Ecuador Presents High Mountain Projects at World Water Week

FONAG, the organization which protects and restores the water resources for the Ecuadorian capital city of Quito, played a significant role in presenting high mountain issues to World Water Week, a major conference which was held late last month in Stockholm. Organized by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), World Water Week is the largest annual global conference on water issues.

Ecuadorian researchers speaking at water conference in Stockholm.
FONAG researchers speaking at World Water Week in Stockholm (source: de Bievre).

Dating back to 1991, World Water Week conferences address key issues of water and sustainable development, and seek long-lasting solutions to water crises. They develop ways to strengthen water governance, promoting cooperation rather than competition over water issues. The thousands of attendees, representing hundreds of organizations and over 100 countries, include experts, representatives of public and private organizations, practitioners, and young professionals. The 2018 theme was Water, Ecosystems and Human Development.

SIWI houses the Water Governance Institute, a branch of the United Nations Development Program. SIWI’s five thematic areas are all of relevance to mountain regions: water governance, transboundary water management, water and climate change, the water-energy-food nexus, and water economics.

FONAG, the Fund for Water Protection, supplies Quito with water from paramo wetlands in the high Andes. Established in 2006 to address issues of water supply and quality and to manage competing demands for water, it is supported through a 2 percent contribution from water use fees, with some contributions from local firms and conservation organizations. It operates with a time horizon of 80 years. It follows the principles of integrated water resource management.  

Explaining the environmental importance of mountain wetlands in water management in Ecuador
Bert de Bievre (middle) explaining the role of high mountain wetlands in water management in Ecuador (source: Ben Orlove).

Bert de Bievre, the technical sectertary of FONAG, has a Ph.D. in water resources from the University of Leuven in Belgium. He has worked in Ecuador for over 20 years. Before joining FONAG in 2015, he served as a professor at the University of Cuenca, the head of the Ecuador office of the International Potato Center, and as a researcher for CONDESAN, a major environmental NGO in Ecuador and Peru. GlacierHub has previously reported on a field trip where de Bievre provided technical orientation. The trip was to the glacier Antisana, which supplies water to FONAG sites, in conjunction with an IPCC meeting in Ecuador. His talks focused on páramos, the high elevation wetlands that are critical for the city’s water supply.  

De Bievre discussed the recent workshop with GlacierHub.

GlacierHub: Who were the people who participated in the session ”Research Initiatives on the High Andes:  Ecosystems and Water Interactions”? What nations, institutions and perspectives did they represent?

Bert de Bievre: The session was convened by Quito’s water utility EPMAPS, and its green infrastructure operator FONAG (Fondo para la Protección del Agua). We had participants from Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Hondures, Kenya, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.

We had the CapNET initiative, an organization within the United Nations Development Program which promotes capacity development in sustainable water development. Development banks such as the Andean Development Corporation and the Interamerican Development Bank were involved, as were other water utilities and green infrastructure initiatives.  

One particular perspective is worth mentioning: we had a couple of Ecuadorian visual artists, who were attending in order to understand better how we depend on high Andean ecosystems for water in the region. They are elaborating ideas on how to reflect this in art!


GH:  What were the points that attracted the most discussion in that session?

A woman researcher takes measurements in a high mountain wetland in Ecuador.
FONAG researcher taking measurements in a high mountain wetland in Ecuador (source: de Bievre)

BdB: Development banks see Quito as a benchmark case, for natural or green infrastructure development. A major point in the session and actually the whole Stockholm Water Week this year, was that nature-based solutions are very important, but they should be science and evidence based. The generation of this evidence is not obvious at all. EPMAPS and FONAG showcased their “Paramo and Water Scientific Station” whose aim is precisely to permit scientists to have suitable conditions for rigorous, systematic, continuous data collection of variables relevant for sustainable water management.


GH:  Was climate change discussed in that session? What other ecosystem-water interactions were also discussed?

BdB: Climate change was certainly discussed, primarily from an adaptation point of view. The question arose to determine which are the most effective and cost-effective interventions in the high Andean ecosystems that conserve and restore the hydrological ecosystem services. These interventions also stop land use change trends which reduce ecosystem services; these land use changes deserve, at least on the short term, at least as much attention as climate change. However, the scientific station is embedded in the long-term financial mechanism which FONAG creates, and therefore offers good conditions for long-term climate research at unusual locations (tropical high altitude, or the cold tropics).


GH: What similarities and differences were discussed between FONAG and other water organizations in high mountain regions?

