Yucatan Peninsula Experiments with Water Funds as Climate Strategy

Written by Lisa Hayden on . Posted in Learn

As host for the United Nations climate change conference that just ended in Cancun, the nation of Mexico has shared many of its experiences in using conservation to prepare for climate change.

One model the Mexican government has pursued with encouraging results is payment for ecosystem services – or in other words – establishing a value for the benefits that nature provides to people.

Mexico’s forest agency CONAFOR announced during a climate conference side event, that it will match private dollars pledged to a new environmental fund for the Quintana Roo area, establishing a mechanism to pay for environmental services for carbon, water and biodiversity. The Cancun water company Aguakan has pledged some financial support to the fund and a voluntary fee campaign is being launched in several Cancun hotels.

The Nature Conservancy has extensive expertise in establishing water funds in South Americaa financial mechanism to promote funding for activities that support on-going delivery of natural benefits. The Conservancy and partners are investigating the potential for a water fund in Cancun and the Riviera Maya, the coast to the south that is being further developed for tourism and resort hotels. More than 6 million tourists a year already visit this coast.

The Yucatan has a distinctive “karst” system of underground rivers that bubble up to the surface through soluble limestone. Spring-fed pools called cenotes (sink holes) – often located in caves and emanating an unearthly blue light – are popular tourist attractions for swimming or diving.

The Riviera Maya’s water for drinking, irrigation and industrial uses comes from this complex aquifer system. Research suggests that healthy forests in the Peninsula help to ensure the quantity and quality of this water source. However, forests are facing enormous threats and are being transformed rapidly for land uses other than conservation.

The Conservancy and conservation partner Amigos de Sian Ka’an have begun to work with water companies in Cancun, government agencies in Quintana Roo state, CONAFOR and hotel associations, which realize that clean water is a vital resource for their success. Amigos de Sian Ka’an has been supporting work to map the flows of the region’s hydrology, which is needed in order to design the water fund.

“From a hydrological point of view, it’s a very complex system,” said Jorge Uribe, a water fund specialist in the Conservancy’s Mérida office. “We are preparing the hydrological models to understand clearly the geographic areas that provide specific environmental services and who is using those services. This will give us certainty about where and how to invest funds for conservation and monitoring, so this investment can guarantee the delivery of a sustainable source of water for Cancun and Riviera Maya.”

A water fund would support forest conservation that ensures continued water supplies – for example, protected areas, forest-friendly businesses, and fire prevention. The concept is to design a financial model that guarantees a permanent flow of funding from either the private or public sector. For every dollar that enters the fund, CONAFOR will match another one through their environmental service program.

In other words, “the water fund idea is to compensate land owners for maintaining standing forest and hence all the ecosystem services this forest provides,” said Uribe.

Water funds can also be considered an emissions reduction activity, because in order to protect sources of water, you must protect the forests that help to clean and filter water. And living forests also store carbon dioxide.

When you pay to protect forests, you get a lot of bang for your buck.

(Photo: view of Amigos de Sian Ka’an Bioreserve. By Lisa Hayden.)

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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