRANCISCO SALAZAR and OLGA R. RODRIGUEZ
DURANGO, Mexico (AP) -- The sun-baked northern states of Mexico are suffering under the worst drought since the government began recording rainfall 70 years ago. Crops of corn, beans and oats are withering in the fields. About 1.7 million cattle have died of starvation and thirst.
Hardest hit are five states in Mexico's north, a region that is being parched by the same drought that has dried out the southwest United States. The government is trucking water to 1,500 villages scattered across the nation's northern expanse, and sending food to poor farmers who have lost all their crops.
Life isn't likely to get better soon. The next rainy season isn't due until June, and there's no guarantee normal rains will come then.
Most years, Guillermo Marin harvests 10 tons of corn and beans from his fields in this harsh corner of Mexico. This year, he got just a single ton of beans. And most of the 82-year-old farmer's fellow growers in this part of Durango state weren't able to harvest anything at all.
"I almost got a ton of beans. It's very little, but you have to harvest whatever you get," said Marin, who depends on his crops to sustain himself and the seven grown children who work with him.
The family has five plots of 20 acres (8 hectares) each in the town of San Juan del Rio, an area at the foot of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains dotted with farming and ranching villages whose only water comes from seasonal rains.
Those have been lacking for more than a year in much of Mexico. Its been the country's worst dry spell since 1941, when the government began recording rainfall.
"This is the most severe drought the country has registered," President Felipe Calderon said Thursday at a meeting with governors from the hardest hit states of Durango, Zacatecas, Chihuahua, Coahuila and San Luis Potosi.
Those states average about 21 inches (542 millimeters) of rain annually. This year they got 12 inches (308 millimeters), according to Mexico's National Weather Service.
To the north, Texas also has endured its driest year on record. Since March, Texas has recorded seven of the 10 driest months it has seen during the past 116 years. In August, officials there estimated losses for crops and livestock at $5.2 billion.
The drought started last fall with the arrival of the La Nina weather condition that causes below-normal rainfall. To complicate things, the region didn't get much rainfall from hurricanes and tropical storms during the hurricane season that just ended, said David Brown, regional climate services director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Fort Worth, Texas.
"That's part of the reason we have this bad drought going on in Mexico and Texas," Brown said.
Mexican farmers have lost 2.2 million acres (900,000 hectares) of crops to dry conditions and 1.7 million farm animals have died this year from lack of water or forage, according to the nation's Agriculture Department.
Durango, a sprawling inland state about 150 miles (250 kilometers) south of Texas, holds 1.3 million acres (540,000) acres of planted land. Of that, "85 percent has been damaged and the rest has had a very low yield," said Rene Almeida, the Agriculture Department's top official in the state, which was once known as a film setting for John Wayne westerns.
The situation also is critical for ranchers. At least 30,000 cattle have died in Durango this year from lack of food and water, Almeida said.
Sergio Mier, a farmer and rancher in the Durango town of Vicente Guerrero, said the price of cattle has plummeted as farmers struggling for money rush to sell their livestock.
"Right now you can buy a cow for as little as 600 pesos ($42), when the price is usually 5,000 pesos ($356)," Mier said. "People don't have money because they didn't get a harvest. They have no money to eat or to feed their animals so they have to sell them."
Felipe Arreguin, deputy director of the National Water Commission, said the hardest blow has been to seasonal farmers and ranchers with non-irrigated pastures in Durango, Zacatecas, Chihuahua, Coahuila and San Luis Potosi.
"In the north we have a terrible drought ... and it's first affecting the people with the least resources," Arreguin said.
In Zacatecas's region bordering Durango, about 1.2 million acres (500,000 hectares) have been lost. That is about half the state's arable land.
"The situation for the people of Zacatecas is truly dramatic because farmers were not even able to produce the food they need for their own consumption," said Zacatecas Gov. Miguel Alonso.
The same happened along the Texas border in Chihuahua state, where half of the 1.3 million acres (545,000 hectares) planted with corn, beans and oats didn't yield anything, according to the Agriculture Department.
Chihuahua state Rural Development Secretary Octavio Legarreta estimates agriculture losses at 3.7 billion pesos ($250 million). He said 180,000 cattle have died due to the drought but didn't have estimates of financial losses on livestock.
Authorities have bought 11 tons of corn and beans to distribute among 50,000 Tarahumara families, some of Mexico's poorest people, who live in caves and makeshift houses throughout Chihuahua's rugged Copper Canyon, Legarreta said.
The scarcity of rainfall also has dried up drinking water supplies for an estimated 2.5 million people in more than 1,500 small communities in northern Mexico.
Federal authorities are sending trucks with water to the towns, treating it on the spot and storing it in tanks that are distributed to residents, said Victor Nishikawa, an official in the government's Social Development Department.
Arreguin, at the National Water Commission, said most dams are down to 30 percent to 40 percent of capacity and some are even lower.
"What we're doing now is planning how to distribute the little water we do have between now and June, when the rainy season is supposed to start," Arreguin said.
The federal government has begun a temporary jobs program to provide some income to 1.5 million farmers and the day laborers who normally work the fields during harvest season.
The program, which started in October, was initially funded with about $3.8 million and includes jobs cleaning water canals and building cattle pens. An additional $3.4 million will be used to buy food, Nishikawa said.
"We want to make sure people have enough to eat, that they have drinking water and some income," he said.
Federal authorities are also encouraging farmers to plant grains that require less water and are helping ranchers find markets for cattle they are forced to cull from their herds, Arreguin said.
Drought will continue to plague northern Mexico during the winter, and the situation will likely worsen, authorities said.
The federal government has already declared an emergency for the state of Durango, where a cold front this week dropped temperatures to nearly 8 degrees below zero (minus 22 Celsius) in some mountain areas.
"Unfortunately, the cold fronts that we're getting are dry fronts, and when you combine that with the drought, it is really hard on the soil and on human beings," Arreguin said.
Associated Press writer Ricardo Chavez in Ciudad Juarez contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.