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Watersheds and cities: Social participation to improve the health of ecosystems and water provision

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Please briefly describe your Water ChangeMaker journey

In Mexico, many of the cities have grown in a disorderly manner, which imposes challenges for water supply and favors its importation via transfers that affect access to water by rural communities and sustainability in other watersheds. It is common to find watersheds where more water is extracted than is provided by the hydrological cycle, which can be seen in the fact that 102 of the 653 aquifers of Mexico are over-exploited. The water management model operated by the government for decades considers the resource as infinite and detached from the functioning of ecosystems, a condition that has favored the use of gray infrastructure that modifies the hydrological cycle. In addition, deforestation, environmental degradation, and other processes of deterioration have affected ecosystems, causing a decrease in infiltration, recharge, and purification; this contributes to water becoming a scarce resource and even generates conflicts in access and use between rural-urban population and economic activities. Among the barriers to addressing the problem, we identified limitations in planning and agreement among actors for the integrated management of watersheds, and reduced economic opportunities in the territory, which is manifested in the lack of compliance with the human right to water.

Please describe the change that your initiative created and how was it achieved

Watersheds and Cities is coordinated by FMCN and has operated in more than 20 watersheds and 15 cities in Mexico since its creation. In each selected watershed, the project establishes an alliance with a local partner that guides an integrated watershed management process based on planning, resource investment, and institutional collaboration. These organizations exercise their leadership, which is based on their local roots, their experience in nature conservation, their multi-stakeholder work and their links with the local population, to promote participatory decision-making for watershed management and water provision, beyond political-administrative limits and cycles. The project implements five strategic lines: i) raising awareness among the population about the relationships between cities and their water recharge areas; ii) establishing discussion platforms for watershed management and decision-making; iii) establishing financial arrangements to improve watershed management and economic compensation for providers of hydrological environmental services; iv) conducting land-based activities to improve the health and recharge capacity of watersheds and livelihoods and quality of life of communities, and v) exchanging knowledge among stakeholders through a Learning Community. The articulated application of the strategic lines makes possible the development of local initiatives with increased participation of social and governmental actors resulting in the convergence of institutional, technical, and financial resources. The activities developed have leveraged arrangements between the government, NGOs, communities, and Water Utilities to increase investments in green infrastructure, sustainable community livelihoods, water provision, and pollution reduction.

How did your initiative help build resilience to climate change?

Projections of climate change for Mexico, increased temperatures and decreased precipitation, predict greater water stress. Less water for a growing population, mainly in urban areas. This situation makes it urgent to develop strategies to maintain and improve water catchment and recharge areas to ensure supply in terms of quantity and quality. Watersheds and Cities is based on the principle that integrated watershed management is the most equitable, sustainable, and cost-effective way to ensure the provision of water and other ecosystem services. Although public water consumption represents 13-15%, the supply of rural and urban areas is a growing challenge. The project contributes to building resilience by improving community organization in the face of new situations, particularly those related to water, such as droughts and floods. Restoring the health of the watershed through natural solutions facilitates the adaptation of rural communities to changes in climate and the impact on their livelihoods.

What water-related decisions did your initiative influence or improve?

Outstanding examples of the impact on decision making include i) a voluntary contribution scheme through the Saltillo Coahuila water bill, in which more than 62,000 households make a monthly contribution to the conservation of a protected natural area. ii) In three projects, local partners have been able to get on the boards of water operators, influencing decisions to increase investment in watersheds and make drinking water distribution services more transparent; iii) In the state of Colima, the project contributed to the modification of three laws to enable municipalities to create compensation schemes for hydrological environmental services to forest owners; (iv) In Baja California, the project's sustained monitoring of water quality, dissemination of results and strengthening of the social fabric led to the construction of a water purification plant for marginalized communities. In addition, local projects have negotiated counterpart funding from local governments and the private sector to incorporate more than 25,000 hectares into the national payment for environmental services scheme. All of the above is led by civil organizations that engage the participation and interests of forest landowners who have little representation in institutional spaces.

