When the water runs out

Ecuador's crops, its power grid and the drinking water for its largest city are all threatened by climate change.

Published April 7, 2006 10:00AM (EDT)

Lined up behind glass and concrete on a cliffside southeast of Quito, five giant hydroelectric turbines at the Guangopolo plant lay idle. Oversize pastel-colored tangles of steel tubes, built to transform liquid into energy, sit empty -- in recent years there simply hasn't been enough water to pump through them. As a result, production of vital energy that helps light up Ecuador's nearby capital city has waned dramatically.

"In the past 30 years, we've lost 40 to 50 percent of the water that comes through the plant," says Manuel Moreno, one of the engineers at Empresa Electrica Quito, the capital city's electric company.

The dwindling waters at Guangopolo are signs of what could be a stark future not only for hydropower, but for water resources throughout the country. Melting glaciers and irregular rainfall -- effects linked by scientists to global climate change -- have already begun threatening Ecuador's electrical grids, agricultural production and drinking-water supplies.

Quito is surrounded by an intricate network of open canals and rivers traversing the surrounding ridges of the Andes Mountains. The Guangopolo plant gets water from two rivers, Rio San Pedro and Rio Pita, which depend on precipitation and the melt of two glaciers, Cotopaxi and Iliniza. The Rio Pita's flow has decreased by 50 percent in the past 20 years. Glaciologists with Ecuador's National Institute on Hydrology and Meteorology attribute the decrease to the loss of a third of the glacier atop Cotopaxi in the past 50 years. They say drought conditions, deforestation and irrigation practices may also play a role, but no studies of those factors have been done to date.

Cotopaxi is not the only glacier in rapid retreat. In the past 75 years, temperatures have increased across Ecuador, the increases ranging from 0.5 degrees Celsius on the coast to 1.5 degrees in the Andes. Leading glaciologists predict that many Andean glaciers below 17,000 feet -- stretching as far south as Bolivia -- could disappear in the next few decades. Some Andean glaciers have already disappeared, such as the Cotacachi volcano in northern Ecuador, leaving mountain communities distraught over dried-up water sources.

The problem will soon reach the bigger cities. "In 20 to 30 years we will have a problem with the potable water supply," says Bolivar Caceres, a glaciologist with the hydrology and meteorology institute. As the glaciers recede, he says, there will be less water for Quito, where 70 percent of the water comes from surrounding ice caps. "Once a glacier is lost, it doesn't come back," Caceres adds. "It's a nonrenewable resource."

For the time being, residents of Quito don't notice much disruption in water service. Quito's municipal water company, EMAAP-Q, is pumping hundreds of liters of water per second into one of its treatment plants that runs a constant deficit from Rio Pita. The massive reservoir that stabilizes the system is La Mica glacial lake below Antizana, another ice-capped volcano whose runoff provides drinking water to a third of Quito. But Antizana's runoff will not be able to rescue the rest of the EMAAP-Q's water system for long: The lake's water level goes down 5 meters a year -- and just like Cotopaxi, Antizana's glacier has lost a third of its volume in the past half century.

Ecuadorean officials realize they can't stand by and wait for the large reserves of frozen water to run out. The Quito water company is planning to complete a $700 million project by 2020 to supply the city from the Rios Orientales, a robust river system east of the Andes.

In addition to the effects of glacial retreat, Caceres says, changing rain patterns are also threatening energy supplies. The country's 2005 drought was the worst in 40 years, with rains coming three months later than the wet season normally begins. That caused a massive deficit at the Paute hydroelectric plant in southern Ecuador, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of the nation's hydroelectric production.

Agriculture is suffering, too. Ask farmers in the Andes about changes in the climate, and they'll tell you stories about the rain. In the town of Cuicocha Central, Segundo Alfredo Tabango, 73, can't make much sense of the rain patterns these days. Forty years ago, Tabango knew when and how the rain would fall, and he planted accordingly. Three months into the rainy season, however, the soil he stands on is dry and crumbly.

"Before, you used to be able to plant whenever, because it rained continually," Tabango says, as he tends to the shin-high crops in his fields on the Cotacachi mountainside. "Now we [have to] wait for the rain. It rains one day, it rains two days ... we hurry up and plant." He looks young for his age, wearing a baseball cap as he labors beneath the strong sun. "Then the time passes [with no rain] and the plants dry up." As the rainy season becomes more erratic, more Andean farmers have reported lighter precipitation than before -- a stark contrast to the steady, large teardroplike rain that Tabango remembers as a child.

But mountain residents complain most about a phenomenon they call "lancha," which they describe as a light drizzle accompanied by a strong sun. They say the lethal combination of light and heat magnified through moisture on plant leaves literally cooks their crops. Agricultural specialists use "lancha" to describe blights that arise from extreme weather conditions such as frost.

"The sicknesses are worse now," says Tabango, holding up a three-leaved stem speckled with brown spots. "Before we didn't ever fumigate -- it was all natural methods. We didn't know about chemical treatments. We planted, we worked, and we harvested. Now we have to take care of the plants very carefully."

Tabango has lost entire crops due to limited water supply or "sicknesses" affiliated with drought conditions and frost. His animals have died from a lack of rain and greens to graze on. He has been forced to sell other animals in order to pay off bank loans when his crops fail. When it doesn't rain, Tabango's family must buy vegetables at the market, an added expense when funds are already tight from a bad harvest. Tabango says he now pays $30 a month to chemically treat his crops, a cost that makes him cut back on meals. Using chemicals prevents him from losing half his crops, but if he doesn't treat his beans right away, sometimes he loses everything.

Ecuador's 2005 agricultural losses were bleak for many farmers. Drought conditions, frost and plant sicknesses cut national production by 35 percent. Between export crops that never made it out of the country and spoiled products intended for domestic consumption, an estimated $30 million was lost.

"We see it as a problem of climate change, manifesting itself in a harsher way on the farmer," says Thelmo Hervas Ordoñez, planning director for the Ministry of Agriculture. In December 2005, Ordoñez became treasurer of the newly formed Emergency Committee on Frost and Drought. In order to secure irrigation systems in the face of increasingly unpredictable rain patterns, the committee's primary plan is to tap into underground aquifers by perforating more than 600 wells throughout the country. The committee is also funding an early-warning system for farmers in the Andes who are losing crops to frost.

It may be too late for farmers like Jose Fueres, 86, of the mountain town of Ugshapungo. Fueres has resorted to covering up his potato crops with long, reedlike plants, so they don't get "burned." Likewise, Francisca Chavez of Chilcabamba now talks of sun as strong as the "flame in her kitchen," and says that she can't keep her soil moist no matter how much she irrigates.

Some have been seeking relief through spiritual traditions. When the rain doesn't come to Soyla Tuquerez's high-mountain community of Morales Chupa, she calls together her children and neighbors for a gift-exchanging ceremony. They assemble on a hilltop, each one bringing something edible to share with the others. They offer items in the name of one element of the earth -- an offering for water usually entails something sweet. The children stand in a line, and call out to the mother earth to bring rain.

In the past, Tuquerez's ancestors conducted ceremonies sporadically throughout the dry season, but only in desperate times. During the past year's drought, though, Tuquerez organized a call for the rain nearly every day.

Read other articles in the Early Signs: Reports from a Warming Planet directory.

By Pauline Bartolone

Pauline Bartolone is a freelance journalist. This story was reported with Felicia Mello in a joint production of Salon, NPRs Living on Earth and U.C. Berkeleys Graduate School of Journalism.

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