From Glacier to Gulf: Part 3 of 3

Miroslav Honzak is a CI scientist and one of the innovators behind ARIES (Artificial Intelligence for Ecosystem Services), a technological tool that can be used to map the distribution of natural resources — such as fresh water — and use that data to inform development and conservation decisions. Last month, he set out to document the flow of fresh water in the Mexican state of Veracruz — a journey that began with the summiting of Mount Orizaba, the highest peak in Mexico. Armed with a flipcam and a notebook, Miro agreed to document his experience; here’s the final post from his trip. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

The day of the final ascent, we took off around 4:30 a.m. and reached the bottom of the glacier in just two hours. The sun rose as we exited the Labyrinth, and we were ready for breakfast. We were joined by a female climber from China who was trekking solo — we offered her our Chinese chicken noodle soup, but she preferred her PowerBars. After breakfast we parted ways again and commenced the ascent via Jamapa Glacier — a long and seemingly endless climb up to the rim of the volcano. At the top, this part of the climb reaches an angle of around 35-40 degrees!

Close to 11 a.m. we approached the final icy section when the effects of climbing at altitude began to kick in. My approach — gleaned from other high-altitude climbs — was to take 20 steps followed by a 20-second breathing pause, and then repeat. This would help me get up the mountain just fast enough without succumbing to the exhaustion caused by the low oxygen levels in the air. With only about 50 percent of the oxygen available at sea level, we needed to move quickly but also remain aware of how our bodies were responding to avoid the potentially lethal effects of high-altitude sickness. Finally, at 11:16 a.m. we reached the summit, exhilarated.

The views were breath-taking — making breathing in the thin air all the more difficult! Toward the west we could see a vast plateau framed by two distinct peaks: Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl volcanoes. Alongside the peaks was a long plume of smog that spilled over the ridge from Mexico City. To the east we saw the coastal hills that stretched from the southern flanks of Cofre de Perote volcano, like green ocean waves interrupted by white, fluffy clouds.

In my appreciation of the view, I suddenly realized that I had been missing this perspective on reality in the abstract world of modeling that had occupied my mind before this climb. Imagination was no match for observing these watersheds in person, from the source to the sea. Standing on the top of a glacier, I could see how the flow of fresh water would leave the glacier, pass treeless mountain steps down to the cloud forest, and then flow even further down through the lush tropical vegetation in the valleys below. I could recognize the outlines of individual watersheds that up until now I had only known from digital maps.

The mountain slopes are home to communities living in extreme poverty who rely on subsistence agriculture and livestock production.

I could see the upper reaches of the watersheds, which are under considerable pressure due to expanding human activities in the region. This area is primarily occupied by populations living in extreme poverty, who rely on subsistence agriculture and small livestock production. They often cultivate steep slopes without terracing, causing the topsoil to erode away at an alarming rate. Livestock are usually kept near streams, creating pollution problems and health issues for people living downstream. Today, deforestation in Jamapa and La Antigua watersheds is the highest in Veracruz, despite the sensitivity of the ecosystems and economic importance of water in these two watersheds. Several “Payment for Ecosystem Service” schemes were recently pioneered here by the Mexican government in order to improve the situation. In addition, a state-coordinated sustainable forest management program is in place in some parts, and the establishment of Pico de Orizaba and Cofre de Perote national parks has helped to provide direct protection. Experimental community involvement in freshwater monitoring is also being piloted by a local NGO and supported by Global Water Watch.

Veracruz is blessed with the majority of Mexico’s available fresh water, yet as I mentioned earlier, water shortages do occur. Water is shared by a number of users, including: large irrigated sugar cane plantations near the coast, small-scale coffee and papaya plantations, the bottling industry (including a Coca-Cola plant in the city of Coatepec), and multiple municipalities that extract surface and groundwater to accommodate the needs of rapidly growing urban populations.

In addition, the imminent arrival of the hydropower industry will likely change the free-flowing rivers into a series of small dams. This will almost certainly have substantial impacts on the freshwater biodiversity of the rivers that flow here, and the people that depend on this biodiversity for survival. Damming the rivers may also impact the tourist industry, which relies on free-flowing rivers like the Antigua River near Jalcomulco for adventure rafting trips. As all of these demands grow and remain mostly unregulated, the need for accurate information about the provision of freshwater services in the region is essential.

That is where our work comes in. After returning from the heights of Mount Orizaba, I joined our local partners and our modeling team in a workshop at the Instituto de Ecologia, A.C. near the city of Jalapa. The meeting brought together local stakeholders representing various sectors, including municipal governments, NGOs, academics and the hydropower industry. Our modeling work generated enormous interest and several local news outlets picked up the story.

We were also pleased that our efforts were acknowledged by the state of Veracruz. On our last day we met with the Secretary for the Environment of the State of Veracruz, who praised the efforts of our team and formally issued an invitation for us to work in the region. By building relationships like these — both with the state and at the grassroots level — we hope to take our freshwater modeling work to a new level, making measurable impacts on people’s lives and ultimately benefiting both communities and biodiversity in the region.

Miroslav Honzak is the senior advisor for the Human Dimensions program in CI’s Science and Knowledge division. This is the final post in a series documenting Miro’s journey climbing Mexico’s highest mountain — read Part 1 and Part 2.

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