Glacial melt puts strain on national water sources; Cuenca has stable supply but still faces challenges
By Liam Higgins
Ecuador has plans to deliver clean drinking water to 98 percent of the country’s population by 2030, up from 61 percent today. Meeting the goal, however, means overcoming major challenges, according to Ecuador’s Secretary of Water Resources Humberto Cholango.
“First, we must compensate for the reduced flow of water from the glaciers in the central and northern areas of the country,” he says. “By the middle of the century there will be a 40 percent reduction in glaciers due to global warming and this affects about 25 percent of the population who receive at least some of their water from glaciers.”
Quito, Riobamba and Ambato are the three cities most seriously affected by glacier melt. “To overcome the loss we must develop infrastructure, including reservoirs, that conserves water from the wet season for use in the rest of the year,” Cholango says. “In the last 30 years, the flow of water from glaciers has dropped by seven percent and the speed of the reduction is accelerating.”
Glaciers on the Chimborazo, Cotopaxi are Cayambe mountains are most endangered, Cholango says, experiencing the most rapid melt rates.
“At the same time that the amount of water from glaciers declines we will face an increased demand for 50 percent more water in the major cities by 2030,” he says. “We have a great deal of work to do overcome the loss, on the one hand, and the increased demand on the other.”
A second challenge, he says, is that most of the population that currently lacks sanitary water systems is rural, spread over large areas. “To reach much of this population will require big financial expenditures and a major commitment from the government,” Cholango says. “It’s much easier to deliver water to urban areas where the population in concentrated.”
Cholango says that the government is currently spending large amounts of money on medical care for people who do not have clean water. “On average, we spend $310 million a year to treat waterborne diseases suffered by people who lack a sanitary source of water. Some of the money required to build new water systems will come from savings fromimproved health.”
According to hydrologists, Cuenca is well-positioned for clean water through most of the 21st century. The city is on the eastern slope of the Cajas Mountain watershed, most of which is protected national park land.
“The area where Cuenca’s water is collected acts as large sponge, collecting water during rainy season and storing it for dry periods,” says University of Cuenca hydrologist Edgar Ruiz. “The water shed receives high amounts of rainfall, about two and a half meters (98 inches) a year in some areas, and because it is in restricted zones, arrives very clean in the city.”
Ruiz warns that Cuenca’s water is not infinite. “We cannot afford to waste it and the city must continue to build treatment plants to meet a growing population. Even though we have an abundant source, it must still be processed and distributed.”
On several occasions in recent years, Cuenca’s water has been rated the best in Latin America, and among the best in the world, by an international association of water engineers.