A Trip to Chingaza National Natural Park Where Plants and Soil Store Water for Capital City Bogotá

Written by Frank Lowenstein on . Posted in Learn

Today’s post by Frank Lowenstein, The Nature Conservancy’s Climate Adaptation Strategy Leader, appeared as the first in a series on forests, climate and water issues in Latin America on the Climate Conversations blog.  A Fellow with the Energy & Climate Partnership of the Americas, in which Western Hemisphere leaders are focusing on energy security, sustainable development and climate change, Lowenstein writes about his visit to a unique landscape in the highlands of Bogotá, Colombia, where changes are underway.

Where does your water come from? For many cities often the source is a distant natural area. In Bogotá, – the capital of Colombia and its largest city – the water comes from a mysterious and unique habitat threatened by climate change. Last year I got to see it first-hand.

Bogotá’s water supply begins in Chingaza National Natural Park – located nearly a mile higher than the Andean city and 40 miles away. To reach it we cross the bustling, stylish city of eight million people and then creep up the sides of the Andes.

Arriving at Chingaza two hours later, we are in the clouds. Large drops of slushy rain blow sideways into our faces. The two rangers who will guide us are equipped with rain ponchos, hats, and rubber boots. It is hard to fathom that we are only a few degrees north of the Equator.

Despite its tropical location, the vegetation of Chingaza is similar to the tundra. The plants are universally low to the ground — no trees here — with leaves designed to resist cold temperatures and bitter winds. Called páramo, this tundra-like tropical habitat is unique to the Andes.

While the land looks barren, the páramo has a secret: it’s full of water. The plants capture water from rain or the clouds blowing past, and channel the water to the soil (you can literally squeeze water out of it like a sponge!). The water then flows down the mountain through underground rivers and tunnels on its way to millions of kitchen faucets in Bogotá.

I am here to see how climate change threatens the páramos. “This is one of the places where you can see the first impacts of climate change,” explains Tomas Walschburger, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy in Colombia. With warming temperatures, insects from further down the mountain move upslope. “There’s a lot of insect species invading this high mountain grassland. A lot of areas within this park are dying out from the invasion of these insects.”

The main victim so far is a flowering plant called the frailejón — a daisy relative that dominates Chingaza’s páramo. As the plants die, erosion risks rise, threatening to carry away the soil that stores the water between rains. Without plants to capture water and the spongy soil to store it, Chingaza would not be able to provide as much water to the people of Bogotá. And in many places páramos face additional challenges from overgrazing, mining, road construction and other destructive uses.

In response to this crisis, The Nature Conservancy, FEMSA Foundation, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Global Environment Facility have developed the Latin American Water Funds Partnership. This partnership aims to create alliances of urban water users and owners of rural landscapes to preserve and protect drinking water. By planting trees in lower reaches of watersheds, reducing cattle grazing in the páramo, and steering mining operations to less sensitive areas, we can reduce stresses and respond to climate change impacts, helping the páramos adapt, so they can continue providing freshwater for people.

At least 32 water funds are in varying stages of progress, aiming to sustain seven million acres of watersheds that provide drinking water to 50 million people across at least six countries. One water fund focuses on protecting Bogotá’s water, which you can learn more about here: http://nature.ly/xrLN4U

My trip to Chingaza is brief. After a few hours of hiking through cold and wind, we turn for home, but I leave with a sense of hope in knowing that the páramo’s protection, for nature and for people, is already underway.

Frank Lowenstein is Climate Adaptation Strategy Leader for The Nature Conservancy.

Thumbnail photo by: Frank Lowenstein (A native plant, frailejón, in bloom in Chingaza National Park, Colombia).

Photo 2 by: Frank Lowenstein (Park ranger Juz Dary Rodriguez guides visitors through Chingaza National Park.)

Photo 3 by: Frank Lowenstein (In the paramo, the pinapple-like foliage of the frailejónes, helps them to capture water and funnel it to their base, but with warmer temperatures, pests threaten these plants).

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