Becoming Cuenca

El Niño and Cuenca’s Water Shortage

Nov 1, 2023

Bob Schieffer, the Former Moderator of Face the Nation, and Former CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent once said, “I think journalism is a great way to do public service, to have an impact on your community.”

It is people like him I try to emulate in a world full of disinformation and bad information being thrown about on social media and on television.

That is why this blog post of mine is more of a news report than a feature about Cuenca, Ecuador.

You may have read that Ecuador is facing a water crisis right now. El Niño has affected the eastern and southern regions of the country, where 90 percent of the hydroelectric plants operate.

Energy Minister Fernando Santos told journalists late last month that technical problems at the hydroelectric plants have exacerbated the problem. I have heard various stories about those “technical problems,” including blaming who built the dams.

Under normal conditions in the Pacific Ocean, trade winds (permanent east-to-west prevailing winds that flow in the Earth’s equatorial region), taking warm water from South America and Ecuador towards Asia.

In May, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared that the El Niño weather pattern had officially arrived and is likely to be extreme. NOAA said it will persist till 2025.

During El Niño (“The Boy” in Spanish), trade winds weaken. Warm water is pushed back east, toward the west coast of Ecuador. El Niño recurs irregularly, from two years to a decade. And no two El Niño events are exactly alike.

The low-level surface winds, which normally blow from east to west in Ecuador weaken. Sometimes, it starts blowing the other direction, becoming “westerly winds.”

El Niño events can disrupt normal weather patterns. That is what has happened to Ecuador. Cuenca’s rain mainly comes from Brazil, which is east of the city.

We are supposed to be in the rainy season (a year ago, our neighborhood river, El Río Yanuncay, was a raging river), but instead, El Niño has created the country’s most extreme drought in the last five decades.

A week ago, the Ecuadorian government announced the country will have power cuts for several hours a day until mid-December. I call them “Rolling Blackouts.”

The energy minister told the media, “We have to be honest with the country, generation is not enough to meet demand. As a precaution against a collapse in power we have to make specific and temporary cuts.”

Originally, the cuts in electric service were to last four hours per day in the Sierra (mountain regions that include Cuenca and Quito) and the Amazon. Along the coast, it will be three hours a day. It is up to each city’s power company to decide a schedule.

Headquartered in Cuenca, Centrosur serves the city, Azuay, Cañar, and Morona Santiago provinces, an area covering 23,759 square miles / 61,535 square kilometers. Founded in 1950, it is a government-owned electricity distributor.

Households are the biggest percentage of users (88 percent), with nine percent being commercial enterprises, and just two percent being industrial users.

What you see above is a map provided by Centrosur. It shows the scheduled blackouts for Saturday, October 28th. Centrosur divided the city up in two three time periods: 08:00 to 12:00, 12:00 to 15:00, and 15:00 to 18:00. Every day, the areas affected, and times are different.

Due to the insecurity and uprise in violence facing the country, officials ruled out cuts in electrical service at night or in the early morning hours. It also makes sense not to have any disruptions in service at night when people need lights for their homes.

Crucial entities, such as airports and hospitals, will not face any blackouts. In addition, options will be offered to industries based on production schedules.

On the first day of blackouts, Aeropuerto Internacional Mariscal Sucre de Quito had to announce there were no disruptions to air service. They added that if electricity were cut off for any reason, they would have backups in place to operate under normal conditions.

Traffic lights are not considered essential. This means all traffic lights in the grid that has been turned off for four hours are not functioning.

Joanna and I were concerned about that. We have seen what happened in North Carolina when a hurricane would knock out the power or when a strong thunderstorm took down power lines.

People could not handle intersections without working traffic lights. Accidents happened all of the time. Trust me on that one as this journalist had to cover the crashes all of the time.

On the second day of the rolling blackouts, Joanna and I walked to our friends’ home. It meant crossing two major east-west streets without functioning traffic lights. I lost count of the number of traffic lights that were out.

On our 30-minute journey on foot, we had no troubles crossing the busy Diez de Agosto and Remigio Crespo Toral.

Every car slowed down at the uncontrolled intersections. Drivers slowed down and looked both ways before proceeding. It was very orderly despite the traffic lights not functioning.

There were no fender benders nor the confusion that reins in North Carolina for situations like this. It was very reassuring in this stressful time.

Ecuador did not sit on its hands.

It was not “Crisis Management” as we know it.

For several months, the country had looked at buying electricity elsewhere.

In August, Colombia denied the additional sale of electricity to Ecuador for the El Niño dry season. Colombian President Gustavo Petro said his country was not able to sell electricity because it was also preparing to face the possible adverse effects of the El Niño phenomenon. On top of that, Colombia raised the price of its electricity that it would sell to Ecuador.

The Colombia utilities authority, which has provided as much as 13 percent of Ecuador’s electric power in recent months, announced two weeks ago that it will no longer sell hydro-generated electricity due to its own drought emergency. Those restrictions are planned to remain in place through April 2024.

Those restrictions were planned to remain in place through April 2024, but Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso said on October 29th that Colombia would provide 450 megawatts to help Ecuador fill the 650-megawatt deficit.

Speaking at the Sunday news conference in Bogota alongside President Petro, Lasso said the transfer would take place in November and December. “This will be done in the shortest possible time to help us face this blackouts problem,” Lasso said.

The countries are working out repayment options, including Ecuador potentially providing energy to Colombia once the drought ends.

On top of that, Lasso said Peru would export another 50 megawatts to Ecuador. This would greatly help narrow the gap of electricity needed.

