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In May 2005, 24 science and engineering students and faculty from four universities in the U.S. and Canada embarked on a one-week field course in the Rio Lerma-Chapala Basin. The purpose of the course was to gain first-hand experience in one of the most intensively-developed watersheds in the world. The Rio Lerma-Chapala basin is situated in central Mexico, covering a total area of more than 54,000 km2 and including 9.35 million inhabitants. The basin contains 6,400 industries, generating one-third of the GNP and 20 per cent of all national commerce in Mexico and comprises one-eighth of all the irrigated land in Mexico.

The field course was hosted by the University of Guadalajara and led by Salvador Peniche Camps, a well-known environmental economist who has studied the Rio Lerma and Lake Chapala for several decades. The course began at the birthplace of the Rio Lerma, in lagoons located near the city of Almoloya and ended at the river’s terminus in Lake Chapala.

At each stop along the way, the participants learned from specialists about the difficulties of managing the basin under intensive pressures from growing municipal populations and an expanding agro-industry. The specialists included university scientists, government officials, farmers, environmental activists, and indigenous peoples. The participants were briefed on the manipulation of flows in the river and the sources of water quality problems in the basin. The social and political tensions that accompany the diverse stakeholders in the basin also were examined.

But the field course wasn’t all about science. The field course participants were exposed a great variety of culture, including live performances of indigenous dances and music, participation in an indigenous cleansing ceremony, tours of colonial architecture, viewing of archaeological remains, and discussions of historical events that have shaped the basin.

At the end of the course, the student participants were asked to anonymously evaluate the course. According to the evaluation results, 80% of the students were very satisfied with the course and 93% of the students would definitely recommend the course to other students. But, the written comments from the students’ evaluation are even more enlightening as to the impact of the course. A sample of these comments follow.

“What I have seen has motivated me to learn more…about solutions to resource abuse. I feel highly motivated to do what I can to effect change.” “…this trip has also given me the will to continue to learn about this watershed and about water issues in Mexico.” “The trip has left such a strong impression in me…I will prepare a report [about the trip] for our radio program and…write a couple of articles for newspapers.”

“I knew that rivers and streams can be polluted, but seeing it for real was really shocking.”“More than anything, my understanding of the stakeholders involved and their inter-relationships with each other and the Mexican government has deepened.” “It was great to speak with the locals about the issues and their opinion, since that is the deciding factor…”

“I have realized the significant effects of government interference and misinformation. Seeing the high levels of pollutants upstream of a dam and then being informed [by governmental officials] that the water downstream is relatively unpolluted made me realize the importance of organizations looking beyond their own interests to provide accurate information.” “The trip has opened my eyes to the enormous effects of misinformation and lack of cooperation between interested parties on water problems.” “I feel…anger and disappointment that the authorities haven’t done more to improve the situation.” “The main point is that my belief of the necessity of a water management program that includes every part of society (NGO’s, government, universities, public…) has gotten stronger.”

“It is one thing to read about poor water quality and a totally different thing to experience it through sight and smell. To see water so anaerobic that it bubbles gas is an experience that no textbook can provide.” “This week has inspired me to keep working as an engineer- but more so, it has me thinking of volunteering my own service and of utilizing service learning with any future students I may have.” “This kind of activity has to be repeated in the future. It permits us to share our knowledge with students abroad and to sensitize us to problems about water resources problems.” “We’ve been confronted with situations that are totally unacceptable from an environmental point of view. It is impossible to stay insensitive to this situation and that’s why this field trip will definitely continue to affect my beliefs in the future.”

This trip was sponsored by the “ExCit” Consortium, which consists of the University of Sonora and University of Guadalajara in Mexico, Michigan Technological University and the University of Cincinnati in the United States, and the University of British Columbia and Laval University in Canada. The goal of the Excit Consortium is to train students to be aware of the water resources issues in the three countries and the differences and similarities in how these issues are resolved. The training occurs with semester-long student exchanges and field courses such as the one described here. The ExCit Consortium is funded the Program for North American Mobility, which is in turn funded by education or human resources agencies in the three countries.

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