Becoming Cuenca

El Niño, Water, and Electricity

May 16, 2024

You have probably seen articles and Facebook posts recently about the water shortage in Cuenca and in Ecuador.

Headlines such as “Ecuador Declares Energy Emergency Amid Severe Regional Drought and El Niño” and “Ecuador Rations Electricity as Drought Persists in the Northern Andes” were everywhere online in April.

Precipitation has greatly diminished in Ecuador due to the warmer temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. Known as El Niño, it has generated intense droughts in the Andean valleys, where many of Ecuador’s cities are located. That includes Cuenca.

Camilo Prieto, a climate science professor, and researcher at Javeriana University, in Bogotá, Colombia, says El Niño is not as extreme this year as previous droughts. Most scientists say El Niño is diminishing rather quickly.

It seems that Ecuador experiences a severe drought every 15 years. The previous drought was in 2009. And the one before that was in 1994.

Droughts are worldwide. The United Nations estimates that 1.84 billion people worldwide, or nearly a quarter of humanity, were living under drought conditions in 2022 and 2023. It added water scarcity impacts 40 percent of the world’s population.

Over 40 million people have been impacted by the drought across East Africa. The drought affecting countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia began four years ago. The severe drought has brought exponential increase in food prices to millions, bringing them to the brink of famine.

It is so bad in Africa that cocoa production in Cameron, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Nigeria has been greatly diminished. Cocoa prices broke $10,000 per ton for the first time in March, amid disease outbreaks and destructive weather patterns in these countries that produce 75 percent of the world’s cocoa.

Cocoa futures were as high as $10,080 in New York at the close of the first quarter, having more than doubled this year due to expectations of a shortage of cocoa, the raw material used to make chocolate.

Ecuador is the third largest producer of cocoa in the world. Because the cacao trees grow in the coastal area, El Niño has not affected them.

On a side note, the best chocolate in the world comes from Ecuador. Most of the world’s highly sought-after Arriba Cacao is grown here.

And if you make it to Cuenca, pick up some Viferchi chocolate. It is made by three Cuencano sisters. You can read my story about their excellent chocolates in CuencaHighLife.

Closer to home for many reading this post, the southwestern U.S. megadrought began in 2000 and recently ended in some parts of the country. The drought was the driest period the region had seen since at least 800 CE. That is based on the examination of tree rings in that part of the United States.

Parts of the Southwest are still experiencing a drought, including central Arizona, southern New Mexico, southern Colorado, and west Texas.

California ended its drought in the winter of 2022-23. It culminated with what many call the Superbloom. While it isn’t a formal scientific term, it is a wonderful natural phenomenon where many annual wildflowers all bloom simultaneously.

Joanna and I took my mother to see the orange California Poppies blooming in the middle of the desert last April. Having grown up on the West Coast, I had never seen anything stunning like what I saw outside of Lancaster, California.

As you can see, droughts are everywhere. And that includes Cuenca.

In December, ETAPA, the utilities arm of Ciudad de Cuenca released the water flow for our city’s four rivers.

According to ETAPA, El Río Tomebamba had a pitiful 267 gallons per second of water flowing down it.

Our neighborhood river, El Río Tarqui, is a lot smaller river, but it flowed a tad better at 272 gallons per second.

Meanwhile, our other neighborhood river, El Río Yanuncay, looked better at 378 gallons per second.

But that is nothing to get excited about.

Compared to the three rivers mentioned, one would think you could go whitewater rafting down El Río Machángara with its 1,001 gallons per second.

To give you an idea of how little there was back in December, the average swimming pool in the U.S. takes 18,000 to 20,000 gallons of water to fill. That means it would take 75 seconds for all the water coming down the Tomebamba to fill that swimming pool.

So far, rationing of water in Cuenca and other city cities in Ecuador has not been necessary.

So, what is causing this? The short answer is El Niño. It means “Little Boy” in Spanish. Off the coasts of northern Perú and southern Ecuador, warm equatorial waters meet the cold Humboldt Current. Normally, the tropical Pacific Ocean, from the coast of Ecuador and Perú to longitude 120° West, is dominated by westward- flowing cold waters, which are the prolongation of the Humboldt Current.

Not during El Niño. Fishermen in Ecuador first noticed periods of unusually warm water in the Pacific Ocean in the 1600s. They noticed that toward the end of every year, tepid waters appeared and persisted until late-February, causing tropical species to be added to the fish they commonly caught.

The full name they used was El Niño de Navidad because El Niño typically peaks around December. Scientists now call it, El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

Whatever name you want to use, trade winds, named by the crews of sailing ships that depended on the winds during westward ocean crossings, weaken. Warm water is pushed back east, toward the west coast of the Americas.

ENSO happens every four to seven years and affects the whole planet, particularly the southern hemisphere. In Ecuador, El Niño causes various results. The coast is affected by intense rainfall, which causes flooding and landslides. Meanwhile the Sierra (mountainous region of Ecuador) has a drought.

