Under and over the aquifer: interdisciplinary exploration of sinkholes in the Yucatan

Groundwater is one of the most important resources in Earth, representing our main freshwater supply. The coastal Karst Aquifer of the Yucatan Peninsula is one of Mexico’s biggest aquifers, boasting the highest mean recharge rate in the country at 25,316 hm3/year. The Karst Aquifer thus represents the main source of freshwater for humans and living organisms in many local ecosystems.

This aquifer presents sinkhole structures, locally called ts’ ono’ ot (“cenotes”). The area has developed dramatically in the past few decades, spurred primarily by tourism industries. Its rapid growth has placed increasing demand on water resources in the region, even as water remains a critical concern for the Mexican state. Embodying the frequent tension between tourism interests and governance challenges are the picturesque pools connecting the surface to groundwater sources. These sinkholes are a popular destination for adventure-seekers. The sudden rise of their popularity, combined with limited monitoring and extant research, has created a particular issue for sustainable water governance.

Prior to the World Water Congress, an interdisciplinary team of water social and natural scientists from King’s Water (King’s College London) spent a week in the Yucatán on a speculative expedition exploring the ecology, economics, politics, and cultural meaning of the cenotes. They considered questions of access, gaps in knowledge and policy, and what will be needed to adequately and sustainably care for the cenotes ecosystem. A diversity of perspectives brought drastically different understandings of and approaches to the conversation. The team included expertise on issues as far-ranging as statistical modelling and remote sensing science, hydro-diplomacy, species biodiversity, climate change adaptation, hydrological infrastructure governance, formal and informal institutional analysis, cultural and historical anthropology, the militarisation and securitisation of water, the water-food-energy nexus, and international water law. They joined with a team of Mexican hydrologists to understand localised knowledge about governance trends affecting the cenotes and regional development.

The team presented with their local partners (the Centro de Investigación Científica de Yucatán) at the World Water Congress and are now working on a special issue about cenote hydrology.

In this seminar, the King’s Water team will reflect on their experiences of this ‘speculative fieldwork’ and present the methods-based findings of their trip. The team members will identify problems identified surrounding cenote governance from their particular area of expertise and how their discipline would go about researching those issues. Building from fieldwork and ongoing discussions with research partners, the seminar will present a joint proposal for policy-oriented integrated scientific research to be conducted on the cenotes. Seminar discussion reflect on the possibilities and challenges of truly interdisciplinary water science and shared methodologies in the pursuit of more robust water management policy.