What were some of the challenges faced and how were they overcome?

For the implementation of the project, there are political, cultural, technical, and temporal obstacles that make it difficult for local governments to get involved in institutional arrangements. Sometimes, water recharge zones are located beyond municipal boundaries and it has been difficult to engage authorities in integrated watershed planning and management, especially when the local administrative cycle lasts three years. The change that has been achieved has been difficult because of the long-standing practice of government institutions and other stakeholders to work the watershed as a disintegrated and disconnected space, where each agency deals with one aspect (e.g. agriculture and forestry), without considering the consequences on water availability, watershed health, and community welfare. The project has placed emphasis on providing science-based information to understand the relationships between different land uses and water and to improve decision-making. Watersheds and Cities involves the formation of collaborative agreements between local actors and government institutions, led by NGOs, which have a central role in building links between cities and recharge areas, and the spatial flexibility to work in all municipalities and to remain in place to plan and carry out projects beyond electoral cycles.

In your view: Will the change that was created by your initiative continue?

The main strategy of Watersheds and Cities is to link groups of forest communities providing hydrological environmental services with stakeholders in cities, in favor of the protection of surface water bodies and aquifer recharge areas that supply water to urban areas. This has made it possible to trigger and consolidate long-term institutional collaboration processes. The formation and strengthening of organized social structures (Watershed Committee of the Pixquiac River, Voices United for Water in Mazatlán, or the Citizens' Observatory for Water in San Miguel de Allende) enhance the work and exert social pressure to defend common goods and, where appropriate, the interests of rural communities that have no presence in institutional spaces. This citizen adoption of the processes, together with the project's purpose of developing financial mechanisms to ensure long-term sustainability, has allowed local initiatives to transcend administrative periods and form permanent institutional arrangements.

What did you learn during the initiative or after? And is it possible that others could learn from you?

FMCN, partners, and other participants have reflected on the successes and mistakes of our actions, made them explicit to use as lessons learned, and shared in an open Learning Community. That in itself has been a great lesson. We have also learned that the presence of a leading local organization is conducive to focusing and making efficient use of resources, promoting capacity building, and facilitating negotiations between actors. Education, communication and awareness-raising is an indispensable investment to engage key actors, including those with low representation, such as rural communities. It is important to integrate new content and formats to transmit messages of Watershed-City co-responsibility to stakeholders with conflicting interests in the territory. We have understood that the construction of solid and transparent agreements allows us to advance together and have a voice that is heard by government agencies and private groups.

In light of your submission, please describe or explain the extent and breadth of different economic, ecological and socio-cultural values recognized and taken into consideration within your journey.

Watersheds and Cities promote co-responsibility among users of environmental services (ES), forest owners, civil organizations, and government agencies. It has been essential to 1) communicate the importance of watersheds and 2) recognize and make visible the role of forest owners in maintaining these services and of NGOs and academia in facilitating agreements. Initially, the value of water was associated with the costs and avoided costs of losing or maintaining these sites (opportunity cost). Now, we are working with a more comprehensive approach - the 'hydro-social' water cycle - that allows us to understand the interrelationships between people, natural resources use and ecosystem integrity; and ES providers, water users, and suppliers. Sustainable land-use practices throughout the watershed and equitable and cost-effective compensation and investment schemes require progress in valuing environmental services and empowering communities and other stakeholders. Watersheds and Cities has strengthened these groups and facilitated dialogue with government and private sector to negotiate fair agreements and efficient and sustainable solutions to address water and development issues (Cerro Grande Sub-council in Colima, the Pixquiac Watershed Committee, and the Sierra de Santa Marta Inter-Community Committee - 35 communities - in Veracruz). Water continues to be undervalued in Mexico. The environmental and social costs of natural resource management and compensation to owners are yet to be further internalized. Advanced cases, such as Saltillo, Coahuila, show understanding and willingness of water users to cover these costs - 25% of households contribute an additional fee to their water bill-. Others have worked on applying models to value ES and designing mechanisms to involve the private sector and water utilities since they deal with economic transactions.