BdB: Attention focused on the financial mechanisms underlying FONAG, a topic that was thoroughly discussed in other sessions at World Water Week. The aspect that draw most attention was the new generation of studies on “return on Investment” in green infrastructure. The development banks are extremely interested, in order to improve the performance of grey infrastructure of public water utilities. In this context, differences between more public and more private based initiatives, with FONAG more public, was certainly on the agenda.


GH: What were the conclusions of that session? Were there points raised for future research? Were any specific actions discussed?

Researchers stand in front of Antisana Glacier in Ecuador.
Bert de Bievre (third from left) and IPCC lead authors at the foot of Antisana Glacier, which supplies meltwater to the city of Quito (source: Ben Orlove)

BdB: Important points for future research are the “usual suspects” such as restoration of high altitude grasslands, but some more novel research agenda includes much more intensive efforts of our high altitude lakes (limnology) under climate change, interaction of active volcanism with the water sources.

Specifically the foundation of thematic working group, e.g. on tropical high altitude limnology, was discussed, and the possibility of a network of high altitude research stations along the tropical Andes.


GH: What additional points were presented in the sessions on monitoring and on infrastructure?

BdB: In this and other sessions, it was stressed that monitoring comes first, and we need more ground-truthing on the impact of natural infrastructure, in hydrological terms. The role of modeling was discussed, as potentially important tools for scenario analysis and extrapolation, but always based on field monitoring of the impact of individual natural infrastructure interventions. Key issues include the elimination of overgrazing, wetland restoration, and avoiding environmental degradation.


IPCC Lead Authors Hike Up to Antisana Glacier in Ecuador

Bolívar Cáceres, a glaciologist at Ecuador’s National Meteorology and Hydrology Institute, organized an excursion to a glacier-covered volcano, Antisana, north of Quito, last month. About a dozen researchers took part. They had come to Quito for a lead authors’ meeting of IPCC’s Special Report on Oceans and the Cryosphere. Bert De Bièvre, the technical secretary of FONAG, the Quito Water Conservation Fund, joined the group as well.

The skies were cloudy for much of the day, as is common in Ecuador at that time of the year. But the group felt fortunate to have no rain. After driving from Quito through some agricultural areas, small towns, and forests, they came to the páramos, the high elevation wetlands that are critical for the city’s water supply. After entering a large protected area, De Bièvre explained the dynamics of the páramos, their connection to the glaciers of Antisana, and the mechanisms for diverting water to Quito.

Páramo grasslands on the lower slopes of Antisana (source: Ben Orlove).


Entering the Antisana Water Conservation Area (source: Ben Orlove).


Bert De Bièvre explaining the importance of glaciers and native vegetation to the urban water supply for Quito (source: Ben Orlove).


The group then drove to a trailhead. They hiked up to the glacier. Cáceres discussed the importance of an automated weather station  they had passed.

IPCC lead authors approaching Antisana Glacier. Bolívar Cáceres is second from left (source: Ben Orlove).


Automated weather station just below Antisana Glacier (source: Ben Orlove).


IPCC author Miriam Jackson explained the pattern of crevasses on Antisana Glacier (source: Ben Orlove).


The group spent some time up on the glacier, glad to have been able to reach this ice, at an elevation close to 5000 meters.

IPCC lead authors walking on Antisana Glacier (source: Ben Orlove).


Fresh snow on old ice, at a lower section of Antisana Glacier (source: Ben Orlove).


Frozen meltwater on Antisana Glacier (source: Ben Orlove).


On the way back down to the trailhead, the hikers looked back at the mountain, first seeing it partially obscured by clouds, and then finally getting a clearer view.


Mist on Antisana Glacier (source: Ben Orlove).


Clouds lifting from Antisana at the end of the hike (source: Ben Orlove).





Glacier Researchers Gather at IPCC Meeting in Ecuador

Tarsicio Granizo, Ecuadorian Minister of the Environment, speaking at the opening ceremony (source: Ben Orlove)

Researchers from several countries gathered earlier this month to advance their work on a report that will assess the state of research on glaciers and other topics. The meeting took place in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, close to a number of glaciated peaks in the Andes. This location reflects the focus of the document, the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This report traces cryosphere-ocean links, particularly the contribution of meltwater from the Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets to sea-level rise, and also considers other topics related to oceans and the cryosphere.

Lead Author Carolina Adler, being interviewed by Televicentro at the IPCC Meeting (source: IPCC/Facebook).

