By Ana K. Celis, Chief of Research, Great Maya Aquifer (Mexico)

May 2022

The geomorphology of the Yucatán peninsula (southeast Mexico) is formed predominantly by a karst-type relief, typical of limestone soils. In its natural condition, 90% of this territory lacks surface water flows, which however seems to be compensated with the existence of a major underground aquifer. Approximately 4 million people in the peninsula depend on this natural freshwater reservoir.

The geologic features that most characterize this aquifer are the cenotes, caverns and caves resulting from long and slow processes of dissolution and collapse of the karstic subsoil. The word “cenote” comes from the Mayan d’zonot which means “cavern with water” or well. Locally, this concept applies to any entrance to the underground space that contains water, while the concept of caves refers to either dry or submerged passages that extend underground in different directions. The interconnectivity of groundwater with other environments such as the lowland forest, mangroves, lagoons, wetlands, and even reefs, makes all of them vulnerable to cascading effects.

Because of the mutual influences, relationships, and interdependencies that emerge from the natural and the social components of the aquifer, we can refer to it as a socio-ecological system. With a historical perspective, in the last twenty years we have become more aware of the role played by the presence of an underground ecosystem in this region. These caves seem to be the only witnesses of the prehistorical human groups and the megafauna that inhabited this region, according to the archaeological and paleontological evidence found so far.

Taking a look into the recent past, in the 1970s tourism became the main economic activity in this area. Since the creation of “Cancun” and its projection as a top world tourist destination, the peninsula entered into an economic regime focused in the development of infrastructure. Once entered into a new land use praxis, the cenotes became valued according to its potential to provide recreation and pleasure to visitors.

As the first science-based local effort, in 2015 a group of researchers in different scientific fields coined the concept of the Great Maya Aquifer (GAM, in Spanish) with the purpose of pointing out its importance and especially, its fragility. Today this concept is in use among the local population and even some international media have adopted it when referring to the area. This sets a very important precedent because we believe that words have the power to create ideas, make connections and bring new perspectives. Moreover, GAM Project is currently working in different research lines, one of which focuses on articulating the dynamics and complex interactions between actors, systems and institutions that are part of and benefit from the subterranean ecosystems of the Yucatán Peninsula. By applying a socio-ecological perspective and including a variety of knowledge systems and perceptions we look forward to be able to create alternative management approaches for the benefit of the Great Maya Aquifer.