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Quito seeks ‘nature-based’ solutions to provide a growing population with clean water

An engineer tests water quality in the Quito watershed.

By Ben Orlove

The Fund for Water Protection  (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.

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.

Much of Quito’s water supply comes from high altitude sources, including glaciers.

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 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.

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?

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?

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.
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Credit: Glacier Hub, http://glacierhub.org