Cloud Forest Protection Critical To Keep Tropical Dams Running

cloud forest in Haiti

Cloud forest in Macaya Biosphere Reserve on the Massif de la Hotte, Haiti. Rampant deforestation across the country has led to a host of environmental and social issues, including a decline in the performance of the Péligre Dam, Haiti’s largest. (© Robin Moore/ iLCP)

As the global population surges, dams have been increasingly adopted as a way to keep up with skyrocketing demands for water and energy. To date, there are more than 50,000 large dams in around 165 countries; another 300–350 are currently under construction.

Despite our growing reliance on dams, we still have much to learn about how they work. The degradation of forests and other ecosystems has often being linked to reservoir degradation, which reduces dam performance. However, the real value of natural ecosystems on the effectiveness of dams has rarely been quantified.

As fast-developing nations like Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Sudan, Cambodia and China continue to expand dam building, our need to better understand the role of nature in maintaining and improving dam environmental performance has never been more pressing.

I have spent much of the last decade trying to understand the contribution of cloud forests to dam effectiveness. During this time, I’ve found that while cloud forests only cover 5% of the watersheds that contribute water to tropical dams, they filter around 50% of the available surface water that flows to those dams.

In the tropics, cloud forests are multifunctional ecosystems that offer a variety of ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity and scenic beauty. They are also essential sources of fresh water for villages and cities downstream.

Andean cock-of-the-rock

The Andean cock-of-the-rock, a bird native to the cloud forests of South America. (© Trond Larsen)

I began my research at King’s College London during the FIESTA project (Fog Interception for the Enhancement of Stream Flow in Tropical Areas), an international effort between Vrije University of Amsterdam, King’s College London and Costa Rican and Latin American counterparts. The project combined five years of field work, hydrological and meteorological monitoring, modeling and laboratory experimentation in order to explore the hydrological impacts of the conversion of cloud forest to livestock pasture.

My role in this project was to support Dr. Mark Mulligan, one of the lead researchers, in controlling a series of fog interception experiments in a “cloud chamber” located in a lab at King’s College London. We were trying to identify the capacity of cloud forest vegetation to capture fog under different wind speeds and fog intensities.

The information we learned in the cloud chamber, combined with field work, was used to estimate the volume of cloud water interception carried out by tropical cloud forests. The FIESTA project developed a model which is now used intensively within CI’s eco-hydrology program. For example, we recently used it to determine the best site for the relocation of Gramalote, a town dashed to pieces in 2010 during the wettest La Niña event over a century in Colombia.

After three and a half years of work, I built what is currently the most complete georeferenced dam census available for tropical areas, which maps about 20,000 dams of various sizes. (The previous global georeferenced assessment only included around 7,000 dams globally.) I then used the database and recently developed cloud forest maps to estimate the extent of cloud forests within the watersheds of tropical dams and the amount of surface water available in those areas.

This map, created by a team of scientists from CI and King’s College London, mapped more than 20,000 dam locations throughout the tropics across Africa, Asia, Australia, Central America and South America. This is the most comprehensive georeferenced dam census across tropical areas. (© Conservation International/Leonardo Sáenz)

This map, created by a team of scientists from CI and King’s College London, mapped more than 20,000 dam locations throughout the tropics across Africa, Asia, Australia, Central America and South America. This is the most comprehensive georeferenced dam census across tropical areas. (© Conservation International/Leonardo Sáenz)

My recent paper (PDF) on this work has just been published in the international journal of Ecosystem Services. I see this is an important opportunity to demonstrate to dam operators, watershed managers, businesses and policymakers how cloud forest protection and restoration is viable and can be very cost-effective.

According to the Industrial Info Resources, the global energy sector is worth more than US$ 5 trillion annually. One-fifth of this is supplied by hydropower, whose performance is likely to be highly impacted by the degradation of watersheds. Therefore, since cloud forests filter half the water that is entering downstream dams, cloud forest conservation can be a low cost but very high reward opportunity to help improve the effectiveness of tropical dams.

dam in Colombia

Bajo Anchicaya dam and spillway on the Anchicaya River in western Colombia. (© CI/photo by Leonardo Sáenz)

So how can we do this? One way cloud forests can be protected for their freshwater benefits is through Payment for Watershed Services (PWS) schemes.

In many mountainous cloud forest regions, poverty forces farmers to turn to water degrading activities, such as converting cloud forests into cattle pasture. With money collected from downstream service users — including the private sector — and often with national and multilateral support, PWS schemes compensate poor farmers for switching to cloud forest protection and/or restoration. Through methods like these, protection of critical cloud forests could potentially contribute to the reduction of poverty across the tropical mountains.

In collaboration with our field offices, we are piloting these ideas in countries like Colombia, where working with dam companies I have demonstrated that there is an opportunity to generate more energy through the protection of critical cloud forests.