Chapter 2, High Mountain Areas, examines a variety of topics which include observed and projected changes in glaciers, permafrost and snow, as well as links to climate, hazards and water resources. It also discusses risks for societies, and the strategies to respond to these risks. The full chapter structure can be found in the outline of the report, which was approved last year.

This chapter is being led by two Coordinating Lead Authors, Regine Hock, a glaciologist and hydrologist from the University of Alaska, and Golam Rasul, an economist and rural development specialist from the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal. The 13 Lead Authors come from four continents and represent 10 countries—the UK, France, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria, Russia, China, Japan, Ecuador, the U.S. and Canada.

Activities at the Meeting

Chapter 2 team at Antisana Glacier (source: Ben Orlove).

Most members of the Chapter 2 team took part in an excursion to a glacier-covered volcano, Antisana, north of Quito the day before the conference started. This trip was organized by one of the Lead Authors, Bolívar Cáceres of the Ecuadorian National Meteorology and Hydrology Institute. The group was joined by Bert De Bièvre, the technical secretary of FONAG, the Quito Water Conservation Fund, who explained the importance of high-elevation wetlands, fed by glacier meltwater, snow and rain, in supplying Quito with drinking water. In addition to accompanying the Lead Authors up to the glacier, above 4,900 meters in elevation, he took the team to several sites which illustrated the collaboration of FONAG with the National Park Service and other organizations in protecting the key ecosystems of the region.

Folk dance troupe at evening performance at IPCC event (source: Ben Orlove).

The IPCC meeting, hosted by the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment, was held on 12-16 February at the Hotel Colón in Quito. Tarsicio Granizo Tamayo, Minister of the Environment of Ecuador, and Maria Victoria Chiriboga, the Undersecretary of Climate Change, addressed the participants at the opening ceremony, as did IPCC co-chairs. On the evening of the meeting’s inauguration, the Ecuadorian government also sponsored a performance by a troupe of folk dancers, who presented the diverse cultural styles of the country’s coastal and highland regions.

The meeting drew over 100 participants from 30 countries. In addition to attending plenary meetings, the chapter teams discussed the preliminary comments which they had received on the Zero Order Drafts of their chapters. They coordinated with each other to promote the integration of the chapters, and also began the planning of communication products. The discussions continued at meals and in the evenings.

Women Lead Authors and IPCC Staff at IPCC Meeting (source: IPCC/Facebook).

This meeting was distinguished by the relatively large proportion of women among the lead authors and by the international diversity, with representatives from more than 30 countries across six continents and the Pacific, taking part. It received wide coverage in a number of Ecuadorian newspapers as well as on television.

Comments on the Meeting

IPCC Vice-Chair Ko Barrett described the meeting, saying, “IPCC authors are assessing scientific literature about changes in the ocean and the frozen parts of our planet, their effects on ecosystems and humankind and options for adapting to them. This report will help policymakers better understand the changes we are seeing and the risks to lives and livelihoods that may occur with future climate change.”

Conversations at lunch at the IPCC meeting (source: Ben Orlove).

“The ocean and the cryosphere play essential roles in the climate system and the ecosystem services that humankind depends on,” said Hans-Otto Poertner, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II. “Scientists are also trying to understand how the frozen and liquid water bodies of our planet interact, and how sea level will change and affect coastlines and cities.”

Poertner noted that Ecuador and other Andean countries are facing the impacts of glacier retreat, which threaten water supplies for cities such as Quito. He added, “Furthermore, the region hosts unique ecosystems with high biodiversity which are now challenged by human-induced climate change on top of other human influences.”

An Outreach Event and Upcoming Activities

Lead Author Bolivar Caceres, speaking at the outreach event after the IPCC meeting (source: IPCC/Facebook).

Some of the authors and IPCC personnel participated in an outreach event on 16 February, held at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Quito, and jointly sponsored by the university and the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment. They presented the outline of the report to local audiences, discussed major findings of earlier IPCC reports about changes in climate and in mountain and coastal environments, and reviewed issues specific to Andean countries and Latin America. This event was attended by a number of representatives of civil society organizations and the press.

The participants left the meeting ready to begin the process of preparing the First Order Draft of the report. This draft will be circulated for expert review in May 2018, and will be reviewed and revised at a third meeting in July 2018 in Lanzhou, China, located in the province of Gansu, which contains glaciers in the Qilian Shan range. The report will be completed in September 2019. The recent meeting provided a highly motivating start to this long process, immersing the authors for several days in the vulnerable context of a developing country, impacted by glacier retreat as well as sea level rise, and showing them the concern of the Ecuadorian people who welcomed and hosted them warmly.