7 January 2012

Paramo mi agua (Paramo my water)

“- Do you know what the weather is like in Colombia?
- Humm… Colombia is a tropical country in South America… so you would normally think that the weather is hot and sunny all year long!
- Well, near the coast it is hot indeed, but do not forget that the Andes Mountains are going through the middle of the country
- Oh that’s right!
- And above 3 000 meters, the weather can be very cold!” 

Additionally Colombia is close to equator line which means there are no seasons, only periods of rain, but just no season like in Europe. That is why the temperatures remain constant the entire year.

Some geography 

If you could fly around the world, over the equator line, you would see that the Andes represent most of the mountains over 3 500 meters. In the area close to equator line, we can find the north part of the Andes, Kilimanjaro (5 892m - Tanzania) and Puncak Jaya (4 884m – highest mountain of Indonesia) for instance.

Mountains over 3 500 meters (brown colour) close to equator line (yellow area).
(Picture : Gheung)
The Paramo ecosystem as water regulator

The Paramo ecosystem can be found only in specific places on Earth : close to equator line, and above 3 500 meters. In these areas, the amount of sunshine is high and stable all year long. Most of the Paramo ecosystems in the world are located in Colombia, Peru and Ecuador.

Paramo ecosystems are composed mainly of giant rosette plants (frailej√≥n in Spanish), shrubs and grasses. On the mountains it is located above the continuous forest line, and below the permanent snowline. In Colombia, the lower limit of the Paramo is 3 800 meters, with average annual temperature of 6°C, and the upper limit is 4 300 meters, with average annual temperature of 3°C. 

The giant rosette plants (frailejón in
Spanish) are typical to the Paramo of Colombia.
(Photo : Minist. of Environm. Colombia)
The Paramo ecosystem is considered a key piece of the local environment since it is a fundamental regulator of the water. It captures, controls and distributes the water around.

During the last 40 years, Paramo ecosystems total area has started to decrease in Colombia. Up to now this reduction was mainly caused due to uncontrolled agriculture as farmers were taking Paramo grounds to harvest. Also the development of mining projects has been damaging. However the reduction resulted also from climate change. As the agriculture issue is almost solved in Colombia today, it is forecasted that climate change will be the main cause of the reduction of the Paramo in the future. 

For example, analyses of satellite images of the Paramo of Guerrero (Laguna Verde, north east of the capital Bogota) show that between 1970 and 1990, the surface covered by Paramo vegetation has been reduced by 30 % (Van der Hammen, 2003). 

Future changes and the fragile Paramo ecosystems

The Paramo is defined as a very fragile ecosystem. The grounds and the vegetation are poorly resistant to changes in climate conditions and they have a low capacity of regeneration. 

It is forecasted that temperatures in Colombia will rise by 1 to 2°C by 2050 and rainfalls will decrease by 10 to 20%. This could mean the disappearance of at least 56% of the total Paramo area in Colombia (IDEAM Colombia). These changes do not necessarily mean disappearance of the ecosystem. Before that, it is expected that the Paramo will move to higher altitudes, up to a limit of 400m higher. However potential conflicts with existing ecosystems may prevent this shifting. Anyway the impact on the local species will be destructive.
In the case ecosystems could move up, the shift would be up to 400m, in a scenario where concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is doubled (which could happen by 2050). The figure shows 5 ecosystems : B=Wood ; B/P=High Wood and ”Low Paramo” ; P=Paramo ; SP=High Paramo ; N=Permanent Snow (Van der Hammen et al., 2002). We can notice that the permanent snows disappear in this scenario.
From the Paramo to the water tabs of Bogota 

Felipe Gomez Villota works for the Ministry of Environment in Colombia, in the Department dedicated to climate change issues. He mentions that : “So far, the Paramo and its interactions with neighboring ecosystems has not been studied much in detail, but we know the ecosystem is essential for biodiversity and hydrology”. “For example, the drinkable water that is used in Bogota depends on neighboring Paramos”, adds Felipe. 

Near Bogota, the Chingaza natural park is mainly composed of Paramo, lagoons and woods. It provides 53% of the high quality drinkable water to the Bogota’s population (Centro de Control EAAB project). A reduction of the Paramo means lower quantities of water, and lower quality as the Paramo flora acts as a very efficient natural filter. Quito, the capital of Ecuador, faces the same situation since Cayambe-Coca national park and its Paramo provide most of the water to the city.

The Chingaza National Park, 76 600 Ha, right over Bogota.

The reduction of the Paramo also has an impact on the flooding and the landslides. It is forecasted that global warming will result in two changes in Colombia : on the one hand, rain precipitations will decrease and on the other hand, when it rains, the rainfall will become stronger. The decrease of precipitations associated with the reduction of the Paramo will mean less drinkable water. But above all, stronger rainfalls associated with the reduction of the ecosystem will mean sudden large quantities of water that will not be naturally stored and controlled by the Paramo. This creates the conditions for more frequent flooding and landslides events in the future.

Another reason to preserve the Paramo is that the ecosystem stores high quantities of carbon dioxide. Just like deforestation, the disappearance of Paramo results in great releases of carbon dioxide that contributes even more on global warming. A study actually showed that the soils of Paramo stock more carbon than the soils of tropical forest.
Comparison between Paramo and Tropical Forest ecosystems regarding carbon dioxide stored in their vegetation and soil (Garcia, 2003 ; Hofstede, 1999)
Recently the city of Bogota estimated that an investment of more than two billion US dollars will be required during the next 20 years in order to adapt to climate change. Not less! The preservation of the Paramo and the adaptation to its disappearance are clearly part of it.


We had the chance to meet Felipe Gomez Villota on December the 19th at the Ministry.
Around 20 experts work at the Department dedicated to climate change issues within the Ministry of Environment of Colombia. Originally Felipe is a biologist.