I believe that CI is meant to lead the world toward a green infrastructure paradigm that puts nature at the center of sustainable development. As new green energy opportunities expand around the world, it seems to me that the smart conservation of cloud forests can be a truly viable solution which — aside from improving dam performance — can ensure the survival of some of the planet’s most biodiversity-rich ecosystems and the communities who depend on them.

Leonardo Sáenz is CI’s director of eco-hydrology. He would like to dedicate this blog to the memory of Dr. Fred Scatena, who “helped us advance our understanding of these beautiful ecosystems and of their important services to people.” He is also grateful to the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) and its focal project for the Andes, which has helped to improve understanding of the most pressing water challenges in the region and of the role of benefit-sharing mechanisms, including the public and private sectors, in order to tackle them more effectively.


  1. Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm says

    Great read Leo! As I have probably told you, I can’t get over my reluctance to use the term “payment for ecosystem services” or in this case “payment for watershed services”. I think it becomes a harder concept to sell with the word “payment” associated with it (as much as I agree with it as a hydrologist). I will probably blog about this, but I’d rather go with “investment in ecosystem/watershed services” or something like that. Just a thought… Saludos.

    1. leonardo saenz says

      Thanks Fernando!
      Sure, it is a good observation. In the Andes for instance we increasingly use the term benefit-sharing mechanisms (BSM) in order to encourage these investments. We still coin it in this paper mostly because it unifies the terminology used in watershed services reports across the tropics, but I can see the term evolving to something like benefit sharing for water, investments for water or eco-compensations in the future. Cuidate y gracias denuevo por el comentario.

  2. Tiago Pinheiro says

    Amazing work Leo, congartulations, Imagine Brazil, one of the biggest economies in the world today with most of it’s energy sources coming from big dams, and as you stated increasing the efforts on building new ones, this give us an idea of how important those services are an how big is their economic role.

  3. Leonardo Saenz says

    Yes, Tiago, the power sector is worth more than 5 trillion dolars a year. If we take into account that hydrpower supplies a fifth of power needs globally, the need to improve their effectivenes through the protection critical natural capital areas that source their water, is every time more important. More so in coutries like Brazil, where the proportion of total power in proportion to total power is very high. We need to start working together on these issues more deeply.
    Thanks for commenting

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  5. Jasson says

    Congrats Leo, it sounds great. The fog forest proves to be a very appropriate place to make the investment of 1% required by the environmental authority in Colombia, when water is used for infrastructure projects, as hydropower generation, wáter supply and irrigation.

    1. Leonardo Saenz says

      Dear Jasson, many thanks for your comment and very good point. The article 45 of the law 99 of 1993 states that 6% of net energy sales in Colombia for plants above 10 MW will be transferred to environmental autonomous corporations, and municipalities in the contributing watershed. Your point is a good one because the results from the paper suggest that focusing part of those economic resources already transferred by the energy sector in cloud forest protection or restoration, could help secure some of the most important ecosystems of the planet hydro-logically and ecologically speaking, while at the same time improve the performance of dams. Based on strong science, this conjuncture, can provide a competitive angle for their sustainability activities and a point of cooperation with the environmental sector in order to achieve net positive impacts. IF you want we can talk about your ideas, please send me an email.

  6. Bert De Bievre says

    Hi Leonardo, I still remember very well we knew each other, posting our pioneering comments on paramo hydrology, on InfoAndina’s “importance of paramos” e-fórum, it must have been some 15 years ago.
    While I am not a fan of too much economics in the investments in watershed services discussions, I think it does make a lot of sense when hydropower is involved. However, specifically with this type of wáter user, we haven’t done too much. What is it exactly what they benefit from (more difficult question to answer than generally thought, and a high variety of answers possibe according to each case), and what is it worth? Your findings are great progress.
    Un abrazo, Bert.

  7. Mario Chacon says

    Thanks Leo.
    Nice work. Alternative energy production are crucial in these days and your work show the importance and the potential of forest and water resources in the tropics. Dams around the world are starting to have a bad reputation in most of the cases, so as you said, it is time to change the paradigm and show that it is possible to manage dams following sound management technics, and your work help on this. It will be relevant to think on doing a more integrate analysis that could add variables such as GHG emissions that sustainable management of dams can reduce and also add the some landscape ecology factors (landscape connectivity, impacts down stream, etc.) that can show potential positive impacts on biodiversity conservation because this new way to manage dams.
    Let´s keep talking!

    1. Leonardo Saenz says

      Thanks Mario, you are totally right – the things that you mentioned refer to the need to have a position on sustainable hydro-power. Economies will continue to grow and in some places energy comes and will continue to come, in a significant proportion, at least in the next few decades, from dams. The thing is to develop consensus about the minimum requirements for these projects to meet the requirements from people and nature and to reduce environmental impacts. The World Commission on Dams did a significant amount of work on that area, but it seems to me, that a decade after, it is time again to embrace the commission’s mandate but going beyond to, based on sound case demonstrations and robust science, include the role of nature in planning energy futures, not just through dams, and in order create a really needed new paradigm for sustainable low impact and cost effective hydro-power, in places where it is still the more optimal environmental, social and economic energy source.

