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Why is Bogotá running out of water?

Updated: Apr 23

When I first learnt about the forthcoming water rationing in Colombia capital city Bogotá, I was nothing short of surprised. Having lived in the hills above the city for the past month and witnessed daily rain and overall rather wet climate, something didn’t seem to click.

I set out to use recent news articles, scientific papers and existing hydrographic geo data to map out the problem. First is what I mapped (full screen here), and below is what I learnt.

Click rationing zones (multicolored) & reservoirs (red to blue based on fill rate) for more info.

What’s going on

The water rationing starting today April 11th in Bogotá is a response to the city’s reservoirs hitting their lowest levels in 40 years, primarily due to the severe El Niño weather pattern. You can find the most recent fill rate of each one of these reservoirs on the map. This situation has led to a critical scarcity of water resources necessary for the city and its neighboring municipalities.

The situation isn’t only tense in Bogota but nationwide, with water reserves dropping from 70% to 32% of capacity since the beginning of the year (see illustration below).

But the capital district is the first to unveil a plan of this magnitude, dividing Bogota into zones  and implementing water cutoffs in these areas on a rotational basis, ensuring that the entire city is not affected simultaneously (check out the zones and the time schedule in the map). The interruptions are expected to last 24 hours for any given area, with taps purely and simply stopped. Schools and hospitals are to receive special considerations under these measures. The aim is to prevent a situation where any part of the city goes without water for an extended period, with each zone facing water cuts for approximately 12 hours, translating to about three days without water per month for each area.

North Arrow - La Republica
Infographic by La Republica, national newspaper

Why It's Happening

The primary cause of the water rationing in Bogotá is the El Niño phenomenon, which has resulted in significantly reduced rainfall, leading to the depletion of reservoir levels. Notably, the Chingaza system (resource in Spanish), crucial for Bogotá's water supply (>70%), has seen a dramatic drop in water levels, with the Chuza reservoir reaching its lowest level since 1984.

But the dire water shortage is also caused by broader environmental issues, including the destruction of the páramo ecosystem and climate change.

Destruction of the Páramo Ecosystem

Páramos, often referred to as water towers, are unique to the northern Andes and serve as critical sources of water for millions of people, including those in Bogotá. These ecosystems are experiencing rapid changes due to various threats that compound their vulnerability and the water scarcity issues faced by the regions they support. They are highly specialized ecosystems that have evolved under extreme conditions, featuring a high level of endemism and biodiversity.  They play a crucial role in carbon storage and water regulation, serving as natural sponges that absorb precipitation and slowly release it, thus ensuring a steady supply of water to downstream areas. I’ve had the luck of trekking for a few days in the Los Nevados paramo and the experience was extraordinary.

The Páramo
A world of alien-like species where the water treatment miracle is visible and palpable.

However, like many others, these essential ecosystems are under threat from various human activities. Mining and agriculture, particularly through legal loopholes and the expansion of the agricultural frontier for cow pastures and potato farming, are causing significant damage. These activities not only degrade the soil and reduce the water regulation capacity of páramos but also lead to increased runoff, soil erosion, and pollution due to agrochemical use. The legal and social challenges in delimiting páramo boundaries further complicate conservation efforts, making it difficult to protect these areas from destructive activities​. To learn more about páramos worldwide, check out this great storymap from Portal 30x30.

Good Ol' Climate Change

The impact of climate change on páramos is profound and multifaceted. Rising temperatures threaten the unique flora and fauna adapted to the stable, cool climate of the páramos. These changes also increase the risk of fires, which are mostly human-induced but are made more likely and harder to control due to drier conditions. The arrival of new species, such as insects migrating to higher altitudes due to warming temperatures, introduces additional stress on the native plants and animals, potentially disrupting the ecological balance. Moreover, climate change exacerbates the melting of Andean glaciers, a critical water source for the páramos and, by extension, for the water supply in regions like Bogotá. The loss of glaciers within a few decades, accelerated by human-made climate change, further threatens the water storage and regulatory functions of these ecosystems​.

The situation in Bogotá underscores the growing challenge of water management in the face of climatic variability and highlights the importance of sustainable water use and infrastructure resilience. I’m sadly afraid that we’re going to have to get comfortable with such policies as they become essential for large urban population centers.

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