Marco on his Master Thesis on the ‘Water-Energy-Food Nexus’ in Ecuador

To start my summary of my master thesis research I would like to present the following quote:

“One learns from books and example only that certain things can be done. Actual learning requires that you do those things.” (Frank Herbert)

Throughout my 24 years on this planet I have read and heard a fair share of what now comprises my knowledge-base. Rarely I have experienced it myself and hence retrain my development towards wisdom and insight. I know that climate change is real but have never experienced it myself. I know that politics dictates our current evolution but I have never voted. I know that with travelling I will understand different cultures but have only exceeded the European borders once.
This time its going to be different! I want to experience the wider spheres, its people, the diversity and the planet we live on.
With this mind-set I found a thesis topic that is both challenging and interesting. The concept of the ‘Water-Energy-Food Nexus (WEF Nexus)’ is ambiguous, broad, and full of pitfalls. Its recent development causes many academic headaches and yet I wanted to know what it is and how it functions. This was my chance out of the protective spheres I was used to and leave for a more unknown and wicked environment. I chose to go to Ecuador to study the WEF Nexus first hand by investigating the Machángara river council near Cuenca, in the south. The allocation of water to the respective sectors producing Energy, drinking water and food is going to be the challenge of the coming generations for Ecuador and the rest of the world!

The first transatlantic flight was long but was greeted by an incredible bus ride from Guayaquil to Cuenca, my home for the next three months. The coastal climate changed to a mountainous chill with amazing sceneries. The people I was going to live with were friendly and chaotic at the same time. They were celebrating life multiple times a week and yet maintained a weird sense of order during their working hours. This pretty much represents the mentality of the Ecuadorian people, free and living, yet committed to their work. It was also surprising that those who were employed worked on days on which Europeans were thinking about what to do in their free time. The first interviews with the council members quickly showed that each one stood central to the topic of protecting the environment in order to secure a future for further generations, whether their own or those of others. This community feeling is typical for the Andean region, as historically, these places had to survive without aid from central governmental entities. This connectedness still prevails and aids in the understanding of the WEF Nexus in the Machángara basin.

“Are you actually getting some work done there?” was a reoccurring question I received from my friends and colleagues. I would have had to lie if I said that my work progress followed that of my pre-established schedule. Nevertheless, part of ‘the deal’ included the discovery of Ecuador and its surroundings as this would also broaden my understanding of the case study. So I set off. The first few trips were situated rather regionally and included the national park Cajas. Besides the incredible scenery (showing similarities to Scotland) did I meet interesting people with whom I later went on to travel to further destinations.

Next up was a work visit to the investigation case study: the Machángara river! Two big hydroelectric dams proved that I do have a slight fear of heights. Furthermore, it is interesting to see how even the three climatic regions of Ecuador (jungle, mountains, coast) also divide within themselves. As such is the Machángara river fed by the Páramo (moorland) of the mountains, however in summer prevails a dryness that influences energy and drinking water provision for the city of Cuenca. This shows the immense natural forces at work, which the Ecuadorian people have learned to respect.marco3

An excursion to Peru, a 4*4 off-road trip and a visit to several waterfalls summarized a rather relaxed period during my stay. These trips had the unique character that they went off the beaten touristic path and allowed me to witness the local realities of Ecuador. A dip in the sacred springs and a hour long discussion about climate change with locals were some of the highlights in the indigenous community of Agua Blanca. Having obtained valuable contacts for my research and learned more about the context of my work I gained new motivation for my research as well as to find more adventure and learn about local realities. An excursion to a large water-filled volcanic crater gave a better impression of the grandness of the Andes region and the intensity of the sun. This also summarizes why water shortages exist in the mountainous (and wet) area. On the extensive ‘to-do’ list, stood a diving trip to see the yearly migration of Manta rays, sharks and whales around the area of Puerto Lopez. Having experience with diving I was able to quickly pick out a trip that would allow for this endeavour. Although we didn’t manage to see any manta rays or sharks, we were able to swim with whales. In fact, due to the local diving school chosen, we were able to steer the small fisher boat easily next to the family of whales. marco4We were so close that we decided to jump into the water and swim with them! Too busy being amazed and the weak quality of the camera, the picture doesn’t do just to what we experienced. At least the whale waved us goodbye.

The highlight of the whole three months’ experience was the climbing of the highest point in the world. I never climbed this high and technical in my life, meaning I wasn’t sure on how to exactly prepare.
The story starts by passing the tombstones of all the deceased who previously attempted to reach the top as well as the groups of tourists who can arrive for 25 dollar cents at 5000m (the last refuge) by bus. At night, 9pm, we set off for the climb. Ice picks, crampons, ropes, half a liter of water (saving weight) and numerous power bars comprised our equipment. We would pass the foot of a glacier, nearly lose one group member and have our breaths taken away by the nightly panorama. marco6
The story ends with the cruellest 3 hours of my life in which we climbed about 500 height meters on all four limbs, stopping every 5 meters to catch some oxygen and hearing the guide call “just 2 hours remaining”. Although we contemplated about giving up on several occasions, we pressed on and were rewarded by the guide’s motivational speech. He said that he didn’t expect us to reach the top since we didn’t acclimatize at the needed height, which he failed to mention before the climb. Knowing that people have died trying to reach the top we though it better to be proud and forget the incredible risk we just overcame. Opting to avoid frostbite we couldn’t enjoy much of the sunrise at the top of the world and started descending. A last goodbye from the top of the world was the shadow of the mountain in the sunrise phase.

“Perseverance is everything!”



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