This week, we have three wonderful guest blogs by Fellows of the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA). ECPA emerged from the 2009 Summit of the Americas when leaders of the Western Hemisphere highlighted energy and climate change as some of the most important issues confronting our future. President Obama invited these governments to join an Energy and Climate Partnership for the Americas, allowing the countries of the Western Hemisphere to “learn from one another, share technologies, leverage investment, and maximize our comparative advantage. For more about ECPA’s foundation and the initiatives it addresses, click here.
For the next three days, we have guest blogs by ECPA fellows working on forestry issues in Latin America on topics such as the role of forests in mitigating climate change and the relationship between planting trees and access to fresh water. The first guest blog is by Frank Lowenstein, Adaptation Strategy Lead for The Nature Conservancy’s Global Climate Change Team.
A Trip to Chingaza National Natural Park
Where does your water come from? For many cities often the source is a distant natural area. In Bogotá, – the capital of Colombia and its largest city – the water comes from a mysterious and unique habitat threatened by climate change. Last year I got to see it first-hand.
Bogota’s water supply begins in Chingaza National Natural Park – located nearly a mile higher than the Andean city and 40 miles away. To reach it we cross the bustling, stylish city of eight million people and then creep up the sides of the Andes.
Arriving at Chingaza two hours later, we are in the clouds. Large drops of slushy rain blow sideways into our faces. The two rangers who will guide us are equipped with rain ponchos, hats, and rubber boots. It is hard to fathom that we are only a few degrees north of the Equator.
Despite its tropical location, the vegetation of Chingaza is similar to the tundra. The plants
are universally low to the ground—no trees here—with leaves designed to resist cold temperatures and bitter winds. Called páramo, this tundra-like tropical habitat is unique to the Andes.
While the land looks barren, the páramo has a secret: it’s full of water. The plants capture water from rain or the clouds blowing past, and channel the water to the soil (you can literally squeeze water out of it like a sponge!). The water then flows down the mountain through underground rivers and tunnels on its way to millions of kitchen faucets in Bogota.
I am here to see how climate change threatens the páramos. “This is one of the places where you can see the first impacts of climate change,” explains Tomas Walschburger, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy in Colombia. With warming temperatures, insects from further down the mountain move upslope. “There’s a lot of insect species invading this high mountain grassland. A lot of areas within this park are dying out from the invasion of these insects.”
The main victim so far is a flowering plant called the frailejón—a daisy relative that dominates Chingaza’s páramo. As the plants die, erosion risks rise, threatening to carry away the soil that stores the water between rains. Without plants to capture water and the spongy soil to store it, Chingaza would not be able to provide as much water to the people of Bogota. And in many places páramos face additional challenges from overgrazing, mining, road construction and other destructive uses.
In response to this crisis, The Nature Conservancy, FEMSA Foundation, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Global Environment Facility have developed the Latin American Water Funds Partnership. This partnership aims to create alliances of urban water users and owners of rural landscapes to preserve and protect drinking water. By planting trees in lower reaches of watersheds, reducing cattle grazing in the páramo, and steering mining operations to less sensitive areas, we can reduce stresses and respond to climate change impacts, helping the páramos adapt, so they can continue providing freshwater for people.
At least 32 water funds are in varying stages of progress, aiming to sustain seven
million acres of watersheds that provide drinking water to 50 million people across at least six countries. One water fund focuses on protecting Bogota’s water, which you can learn more about here: http://nature.ly/xrLN4U
My trip to Chingaza is brief. After a few hours of hiking through cold and wind, we turn for home, but I leave with a sense of hope in knowing that the páramo’s protection, for nature and for people, is already underway.
See other blog posts by Frank Lowenstein on The Nature Conservancy’s Planet Change blog.