Department für Geographie




GroundwaterMaya Project - Material Flow Analysis of the Circle of Cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula, México and early identification of human drivers affecting groundwater resources

Fachgebiet: Geographische Gesellschaft-Umwelt-Forschung, Hydrologie
Gefördert durch / Supported by: Mexican Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt), Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, Human- Environment Research Group (HER), LMU

Projektleitung: Binder, C.R., López-Maldonado, Y. , Batllori-Sampedro, E., Rebolledo-Vieyra, M.
Projektwissenschaftler: Binder, C.R., López-Maldonado, Y.

Laufzeit: 10/2012 - 10/2015

Keywords: Material Flow Analysis, Groundwater system, Sinkholes, Yucatan, Social-Ecological System, Mayan communities


Groundwater systems constitute the predominant reservoir of freshwater storage on Earth. In regions with water problems and large aquifer systems groundwater is often used as an additional water source. However, the situation is different in places where groundwater is the only source of fresh water for the population. Example of this is the groundwater system in Yucatan, Mexico, that contains one of the world’s largest karst aquifers, and takes up approximately most of the total area (138,000 km2) of the peninsula.

All groundwater exploitation made by societies results in some decline in the quality of aquifer water. In the case of Yucatan, this is also influenced by the calcareous nature of the soil that confers it characteristics of high porosity and permeability causing rapid rainwater evaporation and infiltration. In the area, the aquifer is susceptible to several problems like salt intrusion from the sea and contamination derived from an inadequate waste disposal. Consequently, water situation there can quickly reach critical and vulnerable conditions and even small disturbances may cause dramatic consequences.

The project has been set up in the Social Ecological System (SES) framework (Ostrom 2009) for the study of common pool groundwater resources in the Yucatan Peninsula Aquifer, Mexico. Its aims are to increase the understanding of groundwater system regarding pollution problems and to develop a tool for the early recognition of human drivers affecting groundwater resources. The problems we are referring to are associated to a particular case study in the Circle of Cenotes in the Mayan area of Yucatan, in Mexico. In this place, where groundwater is the only source of freshwater, the inhabitants have to deal with water problems such as resource scarcity and degradation, groundwater pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss.

The Yucatan Peninsula Aquifer is one of the world’s largest karst aquifers in the world and one of the most important groundwater reservoirs in Mexico. It is located in the only hydrological zone reserve in the country and comprises the Circle of Cenotes in the peninsula, one of the most amazing natural reserves of international scientific importance (e.g. Crater of Chicxulub). Due to its calcareous soil is easy to find groundwater caves plenty of fresh water. In the area there are thousands of these caves, called cenotes (from the Maya word ts’onot that means sinkhole) in which societies extract water for several uses. Increasing demands for sources of fresh water, combined with changing land use practices, growth, aging infrastructure, and climate change and variability, pose significant threats to the groundwater resources in Yucatán. Failure to manage these resources in an integrated, sustainable manner will limit economic prosperity and jeopardise human and aquatic ecosystem health. In the area groundwater is the only source of water supply of its nearly 2 million inhabitants and the physical environment creates a set of hydrogeological constraints to future socioeconomic development.

Considering that groundwater management has been playing an important role in the economy of Mayan society, at past and present, by helping communities to survive dry seasons, this project takes into account the impacts of human activities as one of the most influencing factors that cause environmental degradation of the ecosystem. The specific objectives are: 1) to develop a model by analysing the relevant fluxes of the groundwater system in the Circle of Cenotes, Yucatan, Mexico; 2) to analyse the experts (local members) and non-experts’ risk perception regarding groundwater use and management, by eliciting their mental models; 3) to develop future scenarios and to build consensus among participants. This is central to the questions: What are the environmental impacts of human activities in the area of the Circle of Cenotes of Yucatan, Mexico? Who are the main actors involved in the field of groundwater? How are the interdependencies between them? What is the structure and content of the mental models of experts and non-experts regarding the use and management of water? Are those mental models fragmented? Are those models shared? How behaviours, decisions, and governance will influence the ecosystem (e.g., water quality, irrigations) and how this factors will influence the quality of life? Is it possible to predict future scenarios?

The main elements of the methodology in this research are:

  • Selection, analysis and categorisation of different key actors with a wide range of interests and backgrounds
  • Application of the Material Flow Analysis (MFA) method to quantify the relevant fluxes of the groundwater system
  • Implementation of the Structural Mental Model Approach (SMMA) method, which will bring all the findings about the drivers affecting groundwater to a common and participative discussion between experts and non-experts
  • To develop and to elaborate future scenarios of the groundwater management within the participants by applying the Future Scenario Analysis (FSA) method.

The structure of the project reflects the close cooperation of science and practice. The group consists of scientific management (MSc. Yolanda Lopez, Department of Geography, University of Munich, LMU), co-management and supervision (Prof. Dr. Claudia Binder, LMU, Dr. Mario Rebolledo-Vieyra, CICY, and Dr. Eduardo Batllori-Sampedro, SEDUMA), and the involvement of a Bachelor student of the Department of Geography at LMU (graduated). The accompanying groups consisting of members and representatives of the Cotasmey (Groundwater Technical Commitee for the Metropolitan Zone of Yucatán), vocals of the municipalities, local NGO’s, as well as regional representatives of associations and organizations of different sectors. The results of the project will have a high scientific value and will be useful for conservation programs and for people in the region. Some of these results have been published and communicated in some conferences at both, national and international level and one thesis has been developed (Title: Stoffflussanalyse des Wasserverbrauchs in Haushalten in Yucatán, Mexiko, LMU, 2014).