By Emilio Godoy
Climate change has inspired dozens of scientists at Mexican public universities to conduct research on its effects and seek ways to confront them.
Water scarcity, agrofuel production, soil degradation and loss of biodiversity are just a few of the items on the research agenda being tackled inside and outside the higher education institutions of this Latin American country that is particularly vulnerable to global warming.
“We are working on the science that is required by climate change. We need to generate solid science so that when a problem arises, we can propose solutions,” said engineer Gerardo Sánchez of the School of Engineering at the Autonomous University of Tamaulipas, located in the northeastern Mexican state of the same name.
Sánchez is heading up the research study “Hydrological modeling and water availability in the context of climate change in the region”, which is aimed at outlining patterns of water availability, estimating indicators of vulnerability, and assessing the economic costs of climate change impacts and public policies for sustainable use of this vital resource.
The National Water Commission calculates that Tamaulipas, which suffered a severe drought this year, still has an available water supply of 5,145 cubic meters per inhabitant per year. This is considerably higher than the minimum level for water security, the amount of water needed to ensure adequate development, estimated at 1,500 cubic meters per person.
“Water is the most important resource, because it has a cross-cutting impact on all the others,” Sánchez told Tierramérica.
The effects of climate change in Mexico are manifested through severe droughts, the greater frequency of powerful hurricanes, flooding and rising sea levels.
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Scientific research is vital for the adoption of the most effective adaptation and mitigation measures.
In the southeastern state of Yucatán, Víctor Vidal, a specialist in fish parasitology at the National Polytechnic Institute’s Center for Research and Advanced Studies, is undertaking a study on “The sensitivity and vulnerability of coastal ecosystems in southeastern Mexico to global climate change”, together with seven colleagues from public universities and the non-governmental organization Yaax Beh.
The research is being carried out in four phases. The first phase, in 2009, included the creation of the Inter-Institutional Network on Climate Change of Southeastern Mexico, the analysis of long-term spatial and temporal data, and the generation of geographic and statistical data, explained Vidal, who also has a Master’s degree in marine sciences as well as a doctorate in fish parasitology.
Up until now, it has been observed that the parasite community recovers in seven years from the impact of hurricanes, and that the coast of the southeastern state of Tabasco is the most vulnerable to the rising sea level, which advanced 3.5 meters in this region between 1995 and 2008.
The research has also revealed that the recovery of mangrove forests damaged by hurricanes on the Yucatán coast has led to the capture of between one and seven tons of carbon per hectare every year.
In this region, “we are concerned about climate change because of the rising sea level, the migration of fish towards the poles, and because of drought, the most serious problem. In the worst-case scenario, food security will be at risk,” Vidal told Tierramérica. Meanwhile, in the southern state of Oaxaca, Fidencio Sustaita, director of the Institute of Hydrology at the Technological University of the Mixteca, has been heading up the research study “Prevention and control of desertification in the Mixteca region” since January.
“We are working towards an integrated preservation program in the region, where the water supply is insufficient and the hydrologic cycle has suffered serious alterations,” Sustaita told Tierramérica.
The mountainous Mixteca region covers some 1.5 million hectares of land in Oaxaca. It is home to the Mixtec people, one of the largest indigenous ethnic groups in Mexico, and is characterized by its poverty and arid conditions. The degradation of the region’s soils is the result of deforestation, overgrazing and poor agricultural practices, according to the researchers.
This year, the research team assessed the effect of reforestation on soil properties and the efficiency of land and water conservation practices.
They also carried out a spatial and temporal analysis of soil use and sustainable rural planning in the area under study.
The project has attracted the attention of Planet Action, a non-profit initiative that currently provides support for six research projects in Mexico. Planet Action was launched in 2007 by Spot Image, a French distributor of space-sourced geographic information services, including satellite images, and Environmental Systems Research Institute, based in the United States, which designs and develops geographic information system technology.
But these research projects also need to attract the engagement of the communities affected, as well as the attention of government leaders, to promote the development of evidence-based policy, although scientific research takes time.
“We have noted the predisposition of the governments of the state (Tamaulipas) to take our work into account, but we cannot generalize,” commented Sánchez.
The Inter-Institutional Network on Climate Change of Southeastern Mexico, made up by 61 scientists who are studying climate change sensitivity, vulnerability, mitigation and adaptation, has managed to obtain 460,000 dollars in funding – from the United Kingdom and the federal and state governments – for seven projects.
“The adaptive approach should take society into consideration. There is a need to generate solid evidence based on existing marine data. The next step is to correlate climate change scenarios produced on the basis of global circulation models with local data,” said Vidal.
A research study by Vidal and two of his colleagues, “Trematode communities in shrimp can indicate hurricane impact and recovery”, is to be published in Australia’s International Journal for Parasitology.
For his part, Sustaita stressed the need “to clearly define the priorities of the local inhabitants and actively involve the beneficiaries in the project’s actions.”
The next step in the research in Oaxaca will be to define current land use in more detail using satellite images provided by Planet Action.