Ecuador Faces Water Shortages Due to Climate Change

Ecuador Faces Water Shortages Due to Climate Change

Quito : Ecuador | Jun 29, 2009 at 3:58 PM PDT
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Situated along the equator on the west side of the Andes Mountain Range, Ecuador is composed of several climatic zones including, coastline, mountain highlands, desert, and west Amazonian jungle. Due to the varying climates it is difficult to generalize the risks posed by global warming to Ecuador. The country long ago saw the need to implement conservation measures in order to protect its rich biodiversity from new developments in the natural resource industries. However, Ecuador has fallen behind other Latin American countries in climate change policy. The current global financial crisis has caused Ecuador to lift the ban on new developments in the natural resource industry owing to the fact that the revenues and royalties greatly enable economic development. Ecuador is vulnerable to the effects of global warming and has a responsibility to institute policies for climate change mitigation, especially with the new developmints in the resource industries. Ecuador is among the top ten CO2 emitting countries in Latin America. The rapid deforestation of Ecuadoran forests, along with the combustion of fossil fuels, are greatly contributing to the release of greenhouses gases into the atmosphere. The greatest and most immediate risk global warming poses to Ecuador is the loss of adequate water supplies for drinking, irrigation, and hydroelectric power. There are many adaptation and mitigation measures Ecuador can take to ensure sustainable development of industry.

By far the greatest and most immediate risk global warming poses to Ecuador is the loss of adequate water supplies. The forests, tropical glaciers, and highland grasslands of Ecuador hold the main sources of water for the entire country. Forests protect ground water sources from the heat and intensity of the sun, but also capture and store carbon monoxide (CO2), effectively offsetting millions of metric tons of CO2 from other sources such as industry and transportation.

Approximately 300,000 hectares of forest are lost in Ecuador per year due mainly to logging and unsustainable agricultural practices. The loss of forests threatens biological diversity and increases the risk of natural disasters such as flooding and drought. Increasing temperatures due to global warming cause an acceleration of glacial melt and water evaporation from the soil of the highland grasslands. As temperatures increase and water supplies decline, Ecuador will be vulnerable to water and energy shortages. Alternative water supplies will be increasingly necessary for household, municipal, agricultural, and industrial consumption. The Ecuadoran hydroelectric industry is also subject to water shortages. Currently, over 60% of electricity in Ecuador is supplied through hydroelectric power. As water supplies decline, it will be necessary to supplement hydroelectric energy with fossil fuel energy, leading to higher concentrations of green house gases in the atmosphere, further intensifying global warming and posing serious threats to human health.

Possible Mitigation and Adaptation Measures

The agricultural sector can play a large role in water and forest conservation. A major source of deforestation in Ecuador is the clearing of forests to plant monocultures such as corn or cotton, which are also energy and water intensive crops. In order to slow the clearing of forests for agriculture, the Ecuador Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock can create incentives for farmers to adopt sustainable agricultural practices that generate revenue while protecting the forest cover. An example of a viable option is sustainably growing coffee. Coffee is a high-value crop with a global market. Sustainable coffee agriculture requires only the removal of the lower level of plants on the tropical or temperate forest floor, replacing these with coffee bushes. The shade canopies provide mild temperatures, nutrient rich and well draining soil, and natural protection from pests, soil erosion and drought. Shade growing allows for a thriving agro-ecosystem which supports coffee under-story bushes, a second level of fruit trees, and a canopy of tall hardwood species of trees.

Farmers on shade growing plantations have the benefit of generating further revenue by integrating other crops with the coffee bushes and sustainably harvesting the hardwood species of trees for timber. Secondary products can supplement a producer's income in the event of a drop in coffee price or during non-harvest. The growth of secondary products, such as bananas, is of the utmost importance as a supplement in both the total farm income for small Coffee producers and the local food supply in Latin America. For example, one avocado tree can produce up to three thousand fruits per growing season. Each avocado sells for approximately $0.18 at the local market which translates to $360.00 extra for the farmer at each harvest.

Ecuador’s resource industries have the potential to lead the country in climate change management while setting a good example for citizens to follow. These companies can develop corporate sustainability business approaches that allow them to manages the economic, environmental and social risks that may occur due to their operations. Ecuador’s resource industries should look to other companies in similar fields to use as examples in planning corporate sustainability plans. For example, the Newmont mining company based out Denver, Colorado, maintains high standards for the protection of human health and the environment and works in cooperation with host communities and governments to create sustainable long-term economic and social opportunities while setting specific targets in the areas of community development, environment, and health and safety projects. But Ecuador’s resource companies do not have to look outside the country for good examples of corporate responsibility.

Olieoductos Crudes Pesados (OCP), oil and gas development company has implemented artificial wetland waste water treatment systems at each of its 25 pumping stations along 400 km of pipeline. Being situated at such a distance from municipal waste management facilities, OCP was forced to find alternative options to treat the effluents from each pump station in an environmentally sound, easy to manage, and cost-effective way. These artificial wetlands effectively remove over 95% of the nitrogen, phosphorus, heavy metals, harmful bacteria, and suspended solids from the discharged waste water. Depending on the size and site conditions for the constructed wetland, the cost can vary from $50,000 to $100,000. The system is self-sustainable and requires little energy input so it has the potential of saving Ecuadoran companies millions of dollars over alternative treatment options.

Artificial wetlands are designed to treat storm or waste water and can effectively be used by any of Ecuador’s resource industries to lessen the environmental impact of their operations. The wetlands are shallow pools designed to create the optimal growing conditions for wetland plants that treat point source and nonpoint source water pollution before it enters back into nearby streams and water bodies. Wastewater flows from the source and is discharged out in to the first wetland treatment basin. This basin has an impermeable layer below the wetland and gravel layers which prevents the diffusion of harmful chemicals and bacteria into the soil. In this basin a variety of species of wetland plants treat the waste water through a natural biological and chemical process. Once treated the water flows through a pipe into a second basin which has a permeable layer and an outlet pipe allowing the clean water to flow freely back into the ecosystem.

Looking forward

Ecuador faces tough challenges due to climate change and global warming. The most immediate threat is the loss of adequate water supplies for drinking, irrigation, and hydroelectric power. The loss of water for agriculture poses another risk to the country as it threatens national food security. The agricultural sector can compensate by adapting to sustainable agriculture techniques which not only conserve water and forest resources, but generate income at the local and national level. The declining energy supply from the hydroelectric industry will have the country looking towards alternative fuels. However, developing projects in biofuels should not be Ecuador’s focus. The crops needed to make biofuels are energy and water intensive and require the clearing of enormous tracts of land, further accelerating deforestation rates. The most practical option for Ecuador is to choose renewable fuels such as wind, solar, and thermal energy. As the resource industries develop new projects in previously restricted natural areas, the government should put incentives into place which foster corporate sustainability.

LaurelSimpson is based in Oakton, Virginia, United States of America, and is a Stringer on Allvoices.
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