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Families Brace Themselves as Climate Change Threatens Catastrophe in Ecuador

This article was written by Merle Nye. Merle is a Global Citizen Year Fellow spending his bridge year before college living in Ecuador. You can read more about Merle's experience on his Global Citizen Year blog


Ask almost any member of the Illescas family about the effects of climate change in Ecuador and you are guaranteed an answer relating to water. A logical concern in a country with more most rivers per square kilometer than anywhere in the world.

Living here, in El Valle, Ecuador, with the Illescas family, whose income is partially dependent on the corn and alfalfa they grow to feed their livestock, I’ve seen first hand how paramount water is to Ecuador’s agricultural production. Around 82% of the country’s renewable water resources go toward agriculture. Living and teaching English in a rural Ecuadorian town on exchange through Global Citizen Year, a program for students wanting to take a meaningful bridge year between high school and college, I’ve found my environmental concerns a shared value with my host community.

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For my immediate host family members, their first response about the effects of climate change was about the increasingly capricious local weather, especially the rain. With varying degrees of alarm, my host mom, dad, and brother all told me that the seasons have become less distinct, the sun generally hotter, and the daily contrast between rain and sun have grown larger.

Farmers in Ecuador and neighboring Peru are experiencing similar symptoms. The past few decades have seen a dramatic rise in complaints of crops failing as a result of the unusually warm winter days causing them to sprout prematurely, or frost damaging fields in unusual times of year.

Read More: How One Man Is Transforming Education in the Ecuadorian Amazon

These claims of general warming are not without basis either. The Ecuadorian city of Cuenca where the Illescas family lives, at 8,500 feet, has two major factors working against it when it comes to adapting to climate change: While most of the world has yet to feel more than a minor shift in temperature, studies of atmospheric physics indicate the Andean region warms about twice as fast as the world average.

This means that Cuenca has seen about a 1.74 degrees Celsius rise in its average temperature since the industrial revolution. This significant change in temperature is compounded by Cuenca’s location on the equator and in the tropics where there has historically been little temperature fluctuation. As a result, plants and human perception have not needed to develop adaptation to major fluctuations in weather patterns from season to season.

Until now.

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This sudden climatic fluctuation calls into question Ecuador’s increasing reliance on water for its energy needs. Currently, around 63% of Ecuador’s energy supply comes from hydroelectric plants around the country and that number is poised to rise in light of recent government investments totaling over $10 billion in such facilities. My family, having lived the entirety of their lives in the country's largest hydropower production province, Auzuay, recounted the inconsistencies of power in the '90s: “when there was no rain, there was no electricity."

Read More: China’s a Leader in Hydropower — But at What Cost?

Though the frequent loss of power in the '90s was largely due to a general energy shortage throughout the country, this may again be the case in the future, despite new hydroelectric projects. Much of Ecuador’s water supply for agriculture, domestic and hydropower purposes comes from its Andean glaciers – glaciers that are in rapid retreat.

Mark Lynas, in his book "Six Degrees," states that the general rule of thumb among climate scientists is that each degree of warming causes approximately 150 meters of glacial retreat. This is even more concerning when considering the accelerated warming in the Andes. The glacier on Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s most famous volcano and a key source of the capital’s drinking water and electricity, lost 30% of its mass between 1976-1997.

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Similar melting of glaciers throughout the country can be positive for the country in the short term and lead to a surplus of energy and drinking water, reversing the situation throughout much of the last century. The later stages of glacial disappearance, however, spell catastrophe for Ecuador.

Not only will the water shortages in the Illescas household and many other homes in Ecuador become more frequent during dry seasons, but as the drought conditions inflicted by worsening El Niño effects and warming seas in the North Atlantic worsen the dry seasons, there will be nothing to trap the surplus of water in the rainy seasons and release it during the impending droughts. The lack energy may cause the energy grid to revert to dependence on fossil fuels.

Read More: "Super" El Nino Finally Comes to an End

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While Ecuador can’t exactly be labeled a major contributor to climate change (it’s responsible for about 0.1-0.2% of yearly greenhouse gas emissions), factors inside the country are poised to worsen the already negative effects. The largest of which is the ongoing deforestation. It was estimated in 2000 that the country’s Amazon forests would be wiped out within 40 years at the current deforestation rate, the highest in Latin America.

Through mining, logging, and petroleum extraction, Ecuador continues to eat away at its own natural protection. Without forest land serving as a bulwark against floods and landslides, Ecuador will become increasingly susceptible to flooding on a catastrophic scale that, as my host brother says “ people have no preparation for." Not only can these floods be disastrous upon initial impact but they pose a serious threat to livestock whose mortality rate drastically increases as they become sick from consuming stagnant, muddy water.

Read More: Climate Change Is Threatening Animals Far More Than Scientists First Thought

In a household such as my host family's that relies on the two pigs and one cow they own for a major chunk of income, such livestock sickness could set a family’s finances back months if not years. The effects, in addition to the floods’ toll on human life and property damage, also include damaging hydroelectric plants by hitting them with excess sediment. This process, far from hypothetical, has already as much as halved the capacity of some dams in the country.

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Ecuador is actively engaged in efforts to combat climate change, despite ongoing  deforestation and exploitation of oil reserves. Upon completion of the eight new government-funded hydroelectric projects, slated to become fully operational next year, the country aims to get 93% of its energy from hydropower.

In addition to production, the government is attempting to lower energy demands by updating outmoded technology. More than 100,000 inefficient refrigerators and 20,000 inefficient private vehicles have been replaced through government funded programs providing price cuts or full replacements to eligible consumers. Ecuador is working to revive its natural defense against a changing climate by implementing more sustainable livestock practices along with the REDD+ program reforesting over 11,550 hectares yearly throughout the country.

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Though it will need solutions to mitigate immediate effects of climate change and find ways to continue economic growth in a more environmentally friendly fashion, major reforms in domestic agriculture, energy production, and private energy efficiency coupled with Ecuador’s growing role in international environmental affairs give the appearance that the country is off to a solid start.