In the Ecuadoran Andes, protectors of the páramos guard their water source

  • Climate change and human intervention, including mining, are a big threat to water security in the region.
  • Through its water fund, Fonag, Ecuador is facing these challenges in an innovative way.
  • The secret to the fund’s success is that it is inclusive, engaging a wide spectrum of stakeholders to ensure the continued protection of the páramos.

It’s freezing cold. The wind whistles. A gentle drizzle falls from the sky, and the ground wheezes like a soaked sponge with every step. It is an inhospitable and at the same time fascinating place from which Ecuador’s capital, Quito, gets its water.

At 3,500 meters (11,500 feet) above sea level, in the páramos, the shrublands of the Andes, lies the origin of most of the country’s rivers — both those that flow into the Pacific Ocean and those that water the Amazon lowlands and finally flow into the Atlantic Ocean.

You have to look closely to discover the subtleties of an ecosystem resisting such extreme conditions. To find the beauty within the colorful mosses, whose tones range from rust red to light green, in the wrinkled bark of the paper tree, Polylepis spp., or the grass Calamagrostis intermedia, which looks like a huge cream-colored hedgehog.

“This ecosystem is extremely sensitive. It works like a giant sponge,” says biologist Carla Pérez in an interview. “Mosses and grasses all have an important function. They have to absorb the water and store it in the soil.” These storage chambers then release it slowly in small ponds, that turn into little streams, which become wild rivers and finally turn into huge, lazy streams in the Amazon lowlands.

The páramos are very different from glaciers, which in summer or under climate-induced warming suddenly release enormous volumes of water that can transform into life-threatening avalanches. They are a predictable water storage system. This is why the páramos are a strategic resource for Andean countries like Ecuador.

Ecosystem under threat

Around 12,000…

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