What’s a Paramo and How Does it Provide Water to Millions of People?

Written by Matt Barrett on . Posted in Learn

Remember when our science reporter Julia Kumari Drapkin hung out with The Nature Conservancy’s vanguard scientist Rob McDonald in Rob’s bathroom to talk about how to maintain enough water for people?

Well, Drapkin is back. This time, she’s turned up at about 11,000 feet above sea level in the rare high-elevation Andean mountain grasslands of Colombia. She can’t be near too much water up there right?

Well, not so fast. Drapkin has a riddle for us: what looks like a desert but is really full of water?

Check out the video above …

The answer is: a Paramo – a high-altitude grassland ecosystem found mostly in the Andean mountains that looks like a desert but has enough water stored beneath the surface to supply 20 million Colombian’s with their water – including in the major cities of Bogota, Medellin and Cali.

In the video, Drapkin interviews a Nature Conservancy conservation biologist based in Colombia, Tomas Walschburger, who is working to protect paramos like the one in Chingaza National Park (featured in the video).

Check out the 1:37 minute mark where Walschburger squeezes out a section of grass like a soaked sponge. Pretty cool!

Paramos are protected by law in Colombia, but, unfortunately, the paramos are being threatened by agriculture and cattle ranching moving up slope as well as by a new problem: beetles and caterpillars moving into the paramo range. This is due in part — Walschburger believes — to gradual temperature increases in the climate causing pests and pathogens to migrate higher up to maintain their living conditions.

“For a plant to move, it’s very slow, but insects can move very fast,” says Walschburger.

These insects are plaguing the plant life in the paramos.

Scientists still don’t know how many degrees of temperate change the paramos can take, but what is known is that they are crucial for people.

“Bogota, Medellin, Cali, which are the three biggest cities in Colombia, depend completely on the water supply from paramos,” says Walschburger. “So we are helping to protect these paramos, because they are critically important for people.”

For more information, check out the Colombia page of Nature.org and this feature story on how we’re working to help protect Bogota’s water supply in particular.

Matt Barrett is a blogger and communications manager at The Nature Conservancy

Video by The Nature Conservancy’s Senior Science Reporter Julia Kumari Drapkin, with production assistance from The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Photography Mark Godfrey

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Comments (2)

  • Gabriela Fonseca Steinitz


    I think it is awesome that Dr. Walschburger is helping to protect páramos. But páramos exist in Ecuador too, and they supply water to poor people and many animals too. The páramos in Ecuador are being destroyed because of agriculture, but also because of fires. These fires are caused by climate change (too high temperatures) and especially by people throwing trash. The pieces of metal, plastic and glass attract sunrays, producing the fires.
    Nature Conservancy should also consider this.
    Thank you for helping nature so much!

    Gabriela F.S


  • johana


    there is a treat to the Colombian paramo or santurban as the Canadian company Gray Star plans to destroy the area in order to find gold. this areas are supposed to be protected because of their importance for water and carbon storage and because of it’s endemic species… but still there are plans from this big company to come and take away the gold and leave everything destroyed.


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