At 10,000 feet above sea level, the cool mountain air over Colombias high-altitude Andean ecosystems
used to defend the region from diseases typically confined to tropical zones. But scientists fear that rising temperatures due to climate change
may jeopardize the health and well-being
of millions of people living in these mountains.
Diseases Spread as Climate Warms
Climate change is already bringing more of the tropics to the Andean region particularly by way of mosquitoes. Warmer temperatures allow mosquitoes to thrive and parasites to mature inside them before being transmitted to humans. As average temperatures increase, so have the instances of potentially fatal mosquito-borne illnesses.
The disease-spreading mosquitoes are biting Colombians furiously. Because a majority of the countrys population resides in the mountains, this is their first encounter with tropical illnesses. Dengue transmission rates increased fourfold between 1997 and 2002. Trends are equally troubling on the regional scale. In 2003 alone, nearly a quarter of all malaria cases reported in the Americas were in Colombia.
Dried-up Pramo Would Cut Off Water to Millions
These alarming rates compelled the Colombian government to study the impacts of climate change on its people, and the results were more cause for concern. In addition to higher disease rates and melting glaciers, the assessment projected that more than half of the pramo grasslands could disappear by mid-century.
The pramo is an ecosystem unique to five Andean countries. It is composed of plants that trap water and fog. Glaciers keep the pramo wet by transforming passing moisture from the Amazon rain forest into rain. If regional temperatures continue to rise, the glaciers will disappear, and the pramo could become a desert.
The pramo is the main watershed for Bogota, the capital city of Colombia with a population of 7 million. Ecuadors largest city, Quito, also depends on the alpine grasslands for half of its water. If the pramo dries out, it will leave millions of people without adequate water supplies.
New Program Will Monitor Disease Rates, Climate Patterns
Colombia faces a sobering reality that illustrates the close ties between conserving nature and human health and well-being. The good news is that making improvements to one will benefit the other.
The National Institute of Health in Colombia, with support from Conservation International (CI) and other international partners, is designing a program to understand how climate change affects the spread of malaria and dengue, as well as the fresh water supply.
In two dozen municipalities throughout the Colombian Andes, a new monitoring system will track the rates of transmission and exposure for each disease and measure the data against climate patterns. The program aims to reduce incidents of the diseases within these places by one-third over five years.
Restoring the pramo means safer water for major cities in several countries, not just one, says CI-Colombia Director Fabio Arjona. At the same time, it will protect not only a wealth of biodiversity found nowhere else, but the life-sustaining services this ecosystem provides to the entire region.