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Science and NGO’s: Collaboration for the Conservation of Groundwater Resources in the Yucatan Peninsula Gonzalo Merediz Alonso, Amigos de Sian Ka’an Introduction The rich biodiversity of the Yucatan Peninsula is enclosed in three broad ecosystem categories: tropical forests, wetlands, and coral reefs. For many years, natural resource managers, researchers, policy makers, international financing institutions, among others, gave priority to the maintenance of the connectivity of those ecosystems through the reduction of forest fragmentation-- vegetation continuity was considered to be the main ecological connectivity factor. However, the karstic platform of the Yucatan Peninsula has an additional connectivity factor: the groundwater. Schematically, the rainwater on forested areas infiltrates rapidly into the limestone underground, and by doing so has generated a hydrologic system including the largest underground river complex in the world. Through that system, the water collected inland flows toward the coast-- feeding the communities of the region and the most extensive coastal wetlands in Mesoamerica (Over 1,000,000 ha according to estimations by Amigos de Sian Ka’an based on INEGI, 1984). Those wetlands are important producers of nutrients that feed the Mexican portion of one of the most important coral reefs: the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. In addition to its vast biological diversity, the reef sustains the economy of the state of Quintana Roo, in eastern Yucatan Peninsula, which is based almost entirely on tourism.1 Quintana Roo is the largest tourist destination in Latin America and a fundamental currency source for Mexico, receiving 31% of the foreign visitors to the entire country and representing 8.5% of the Gross National Income (SECTUR, 2004). Via its contribution to the survival of various ecosystems in the region, groundwater quantity and quality are critical to the survival of the tourism industry specifically, and more broadly to the socioeconomic processes that support almost a million people in Quintana Roo (INEGI, 2002). Unfortunately, the groundwater is one of the most fragile and threatened natural resources in the region. Almost 50,000 hotel rooms (14% of the national room availability) have been built in Quintana Roo in the past 30 years with almost 5,610,000 visitors in 2002 (SECTUR, 2004). The population increased 994% since 1970 (INEGI, 1992; INEGI, 2002) and the main cities in the state currently have annual growth rates of about 20%. Such development trends were responsible for producing, according to 2001 official numbers, 1 At least 80.6% of the Gross State Income is directly or indirectly related to tourism, INEGI, 2002 97
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85,730.8 m3 of residual waters while the state wide treated waters volume (in secondary treatment plants usually mismanaged and unsupervised) was 28,063 m3, that is, only 33% of the total (INEGI, 2002). Additionally, immigrants form most of the population with limited knowledge about local natural resources. Young Mayans are in a trans- culturization process, with a high risk of losing their traditional knowledge of nature and their way of life. NGOs and Groundwater Conservation The concern of several sectors of society in preserving the natural wealth, over which regional development is based, has developed into an ongoing vast and complex movement and structure of environmental protection in the Yucatan in general and in Quintana Roo state in particular. This has resulted in a well-consolidated network of protected areas, federal, state and municipal environmental agencies, and important NGOs. The antecedents for such a strong movement are found back in the mid-1980s when a group of researchers, politicians, and citizens proposed the establishment of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve on the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo. The reserve was finally established on January 1986, with over 528,000 hectares of forest, wetlands, and marine ecosystems. At that time, tourism development was relatively low and localized, and the government lacked effective structures and policies regarding environmental issues. On June, 1986, some of the people who were involved in the reserve’s establishment created a non-profit organization: Amigos de Sian Ka’an (ASK), to guarantee the long-term viability of the reserve. For several years, most of ASK’s work concentrated on Sian Ka’an. However, because the reserve is not isolated, and ecosystems have no political boundaries, ASK gradually started working outside Sian Ka’an, with an integrated regional conservation vision. Sian Ka’an is linked to the region through the forest, the wetlands, the chain of coral reefs and, as explained before, the underground hydrological system that unites all the rest by providing a source of water, nutrients, and species, but also pollutants. Through a site conservation planning process2 carried out by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the National Commission for Protected Areas (CONANP) and ASK, water issues were identified as key elements to preserve the ecological viability for Sian Ka’an. 2 The Site Conservation Planning methodology includes the identification of the key conservation targets for the site (in Sian Ka’an we considered the main ecosystems as conservation targets), the main threats to those targets and their sources, and the stakeholders. Properly documenting and weighing those elements allowed the development of concrete strategies to improve ecosystem health, abate the identified threats, and strengthen institutional conservation capacity. Finally, the plan includes success indicators to evaluate the effectiveness of the plan in terms of biodiversity conservation (The Nature Conservancy, 2000). 98
