The Andean region is a diverse area of mountains, tropical rain forest, deserts, and wetlands. And it has more than earned its reputation as one of the water factories of the world. Today, tens of millions of people in South America get their water from the Andes.
All of this water comes from the Andean region's network of mountains. As mountain ranges go, the Andes is one of a kind. It is the largest outside of Asia and travels the entire length of the South American continent.
Sitting atop some of the tallest mountains in the Andes is the páramo, a unique ecosystem of plants that trap water and fog. For the seven million people of Bogota, Colombia, the páramo is their main source of water. Ecuador's capital city also gets half its water from these high altitude ecosystems.
The varied terrain of the Andes region also generates enough rainfall to keep the world's largest rain forest — the Amazon, which stretches into the Andes region and contributes to its biological diversity — from going dry. These waters then drain into the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, giving life to numerous marine species.
Against this backdrop, it's easy to see how the countries of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia together contain almost a quarter of the planet's terrestrial biodiversity. The tropical regions of these countries alone contain an amazing 9,600 species of vertebrates, as well as roughly 55 percent of the amphibians, 25 percent of the plants, and 20 percent of the reptiles and birds on Earth. In addition, 25 percent of these countries' plants are endemic. This is the highest concentration and endemism of birds and amphibians in the world. The most floristically diverse area in the Neotropics, the Colombian Chocó, adds to the biodiversity of the Andes.
This rich landscape has met the daily needs of indigenous communities for centuries, and their cultures reflect a deep respect for the environment. But the Andes region is no longer what it was back then, and a big reason is global climate change.
Rising temperatures are melting high-mountain glaciers that supply water to many areas and people, especially during the dry season. This phenomenon has produced dramatic transformations in the Andean landscape, and threatened species are finding they have nowhere to go. Tropical deforestation has also hampered the ability of regional ecosystems to adapt to climate change.
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The situation in the seas is no different. Over-fishing, coastal degradation, and industrial exploitation of the waters have severely depleted populations of fish and other vulnerable marine species, such as sharks and turtles.