By Eugenio Barrios | Policy and Development Director | WWF-Mexico
Mexico, like the majority of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, suffers from the overexploitation of its water resources in the most populated and most productivity relevant areas of the country. This causes loss of biodiversity and also poses a major challenge for water management, since it hampers economic development and makes society more vulnerable to climate change uncertainties.
The allocation and recovery of water for the environment constitutes a cost-efficient way to adapt to climate change and at the same time attain water security levels for the countries in the region. In the case of Mexico, this process began several years ago, officially with the publication of the Mexican Norm for Ecological Flow (NMX-AA-159-SCFI-2012) and of an implementation strategy based on identifying 189 basins as potential water reserves for the environment due to their high water availability, low resource pressure, and unquestionable ecological importance due to the presence of some 97 natural protected areas and 55 internationally recognized wetlands (Ramsar sites).
Building on the experiences and results from six pilot areas, the National Program for Water Reserves was established in order to ensure water for the environment throughout the country. An initial stage will cover 189 basins, as part of the Environment Sectoral Program and the National Hydrological Program 2013-2018. The Program is coordinated by the Sub-Directorate General of the National Water Commission (CONAGUA), with close collaboration from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Alliance-Gonzalo Río Arronte Foundation, the participation of the National Commission for Protected Natural Areas, and support from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
Results so far point to the technical, legal and economic feasibility of the water reserves, as well as their benefits in strengthening an integrated water management. Work is underway in 2018 to enact the water reserves decrees covering some 200 basins throughout the country in order to complete the first stage of the program and exceed the originally set goal.
Given the relevance of this issue for the region, the IDB and the WWF have launched a process to replicate the experience in other Latin American and Caribbean nations. A feasibility study has determined that Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia meet, to a greater or lesser extent, favorable conditions for implementation. This process has been laid down as an initiative to ease the transfer of knowledge and experience in the region needed to assess ecological flows and assign water for the environment, thereby contributing to the establishment or water security conditions in the region. This initiative also seeks to strengthen other initiatives already under way that have been promoted by the Bank, such as the capacities development process and the adoption of the Hydrobid tool in the region.
Ensuring water for the environment from a flowing river is key to uphold the basin’s functionality and the services it provides to water managers. Nature-based solutions for sufficient quality water supply, pollutants assimilation, aquifers replenishment, flood control and extreme-event resilience, to name just a few, depend upon a healthy hydrological regime management that ensures the efficiency of ecosystems. Examples from Mexico’s experience show how in the case of the San Pedro Mezquital River in the states of Durango and Nayarit, the water reserve keeps the river connectivity with a hydrological regime with free courses in most of the basin that carries nutrients and sediments to the Marismas Nacionales (National Marshlands) Biosphere Reserve. This flow sustains an ample mangrove area that acts as a natural barrier against hurricanes and lagoon systems with a significant fishing production. In the case of the Copalita basin in the state of Oaxaca, conservation of the hydrological regime ensures water accessibility and distribution for some 400 communities spread throughout the basin. At the Usumacinta River, the most important free river in Mesoamerica and the country’s largest water reserve, the natural basin regime acts as a barrier against major flooding in an area of wetlands that grows more than tenfold between the dry and rain seasons in the middle basin.
This experience has proven that an overexploited basin has limited capacity to offer such services, which translates into high costs for any entity operating and managing the resource. The Water Reserves Program lays out the bases to internalize nature-based solutions in water management, with a strong, positive impact on ecosystems conservation and their direct benefits for basin residents.
To access the publication on Water Reserves Program in Mexico: https://publications.iadb.org/handle/11319/7316
This article has been published in the framework of the World Water Forum, held in Brasilia from March 19 to 23, 2018, where the IDB is the Regional Coordinator of the Americas.