Student Research Series: UC Berkeley graduate students reflect on their fieldwork
By Julia Branco
Funded in part by a Tinker Field Research grant from the Center for Latin American Studies, I spent two months in Aguascalientes, Mexico learning about climate threats in the region. I worked with local researchers at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) as part of a multi-year interdisciplinary pilot project to make climate science more accessible and relevant for local policy making. The goals for the first part of this study were to gather specific concerns and ideas of vulnerable communities in Aguascalientes and to produce a systematized process for co-producing community-relevant climate research.
Aguascalientes has a semi-arid climate characterized by high temperatures, low rainfall, and water scarcity, which makes it particularly vulnerable to climate change. Studies show that areas with warmer climates may experience longer and more severe droughts, causing such areas to become drier in the long-term due to an intensification of the hydrological cycle.[i] Consequently, warmer temperatures will likely exacerbate the existing lack of water available in Aguascalientes and cause other challenges, impacting rural and urban communities alike.
It is important to pay attention to the environmental consequences of how mid-sized cities like Aguascalientes (with a population of approximately 887,000) grow, because cities this size will experience the most growth by 2050. Aguascalientes is one of the most densely populated cities in Mexico’s north-central region, with 108.2 people per acre.[ii] Though its growth has been characterized by sprawl (from 1970 to 2010, the city’s population grew by 369% while its surface area grew by 608%),[iii] this growth pattern has environmental consequences as urbanization eats up proximate ecological sites with important environmental functions like air quality and microclimate regulation, water filtration, and aquifer repletion. Furthermore, services have failed to keep up with this pattern of growth. For example, 38% of the municipal transportation system’s units operate below required standards, which contributes to the high rate of motor vehicles in Aguascalientes, putting it in 5th place nationally for car ownership and in turn exacerbating local Co2 emissions.[iv]
As a first step to my research, I reviewed development plans at the state, municipal, and city levels to better understand the environmental and social context of climate adaptation. I focused on the extent to which the plans analyze the impact of rising temperatures and rainfall locally, the level of citizen participation in the plans’ development, and how robust mitigation and adaptation strategies were. My co-researchers at CIDE and I then used in-depth interviews to explore issues of climate adaptation with both government officials, who were developing and implementing adaptation strategies, and communities in rural and peri-urban areas that have a higher level of climate vulnerability.
According to our interviews and document reviews, the most significant climate issues in Aguascalientes are water scarcity and rising temperatures. Aguascalientes extracts almost double the volume of the natural recharge of its aquifers, all of which were already in deficit in 2013. Farmers are feeling this impact, as rising temperatures exacerbate water scarcity and unpredictable rain patterns shorten the harvest season. Some have started adapting by choosing different crop varieties, while others have sought part-time employment in different industries. Furthermore, given inadequate city infrastructure and the growth of unregulated residences in flood prone areas, a large number of areas are at risk of flooding in the face of severe rain. Moreover, while development plans attempt to assess these risks and plan accordingly, many of the indicators used are based on interpolated data at much larger scales, with variables that are not relevant to the region. Thus, even when strategies are formed and implemented, they are often misguided and inefficient.
Most notably, our interviews revealed that political will is a major limitation to more sustainable development practices and prioritization of adaptation policies. There is limited citizen awareness of climate threats and a lag in climate polices in Aguascalientes. This disconnect points us to important challenges for our study. How do we engage citizens in climate research when the culture of participation doesn’t exist? How do we make this study relevant when there is such limited awareness of the gravity of climate change? And finally, how can whatever method we devise for involving communities in climate research serve and incentivize local governments and communities to collaborate on future adaptation planning?
It is projected that by 2040 the population of the city of Aguascalientes will be 1,310,823, which will put additional pressure on its natural and capital resources and require a concerted effort to deal with climate threats.[v] The challenge of adaptation is significant, but we hope that our research will help bridge both the gap in local information and in citizen participation in urban and environmental planning processes. In the next stage of our study, we will analyze what local communities revealed about their barriers to adaptation. We believe that this analysis will inform a new protocol to facilitate citizen involvement in climate adaption and policy creation, and guide climate data collection that is relevant for local communities.
[i] Dai A (2013a) Increasing drought under global warming in observations and models. Nat Clim Change 3(1):52–58; Seager R, Naik N, Vecchi GA (2010) Thermodynamic and dynamic mechanisms for large-scale changes in the hydrological cycle in response to global warming. J Clim 23(17):4651–4668
[ii] Plan Estatal de Desarollo 2016-2022. DR. Gobierno del Estado de Aguascalinetes, 2017
[iii] Programa De Desarrollo Urbano De La Ciudad De Aguascalientes 2040 Ciudad Que Evoluciona: Instituto Municipal De Planeación, Implan, 2015
[iv] Plan De Desarrollo Municipal 2017-2019. Aguascalientes, El Corazón De México. H. Ayuntamiento del Municipio de Aguascalientes. Primera Edición, Marzo de 2017
[v] Programa De Desarrollo Urbano De La Ciudad De Aguascalientes 2040 Ciudad Que Evoluciona: Instituto Municipal De Planeación, Implan, 2015
Julia Flor Branco is a Masters student in the City and Regional Planning department at UC Berkeley. Her interests are in environmental planning and housing issues in the U.S. and Latin America. Her research has been supported by a Tinker Field Research Grant from the Center for Latin American Studies.