Areas above 2,000 meters / 6,560 feet receive less rain and experience higher temperatures than normal. Cuenca is 2,560 meters / 8,400 feet above sea level. Quito is even higher at 2,850 meters / 9,350 feet above sea level.

Ecuador and other Andean nations rely heavily on hydroelectric dams to harness the mountain water runoff into electricity. Hydropower has played a bigger role in Ecuador by displacing fossil fuels to help meet the higher demand for electricity.

Just 13 years ago, hydroelectric power accounted for 55 percent of the country’s electricity while electricity from fossil fuels accounted for nearly the rest. In 2021, hydropower produced 79 percent of Ecuador’s electricity, with fossil fuels producing less than one-fifth of the country’s electricity.

Ecuador has eight large scale hydropower plants. The country’s government has assumed a near monopoly on hydropower, generated by power plants on the Napo (beginning just east of Quito), Pastaza (headwaters in Cotopaxi province), and Santiago-Cayapas (northeastern Ecuador) watersheds.

In our part of Ecuador, Centro Hidroeléctrica Hidropaute began with the Paute Molino dam (Azuay province) in 1983 and its expansion in 1991. That was followed by the construction of the Mazar dam (Cañar province) in 2010, and the Sopladora dam (in Azuay and Morono Santiago provinces) in 2018.

A fourth unit on El Río Paute, Cardanillo, is still under development for Azuay province. According to GlobalData, which tracks and profiles power plants worldwide, the project is currently at the permitting stage. It will be developed in multiple phases. The dam is expected to begin producing electricity in 2026. That remains to be seen.

Without rain, these hydroelectric plants cannot produce electricity. The current drought got so bad that one of the two turbines at Mazar could no longer function. For five days in April, it was offline before it could start producing one percent of its capabilities.

In the scheme of things, that is not too bad, because Mazar can only contribute 170 megawatts (MW) in the rainy season, which is less than four percent of the national demand.

But the bad thing is that not enough electricity is being produced nationwide. To not deplete the little water, we had left in the reservoirs, we had rolling blackouts.

There was a short period of time in late-2023 the country had rolling blackouts. For some reason, the blackouts stopped despite the very low amount of rain the mountainous region was getting.

The graphic above shows the blackout periods for our neighborhood for Tuesday, April 23rd. It is two periods for a total of five hours. When the national emergency was first announced a week earlier, it was two periods for a total of eight hours.

Facebook had complaints about it, but for the most part they were legitimate because the posted scheduled blackouts for various neighborhoods did not match reality. Sometimes, they did not happen.  Other times, the blackouts were two or three hours later than the posted times.

About the only uncalled for complaint on social media was an expat whining about having electricity turned off for four hours. I had to respond, telling that person that was nothing as I endured 22 hours of no electricity in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti in 1996 (Shaving in the dark with cold water was lots of fun!).

To be fair to that person, our building has a back-up generator. Most likely, that person’s house doesn’t.

It is my understanding that all multi-story edificios that have elevators are required to have back-up generators. That means a high percentage of expats in Cuenca have electricity during the rolling blackouts.

The real importance of Mazar dam is its reservoir that is 31 kilometers / 21 miles long. When full, the reservoir contains 108 billion gallons of water. That water is to supply downstream the Paute Molino hydroelectric plant, the second largest hydroelectric plant in Ecuador, with 1,100 MW of power.

Downstream from it is the Sopladora hydroelectric plant, the third largest in the country, with 487 MW. The three together contribute 38 percent of the country’s electricity supply.

In mid-April, rain in Azuay province increased the flow of Cuenca’s rivers. It certainly made a difference from what was coming down on December 7th:

 

Tomebamba

1.01 cubic meters per second (m3/sec.) – December 7, 2023

2.16 m3/sec. – April 23, 2024

Yanuncay

1.43 m3/sec. – December 7, 2023

5.17 m3/sec. – April 23, 2024

Tarqui

1.03 m3/sec. – December 7, 2023

2.05 m3/sec. – April 23, 2024

Machángara

3.79 m3/sec. – December 7, 2023

4.58 m3/sec. – April 23, 2024

 

A lot of rain came down on the north side of the city on May 3rd, greatly increasing the flow of some rivers. The amount of water going down the Tomebamba that evening was ten times as much as April 23rd!

My friends were posting videos on Facebook, showing there were no longer any exposed boulders. One of my friends, who has a departamento overlooking the Tomebamba, shot a video of the river and sent it to me via WhatsApp with the message, “We have water!”

The May 4th rainstorm produced the most intense rain in Cuenca and in the Cajas mountains in seven decades.