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However, during the planning sessions, it was clear that none of the leading institutions had enough information to address problems related to water and to develop well- informed, effective management policies and strategies. Obvious questions rose from the lack of information: What data are available on Sian Ka’an and Yucatan Peninsula hydrology? Who has such information and where? What scientific research is needed in terms of water? What is the water budget for Sian Ka’an? Where is the water that feeds Sian Ka’an coming from? What is the water quality? These are key questions with difficult answers and a simple conclusion: we needed good science to understand and properly manage the water resources in Sian Ka’an and the entire Yucatan Peninsula. To start addressing those questions, ASK, TNC, and CONANP decided to organize a workshop “Building the basis for the conservation of water and its associated biodiversity in the Yucatan Peninsula”, held in Cancun on November 10 and 11, 2003. The goals of the workshop were to provide a communication forum for all the actors related to water issues, generate and share information on regional hydrology, and compile and distribute all the gathered information. The workshop covered three main topics: Hydrography (water budgets, water table, underground flows, hydrology monitoring, water and biodiversity, etc.), water use (water quality, recharge areas, water availability, quality monitoring, etc.), and social, economic and political contexts for water (legal framework, institutions and their role, environmental education, public participation, water value, etc.). In addition, participants contributed information on environmental planning, the roles of Watershed Councils3, water research and outreach centers, current status of water quality and treatment in Quintana Roo, underground river exploration and archaeology, and water valorization, among other topics. For the first time in the Yucatan Peninsula members of the three government levels (municipal, state, federal), research institutions, universities, and NGOs (both national and international), gathered to exchange and compile information on water and hydrology. The main product obtained was a CD4 with articles, data bases, cartography, presentations, and technical reports. The information is available for the participants and for managers, decision makers, researchers and students. 3 Watershed Councils are part of a governmental approach aimed to create formal consulting groups formed by various stakeholders of a particular watershed. The Councils are part of the structure on Mexico’s National Commission for Water (CNA), which base some of their decisions on the Council’s advice and recommendations. 4 CD’s are available upon request at Amigos de Sian Ka’an (firstname.lastname@example.org) 99
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The experts’ joint work allowed the elaboration of Yucatan Peninsula maps5 showing where water related studies have been done, sites of water quality surveys and monitoring, as well as the first comprehensive map showing, schematically, the underground flows of the entire Peninsula. For the first time, the main studies and hypotheses of such flows were put together developing a regional common hydrology vision. The maps created a better-integrated understanding of how water moves, where it is threatened or under risk, and where research gaps are; Northwestern Yucatan Peninsula (where the Chicxulub impact crater is) has been highly studied and is relatively well understood. However, the center and south of the Peninsula have few studies and the knowledge available is more informal or has not been published. The maps gave a general perspective to inform regional water policies, research priorities, management and conservation plans and actions, monitoring needs, and educational concepts. What We Need To Do The workshop was an interesting example of how NGO’s can be catalysts to convene different stakeholders in order to gather scientific information that will allow the definition of needs and priorities regarding the fundamental water issues. However, it was clear that we still need much more scientific research to better understand the hydrologic systems and their threats and opportunities. It was also evident that the region needs a large coordination effort among researchers and between them and the other sectors related to water issues. The Watershed Councils might be good instruments to facilitate such coordination, however, a systematic program of academic meetings and conferences is also needed. Research institutions and NGO’s also need to increase their common links to 1) help ensure that scientific information informs management and conservation actions, and 2) to develop outreach and education strategies to share information and foster appreciation of the region’s natural resources. It is critical to make information available to everyone. Coordination efforts are also needed with local, state, and federal authorities so science based knowledge can be also translated into policies, laws and regulations. Amigos de Sian Ka’an has identified a broad range of scientific information that they would find useful for identifying and advocating appropriate management decisions. For example: systematic water monitoring to identify and better understand catchment areas, water flow patterns, water quality, and contaminant transport, and the biota supported in this underground system. This information would help us better understand ecosystem services and threats. In addition, social science and economic input would be particularly 5 The maps are being prepared for publication. 100
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helpful as it could help us put a monetary value on ecosystem services which could be useful to private and public sector decision makers. Lastly, improved technology that are cheaper and better suited to local conditions would make certain management options more appealing. However, the greatest challenge that we face is to transmit all the scientific results to the public. If people are properly informed on the richness and limitations of water sources, and the risks of certain human activities and abuses over the hydrologic systems, it will be possible to increase the probability of sustaining the water resources in the long term. The integrated participation of domestic and industrial water consumers, private companies, research institutions, government, and NGOs will allow us to overcome the high environmental risk in the Yucatan Peninsula: quantitative and qualitative water depletion. Amigos de Sian Ka’an’s success in collaborating with these diverse sectors demonstrates that joint effort is a real possibility. 101
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References Amigos de Sian Ka’an and The Nature Conservancy. 2003. Building the Basis for the Conservation of Water and its Associated Biodiversity in the Yucatan Peninsula. Workshop Proceedings. CD-ROM. Mexico. INEGI (Instituto Nacional de Geografía, Estadística e Informática). 1984. Carta Uso del Suelo y Vegetación 1:250,000, F15-1. México. INEGI (Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática). 1992. Quintana Roo. Perfil Sociodemográfico. XI Censo General de Población y Vivienda, 1990. Segunda Edición. Aguascalientes, México. XI + 102 pp. INEGI (Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática). 2002. Anuario Estadístico del Estado de Quintana Roo. Primera Edición. Aguascalientes, México. XI + 421 pp. The Nature Conservancy. 2000. Esquema de las cinco S para la conservación de sitios. Manual de planificación de sitios y la medición del éxito en conservación. Segunda edición. USA. 65 + 63 pp. SECTUR (Secretaría de Turismo). 2004. http://datatur.sectur.gob.mx 102
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