Iowa-Yucatán Partners Builds Water Monitoring and Education Network in Mexican High Schools

Rick Exner, Ph.D., Iowa-Yucatán Partners

In 2004, a former teacher at Iowa State University, Dr. George Beran, first recruited me for a Partners project. The project consisted of consulting farmers associated with an agroecological school and what may have been Mexico’s first consumer-supported agriculture (CSA) effort.  I have actually been visiting the Yucatán Peninsula since 1994, when my wife began research in Quintana Roo State.  We fell in love with the food, the music, and the great people – you know how it goes.  

Over time it struck me that the Yucatán Peninsula and my home state of Iowa bear unexpected similarities.  Iowa’s topsoil can be several feet thick, whereas in Yucatán you have to look between rocks to even find soil.  But down below, the Peninsula is porous limestone.  Northeast Iowa also has limestone bedrock, and it is in that part of the state that Iowans first realized the close connection between what washes into the ground and what comes out in springs and wells.  In Yucatán we saw swine farmers flushing manure into a hole in the ground, a cruder version of the ag drainage wells that until recently dotted northeast Iowa.  In the Peninsula, collection wells are used for every purpose from clearing the streets to receiving the untreated liquid fraction of the human waste of the entire population (1.8 M in 2004).

The porous limestone accepts whatever people dispose of, but it inevitably gives it back.  Yucatecans living beyond municipal water lines can buy bottled water (a week’s supply costs a third of the daily minimum wage), or they can expose themselves and their children to things like nitrites (blue baby syndrome), E. coli and other coliform bacteria (dysentery), estrogen-like microcontaminants, and carcinogens.  Municipal water systems remove bacteria but leave other contaminants.

Scientists in Yucatán have been aware of the situation, but they have had difficulty getting the attention of the public and political leaders.  This too is familiar to us in Iowa, but we have developed several tools and scientist-citizen modalities to overcome communication barriers.  The Iowa Department of Natural Resources sponsors the IOWATER network of volunteers, who regularly sample and analyze the water in their communities using portable quick-tests.  Iowa State University has adapted an interactive ground water flow demonstration model that makes visible the movement of underground water and contaminants.  Moreover, they have found that students can be effective demonstrators of the model in their home communities. Yucatán also has a geological feature not found in Iowa; throughout the Peninsula, the subterranean fresh water is underlain by salt water.  However, we were able to modify the demonstration model to show the interplay and movement of pollutants, fresh and salt water (tinted different colors).

Our objective was to test these educational innovations in Yucatán.  The Yucatecan chapter of Partners includes an experienced educator in the CBTA school system (Centro de Bachillerato Tecnológico Agropecuario), which prepares high-school-age youth for careers in agriculture and other trades.  This individual, Jorge Cárdenas, was key to the project and is co-author of the paper published in Natural Sciences Education

We were fortunate to learn about the Education and Culture State Department funding mediated by Partners of the Americas.  Two E&C grants allowed us to purchase water testing kits and three ground water flow models, the third of which was fabricated in Yucatán.  Our in-country chapter members contributed home stays and other amenities that made the effort feasible and enjoyable.

With support from collaborator Cárdenas, I presented a 3-5-day water stewardship unit in CBTA high schools in both 2012 and 2013.  In 2012 I taught in three CBTAs and one NGO.  In 2013 I taught in five CBTAs and one NGO, and we gave demonstrations to numerous other audiences.  In 2012 course participants analyzed 39 water samples that they had taken in their communities.  In 2013 Jorge Cárdenas organized students in the five schools to test water over the course of the entire year, and 185 samples were tested.  The water was analyzed for pH, nitrite nitrogen, nitrate nitrogen, chloride, phosphate, E. coli bacteria, and general Coliform bacteria.  These are things that can make you sick or that indicate the presence of something else that could make you sick.

The students loved the quick-tests, which gave them fast feedback about the water they brought to class.  In both youth and adults I sensed a hunger to know what was in the water in their homes and communities.  The demonstration models were popular with all audiences, allowing people to visualize and consider realities that may have been abstract previously.  Students became the demonstrators of the model at public events and an environmental education center.

Like all our Partners projects, this could not have succeeded without the relationship between the domestic and in-country chapters.  Each chapter is a source of collaborators for the other and a consultant on a culture and political environment that only natives can really grasp.  We have seen how concrete projects provide a “shot in the arm” for both chapters, leading to stronger ties of friendship projects.

Rick's research was recently published in Natural Sciences Education, a publication by the American Society of Agronomy. You can read the abstract of the paper here.