“The meteorological institute tells us that 8.4 million cubic meters (2.2 billion gallons) of water fell in our area of Azuay Province in a five-hour period Saturday afternoon, Mayor Cristian Zamora told the media. “This is far beyond the capacity of our infrastructure to control. It is good news, of course, for the hydroelectric system but it is terrible news for the people who were stranded in the mountains.”

Because of the huge amount of rain we have received this month, the reservoirs are filling up rather quickly. After reaching a low of 2,106 meters above sea level on April 17th, the Mazar reservoir rose to 2,111 meters above sea level on April 22nd. The May 3rd rain greatly added to it. To reach its maximum level, Mazar reservoir needs to be 2,153 meters above sea level.

But is more than rain affecting one of the country’s dams. Built by the China-Gezhouba Group with loans from the ExIm Bank of China, the Coca Codo Sinclair dam was supposed to help lift Ecuador out of poverty and help with its electricity demands.

Instead, this dam 130 kilometers / 80 miles northeast of Quito, between Napo and Sucumbíos provinces, has become part of a national scandal. Nearly every top Ecuadorean official involved in the dam’s construction is either imprisoned or sentenced on bribery charges.

That includes former Vice President Jorge Glas (the one captured from the Mexican Embassy in Quito in April), former electricity minister Aleksey Mosquera, and former anti-corruption official Carlos Pólit, who was monitoring the dam project.

On April 23rd, a federal jury in Miami, Florida found Carlos Pólit guilty of conspiracy to launder assets obtained from bribes. A building in Miami, purchased by Pólit’s son for $1.2 million, came from those bribes for the dam.

Over 7,000 cracks developed in the dam’s machinery, because of substandard steel and inadequate welding by the Chinese. Sand, silt, and fallen trees everywhere are also big concerns because they can damage vital equipment.

The dam is basically useless, providing none of the much-needed electricity to Ecuador. Energy Minister Energy Roberto Luque told the media on April 24th, “This sediment must be cleared to prevent damage to the turbines. Because of the work, we must maintain our blackout schedule, but we will be able to reduce the length of blackouts once it is completed.”

On top of all of this, Ecuador’s hydrogeneration facilities have been plagued by the lack of maintenance. That seems to be an issue with many things in the country, including The TelefériQo, Quito’s gondola lift.

“Many of the plants are old and require continuing repairs and upgrades to function properly and this work has been neglected over the years,” Luque said. “Establishing better maintenance schedules and providing funding for repairs is one area the Energy Ministry is working on.”

On Facebook, expats have been asking what is Ecuador doing to diversify its electricity production? It is a legitimate question.

Professor Prieto told the Associated Press last month that demand for electricity has grown over the years in Ecuador and Colombia, making the “mistake” of continuing to rely heavily on hydroelectric power.

“The world has learned that an energy mix that is diverse and combines different kinds of low-emission sources is safer and more reliable,” Prieto told the Associated Press. “If demand continues to grow and the energy mix in these countries is not diversified, they will continue to be vulnerable.”

Ecuador’s government released the Electricity Master Plan 2019, which outlines a series of planned projects to meet the country’s electricity demand and encourage private investment.

In 2021, Ecuador had 5.3 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy capacity. The 2019 plan’s goals include adding approximately 1.4 GW of new renewable energy capacity to the national grid in the next seven years.

To help realize that goal, the government was offering a 100 percent income tax exemption for certain new investments in renewable energy. I do not know if that offer still stands.

Planned projects include two new wind farms (Villonaco II & III) with a combined capacity of 165 MW in Loja, in southern Ecuador.

The planned 200 MW El Aromo solar farm, in El Aromo, Manabí province, will be Ecuador’s largest solar project once it is completed. To be operated by the Spanish company Solarpack, it is set to boost Ecuador’s solar capacity almost tenfold.

The solar farm occupies 2.9 square kilometers / 1.1 square miles of land that had originally been cleared to build a multi-billion-dollar oil refinery. Those plans have been abandoned.

Sadly, the future of solar energy in Ecuador is questionable. Currently, Ecuador currently has only one energy policy related to photovoltaic solar energy. This six-year-old policy has neither led to an increase in national solar capacity nor is it expected to significantly impact Ecuador’s energy output.

Ecuador’s largest-capacity operating wind farm is located 84 kilometers / 52 miles south of Cuenca. Huascachaca Wind Farm, in the canton of Saraguro, in Loja province, came online in 2023. Each of the 14 wind turbines has a power of 3.3 MW and a weight of 600 tons. The onshore wind farm is expected to generate about 130 gigawatt hours of electricity per year.

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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And please! Have several reliable sources of information before making any decision about moving to Cuenca.

Reliable information must come from dependable sources. According to the University of Georgia Libraries, a reliable source will provide a “thorough, well-reasoned theory, argument, etc. based on strong evidence.”

I consider myself a trusted source with my “strong evidence,” but you definitely need more than me for your big resettlement.

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.