Water and environmental issues cry out for binational collaboration and knowledge exchange. The 1,954 miles of land border shared by Mexico and the U.S. cut through rivers and deserts, national parks and communities, on which climate change and resource shortages have already had devastating effects. In this edition of Knowledge Transfers, we explore the possibilities for cross-border research in this space and look at one example of a training program on sustainable agriculture.
Case in point: How can students build a better future in the Sonoran Desert?
Luisa Orci Fernandez signed up for the U.S.-México Training in Environment, Agriculture and Management (TEAM) program because she “wanted to learn more about the connection, similarities and differences when it comes to agricultural practices, water policies and water management between my home state Sonora and Arizona, where I’m currently studying my master’s degree,” she told Knowledge Transfers.
Orci Fernandez—along with the 10 additional students and seven faculty members participating in the program—recognized that sustainability, agriculture, and resource management cannot be studied in a bubble, and indeed, any serious study of those subjects, particularly in states like Arizona and Sonora, has to cross borders.
It was with this in mind that Arizona State University and the Instituto Tecnológico de Sonora created the U.S.-México TEAM program, which trains graduate students and is supported by the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund and the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy. The program is primarily focused on agricultural systems in central Arizona and Sonora’s Yaqui Valley, and involves a class, virtually co-taught by ASU and ITSON, and field visits on both sides of the border.
This semester, four teams of U.S.-México TEAM students are completing projects including: “Vulnerability Assessment of the Yaqui Valley to Drought,” “Estimating Agricultural Productivity in the US and Mexico through Remote Sensing,” “Sustainable Nitrogen Fertilizer Use Practices in the Yaqui Valley,” and “Differences in US and Mexico Water Culture and its Effect on Decision Making.”
In addition to scientific research, the program places significant emphasis on communication through social and traditional media, intercultural and interdisciplinary skills, and engagement with stakeholders—with the idea that to achieve any real impact, translating academic work into the public square is crucial.
U.S.-México TEAM is just one program, but by connecting young researchers to each other and other important players, it seeks to have a ripple effect in the region, spurring additional collaborations and the sharing of best practices. Indeed, by making public the work they’ve been doing throughout the program, said Orci Fernandez, participants hope to “inspire other schools, teachers and students” to create and participate in similar initiatives.
Enrique Vivoni, the ASU principal investigator for US-México TEAM, noted that as important as collaborative research of this nature is, it’s not without its difficulties, “including having equal access to and distribution of funding; overcoming potential barriers related to language or cultural differences; and varying incentive structures in universities, government agencies and the private sector in both countries.”
Still, these difficulties are not insurmountable, and universities can play a key role in addressing them.
For Enrico Yepez, an ecohydrologist, professor at ITSON, and one of the faculty leads of the project, the surveying and monitoring of rivers, aquifers, and overall water availability are pressing priorities in need of increased cross-border research collaboration. “Such monitoring strategies should consider socio-economic and ecological contexts, and most importantly us[e] standardized techniques and tools,” he said. “We definitely need more collaboration to balance between high tech [and] low tech approaches, to scientifically calibrate and homogenize techniques to then deliver technological packages to water management agencies on both sides.”
The natural resource challenges shared by Mexico and the U.S. are complex, said Vivoni, and are amplified by growing populations and a changing climate. In particular, Vivoni—who helps lead the ASU Hydrologic Science, Engineering and Sustainability group—cited key challenges including “water supply from large rivers such as the Colorado, a summer monsoon season that leads to flooding hazards, expanding irrigated agriculture and grazing for international trade—among others.”
Importantly, Vivoni emphasized, “these challenges are socio-hydrological in that they involve processes of natural and built environments that interact with decisions and actions conducted by actors in the binational societies.”
Numbers to know:
- 260,000 square kilometers: The approximate area occupied by the Sonoran Desert, which includes parts of California, Arizona, Sonora, and the Baja California Peninsula. According to the U.S. National Park Service, the Sonoran Desert is “thought to have the greatest species diversity of any desert in North America,” making it an area rich for collaborative research related to biology, ecology, hydrology, and more.
- 1944: The year the U.S. and Mexico signed a water treaty that established a framework to distribute and manage water from the Rio Grande, Tijuana and Colorado rivers, via the International Boundary and Water Commission. The treaty, according to Stephen Mumme in a paper for the Baker Institute’s Mexico Center, “is fundamental to setting the terms of access to water for a population of at least 40 million water users.” Collaborative solutions to promote cross-border water access became more urgent this summer, after the U.S. federal government declared for the first time a water shortage on the Colorado River, and the UN predicted “more frequent and more severe” droughts in Mexico and the U.S., due to global climate change. (Importantly, the UN notes, the 1944 treaty “does not explicitly address groundwater use.”)
- 504: The number of higher education institutions that have received Innovation Fund grants, like the grant supporting the U.S.-Mexico TEAM project, distributed across 25 countries and 49 U.S. states.
Be sure to follow…
SDSN México (@sdsnmx):The Sustainable Development Solutions Network is a UN project dedicated to “mobiliz[ing] actions towards the fulfillment of the Sustainable Development Goals through partnerships between academia, government, companies, and social organizations.” The Mexican chapter is led by the Tecnológico de Monterrey and the UNAM, and includes a project bank where you can support different sustainability initiatives with your time or money.