From Glacier to Gulf: Part 1 of 3

Mount Orizaba (also known as Citlaltépetl) is Mexico's highest mountain.

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 first installment from his trip. Read Part 2 and Part 3.

Ever since I first visited the Veracruz region years ago, I have felt an urge to return to gain a more intimate knowledge of the place. The opportunity finally came when a team made up of scientists from CI, the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, and Earth Economics received a National Science Foundation grant to test cutting-edge modeling approaches of freshwater services. After four years of hard work, we developed a system that uses artificial intelligence to help local users make highly complex yet informed decisions related to allocation of freshwater resources. Building on our first case study — conducted in Madagascar in 2008 — we came to Veracruz to conduct a workshop that would explain our team’s approach for mapping and quantifying ecosystem services and hopefully inspire stakeholder support for using tools like ARIES to inform local policy decisions.

Before that, though, I was going to climb Mexico’s highest mountain. My climbing partner and I wanted to see for ourselves the flow of fresh water from the peak to the sea and document all the different beneficiaries along the way. We planned to start at the tip of the glacier atop the 18,491-foot [5,636-meter] volcano, eventually following the water’s path — by foot, raft and car — all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Family living on the slopes of the dormant volcano.

The mountains surrounding Mount Orizaba are largely covered by mountain cloud forest. Alpine glaciers store water that is slowly released all year round, providing a predictable stream of water even during the dry season. Cloud forest trees like the red pine (Pinus patula) also play an important role; their long needles harvest fresh water from the clouds and help regulate freshwater flows by facilitating groundwater recharge.

The Veracruz region has witnessed the rise and fall of mighty civilizations that today we know only through ruins, archaeological finds, fragments of text and the stories passed down to us. Water and other natural resources were often directly linked to the prosperity of these cultures; various gods, such as Tlalocan and Chalchiuhtlicue in pre-Columbian cultures, were associated with water. In 1519, Hernán Cortes and his men arrived in Veracruz and established the first European settlement on the American mainland; since then, the landscape in the shadow of the volcanoes has changed dramatically.

Over the past few centuries, more than 70 percent of the forests of Veracruz have been replaced by medium- to large-scale agriculture that is highly dependent on water. The freshwater resources that were once abundant quickly became scarce. Today, during drier periods, conflicts frequently break out among the diverse stakeholders who rely on this water supply, including farmers, tourism operators, municipalities, bottling plants and other users.

As a scientist, I see these regional issues of freshwater availability as presenting both a challenge and an opportunity. My colleagues and I are fortunate to have access to new and innovative technologies that help us better understand the complex interactions between freshwater sources and their beneficiaries — both humans and biodiversity. Modern Internet and satellite technology are also enabling us to communicate this information directly with water users — even the farmer who may live quite far from urban areas, but has a cell phone or an intermittent Internet connection.

We hope our new modeling tools will contribute substantially to solving the persistent challenges related to freshwater access, and by doing so bring greater peace to the region — ensuring more sustainable and better livelihoods for all those who depend on the region’s water for survival.

Miroslav Honzak is the senior advisor for the Human Dimensions program in CI’s Science and Knowledge division. This is the first installment of his journey climbing Mexico’s highest mountain — read Part 2 and Part 3.

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