Because of Lasso’s efforts, Centrosur has reduced the number of hours of no electricity in Cuenca to just two hours. On Sundays, Centrosur will have electricity for everyone for 24 hours as this weekend day’s demands are a lot less than the other six days.

The effects of El Niño go further north with the Panama Canal. Due to the very low water in the canal, the number of ships passing through it has been greatly restricted. Much-needed supplies for Ecuador were halted for a while due to few ships getting through.

During El Niño, the southern United States experiences a cooler and more humid climate. The Midwest tends to be hotter and drier. On top of Latin America, El Niño usually brings droughts Australia, India, south Asia, and Africa. And it increases the risk of extreme typhoons in the Pacific Ocean.

The national electricity operator is CENACE (Operador Nacional de Electricidad). CENACE said that rains that fell for a couple of days in late-October in parts of the Sierra gave the electricity operator a few more days to plan a program of blackouts.

“Those showers provided temporary relief,” CENACE said. “But they are a drop in the pond of what is needed to restore reservoir levels for the purpose of power generation.”

The Ministry of Energy predicts the rolling blackouts will end before Christmas. Ecuador is taking bids for thermal power generation of the 460 megawatts of electricity needed to end usage restrictions.

These temporary gas- and diesel-fired energy producing plants would be located on the coast or on ships anchored offshore. The energy minister said bidders for the project will “have extensive experience in providing emergency services like the one we require.”

CENACE is increasing output at the diesel- and gas-powered plants near Machala, Guayaquil, and Esmeraldas, but all together, they generate less than 100 megawatts.

“This requirement is subject to change, of course, if rains replenish the hydro plant reservoirs or if the drought continues to worsen,” Ecuador’s energy minister said.

Currently, drought conditions at Central Hidroeléctrica Mazar, Central Hidroeléctrica Paute Molino, and Central Hidroeléctrica Sopladora are the worst since those dams were constructed. These hydroelectric plants on El Río Paute, in Azuay province, are producing at less than 40 percent of capacity.

Water restrictions are also being talked about. Every expat I have talked to has stated they have never seen El Río Tomebamba and El Río Yanuncay so low.

The rivers should be very high right now as we are in the middle of what is supposed to be the rainy season. Boulders that are usually under water are bone dry. There are more exposed boulders than water in the river beds.

The Amazon River has dropped to record low levels, exposing petroglyphs, which depict humans, animals, and flora. The carvings were previously spotted during the 2010 drought, when water levels fell by 44 feet. The drought hitting this part of Brazil is even worse because Ecuador’s rivers, which are part of the Amazon basin, are so low.

In Tarqui parish (14 miles / 20 km. south of Cuenca), residents frequently cope with water shortages and irrigation. The drought has only aggravated their problems.

High quality grass to feed the cows has become scarce. This means milk production has dropped from 30 liters / 8 gallons per day to 15 liters.

If you are trying to avoid climate change, I truly think that no place is immune from its effects. Last month, my wife and I were in Prague. Our tour guide told us that the Czech Republic had its warmest September since 1775.

On October 25th, Hurricane Otis pounded Acapulco with winds of 165 miles per hour / 266 km. per hour, flooding the city, tearing roofs from homes, blowing out windows everywhere from condo towers and hotels, submerging vehicles, and severing communications as well as roads.

Mexican authorities said Otis was the most powerful storm ever to strike Mexico’s Pacific coast. It caught forecasters by surprise, gathering strength with unexpected speed before it came ashore, and surpassed initial predictions.

Otis unexpectedly intensified from a tropical storm with 65 mph winds to a Category 5 hurricane with 165 mph winds in the 24 hours before landfall. But that amazing increase in the winds should not have been a surprise.

In a 2016 study, “Will Global Warming Make Hurricane Forecasting More Difficult?” from the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, MIT hurricane scientist Kerry Emanuel showed that warmer oceans should be expected to spawn hurricanes that intensify more rapidly.

Emanuel found that the odds of a hurricane intensifying by 70 mph or more in the 24 hours just before landfall were about once every 100 years in the climate of the late 20th century. But in the climate of the year 2100, these odds will increase to once every five to 10 years.

A record snowpack in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains and the reemergence of Tulare Lake brought California out of a five-year drought. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the state began the year with the entire state in a drought and is ending it with less than one percent of the region in a drought.

Moisture from Hurricane Hilary and a string of monsoon storms brought some relief to Arizona’s chronic drought. But extreme temperatures put the state right back where it started. In September, the U.S. Drought Monitor elevated much of Maricopa County (Phoenix) to severe drought conditions.

According to the Plan Nacional de Sequías, forest fires in Ecuador are more frequent and intense due to climate change.

Data from the Secretaria Nacional de Gestión de Riesgos showed 2,335 forest fires affected a total of 27,905 hectares / 108 square miles in 2020. Azuay province had the third most land burned with 3,178 hectares / 12.2 square miles.

We turn on the tap to make coffee, to take a shower, or to keep our flowering plants happy. We not only expect water to be there, but most people, including in Cuenca, take for granted it will be plentiful.

Water is a precious commodity. It is an element that is essential for human survival and should not be considered readily available.

Italian company Rhino SRL said, “The water available to us represents a very small percentage of the total and is equivalent to just under 1 percent. Drinking water systems help to increase that percentage, but definitely not in a way that can help cope with the frequent droughts caused by climate change. If we bear in mind that the world’s population continues to grow and that consequently so does water consumption, over the next centuries water could become a commodity worth as much as gold.”

El Niño is once again proving that to be so.

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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Salud, mi amigo.

Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.