The Tacaná Watersheds: Implementing transboundary water governance through local community ecosystem based action

Taco Anema
Published: 06 June 2017
Last edited: 01 October 2020
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Despite their great potential and strategic importance the watersheds of the Tacaná volcano are vulnerable both ecologically and politically. IUCN (through the Water and Nature Initiative, WANI) and partners therefore set up a demonstration project in these watersheds, which combined pilot livelihood projects (water, soil and environmental conservation) and bottom-up integrated governance of water resources management (freshwater ecosystem management). 


Central America
Scale of implementation
Freshwater ecosystems
Grassland ecosystems
Rangeland / Pasture
River, stream
Temperate grassland, savanna, shrubland
Tundra or montane grassland
Disaster risk reduction
Land management
Outreach & communications
Watershed management
Land and Forest degradation
Volcanic eruption
Changes in socio-cultural context
Sustainable development goals
SDG 6 – Clean water and sanitation
SDG 13 – Climate action
Aichi targets
Target 7: Sustainable agriculture, aquaculture and forestry
Target 15: Ecosystem restoration and resilience
Target 19: Sharing information and knowledge


San Marcos Department, Guatemala | Tacaná Watersheds, Department of San Marcos (Guatemala), State of Chiapas (Mexico)


The watersheds of the Tacaná volcano are of great strategic importance for both Guatemala and Mexico since they supply water to the cities located downstream, irrigation water for agriculture and, in the lower reaches, fishing.  Despite this great potential, the area is vulnerable both ecologically and politically. The climate is tropical humid and there a high occurrence of hurricanes as well as volcanic activity. Deforestation and degradation of the upper watersheds and of river banks has led to erosion and flooding and reduced capacity of the watersheds to absorb water. The area is also exposed to a number of socio-political shortcomings such as lack of technical support between institutions, indigenous people marginalization, high illiteracy and mortality rates, very high population growth, and complex land tenure rights. 


Local communities in the Department of San Marcos, Guatemala and the State of Chiapas, Mexico; fishers and farmers, students, local authorities, women (made up 90% of those implementing livelihood projects).

How do the building blocks interact?

The building blocks work together to meet the main goal of the Water and Nature Initiative (WANI), which is to “mainstream an ecosystem approach into catchment policies, planning and management”. The activities are therefore structured around the Initiative’s strategic objectives including:

  • To demonstrate ecosystem management in river basins.
  • To support wise governance of water resources and wetlands.
  • To develop and apply economic tools and incentive measures.
  • To empower people to participate in sustainable water management.
  • To improve knowledge to support decision making.
  • To learn lessons to raise awareness on wise water use.


With the support from the Tacaná Project, communities built Microwatershed councils to lead watershed restoration and development that met their priorities. Empowerment of community-owned institutions is making watersheds more secure and livelihoods less vulnerable to climate change.

The project also facilitated the collection and organisation of locally available information and knowledge and increased local awareness of basin dynamics and water management. The devastation caused by Tropical Storm Stan alerted the authorities and communities to the areas’ vulnerability to climate change impacts and the need to increase resilience to tropical storms and flooding through improved infrastructure and restored ecosystems whilst the project also supported the rehabilitation and disaster preparedness plans in the storms immediate aftermath. Finally, alliances were developed and an integrated approach to water management was integrated from local to national levels including national Watershed Commissions. 


Taco Anema

JEM of a Business

In 2012, Jóvenes en la Misión (Youth in Mission, JEM) had 200 members actively involved within the municipality of San Marcos and a total of 2,000 youth working together on water issues in Guatemala. JEM’s motto is ‘United for Water’ and most of its activities have an environmental component. JEM has been influential on local policy, as Feliciano Velásquez, president of Community Development Committee of San Pablo, Tacaná and member of the Esquichá Microwatershed Council explains, “…The provincial government took notice. Mayors took notice. That was important.” With assistance from the Tacaná Project, JEM became a registered NGO in July 2005. A year later, JEM received a loan which helped them to build 19 greenhouses with drip irrigation that produced flowers and vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Community economic development is fundamental to environmental conservation, noted Ottoniel Rivera, IUCN coordinator of the Tacaná project: “These kids don’t want to migrate to the United States like so many others. They want to remain in their community, but they have to make a living. They want to protect the environment, but then they ask, ‘So now that we’ve saved the forest, how are we going to make a living?’.”

Today, JEM continues to campaign and advocate for water issues, helping to improve livelihoods through the use of appropriate technologies and support community development by building capacity for water governance. A Strategic Plan was developed to further guide its activities. Among its achievements, JEM has supported reforestation to improve water supply which has helped more than 800 people in the Esquiche micro-watershed and has established a virtual platform for dialogue to strengthen projects along the borders of Guatemala and Mexico. JEM now has a strong national presence and is involved in a national youth movement participating in many activities related to climate change and water at both local and national levels.

Written by Bill Hinchberger


Contributed by

Rebecca Welling International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

Other contributors

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
Stefano Barchiesi
Mark Smith
Maria Lindelien
Megan Cartin
Rocío Córdoba
Ottoniel Rivera
Carlos Rosal
Felipe Arrevillaga