  8. Leonardo Saenz says

    Hi Bert, good to hear from you always and thanks for your comment!
    Yes I remember – also good interactions with Wouter, Conrado, Francisco, Miguel, Silvia and others. I agree, and increasingly it will have to do with sharing the benefits within the context of environmental and social responsibility. The paper essentially focuses on priority setting for hydrological performance and that’s something the industry is very interested, improving performance. With these findings and further research we can help to demonstrate that performance gains not only can be achieved by improving the equipment or by affecting operational rules to manage reservoirs but also through the protection of critical ecosystems upon which their economic performance also depends. Look forward to chat again soon. let you know when I am in Ecuador. Un abrazo, Leo

  9. Joanne Sonenshine says

    Leo – your work is really interesting and particularly relevant as the private sector grapples with how best to sustain production in key agricultural sourcing areas while maintaining the integrity of natural capital. Understanding the role forests play in providing and protecting water (for irrigation, and for the every day use) will help us as we guide companies towards investments in protecting and maintaining forests. Well done!

    1. Leonardo Saenz says

      Hi Joanne, thanks I think that is a good point of the paper, and it the notion that these forest really do a lot for the performance of these infrastructures that at the same time are in more cases the systems through which big agribusiness and the private sector source their water for their operations. I other words, protecting cloud forests can have very sound implications for a large number of businesses, which derived their water from tropical dams downstream these forests.

  10. Oscar Bautista says

    Leo amazing research! I noticed the importance of CAF`s located dam upstream on Latin American countries such as Costa Rica, Guatemala and Colombia, this study reveals the importance of this kind of ecosystems which provides very important services some of them linked to efficient energy generation, it is important to highlight that effort should be focused on restore and conserve them through investment. Congrats!

    1. Leonardo Saenz says

      Thanks Oscar, good point – they key is that information like this can help us to engineer the right market signal or benefit sharing mechanisms, which would stimulate those investments. That is at the center of my future research. there is a paper from my self coming this month on that topic also.

  11. Ana M. Valderrama says

    Excelente trabajo Leonardo, de antemano felicitaciones por tan grande iniciativa. No soy experta en el tema ambiental pero concuerdo contigo que desde la perspectiva socio-política, tu trabajo encierra una posible solución a 2 problemas fundamentales para Colombia: la pobreza de campesinos que habitan los bosques nubosos y el aumento de agua y energía en las represas.Proveer a los campesinos de medios de subsistencia como contra-prestación a su cuidado del bosque es una solución equilibrada y sostenible, al tiempo que beneficia a los gobiernos por ser una iniciativa mucho mas rentable. Es una tarea titanica justificar la conservación en un país en desarrollo como el nuestro, pero esperemos que iniciativas como esta, sumado a la voluntad política de los gobiernos puedan materializar esta relación gana-gana que nos beneficia a todos. Saludos!!!

    1. Leonardo Saenz says

      Hola Ana, mil gracias, tremendo comentario – si esquemas de beneficio que son gana gana – pero cada vez es mas claro que es dificil desconectar el desarollo de un medio saludable y la tendencia es que un desarrollo bien pensado, social y ambientalmente informado inevitablemente serrara esa brecha cada vez mas. Mi investigacion muestra que la protecccion de los bosques de niebla son un gana gana para el desarrollo.

  12. Dary Muñoz says

    Excelente investigación Leonardo, con un valor agregado una vez más se resalta la importancia de no deforestar sitios estratégicos para la conservación del recurso hídrico. ¿Por qué será que las comunidades indígenas, pelean e impiden que comunidades afrocolombianas talen los arboles maderables que están en sus zonas de protección? Esta es una de las razones, porque permite que sus bosques conserven el recurso hídrico y la diversidad de fauna que allí se pueden encontrar, sin olvidar que estos por su capacidad de acumulación de agua, regulan el caudal de muchas quebradas, son múltiples los servicios que estos bosques nos dan. Será la nueva alternativa real para hacer de la conservación un estilo de vida económico y sustentable, como comenzar a suscribir tierras o espacios que puedan ser transformados y reforestados y evaluar que cantidad de agua podemos capturar con esta reforestación y construcción de represa.. I Like Ilike I like. Very Good investigatión..

    1. leonardo saenz says

      Thanks you Dary,
      Yes, you are right – there is a now a new paradigm for development and it is to unlock and benefit from real services of nature that we know it provides. And for conservation, to show it has an important role to play in social and economic development. This is what we call “smart conservation” Thanks for commenting.

  13. Tatiana Gutierrez says

    If you thought that only “hard engineering” was able to improve the performance of sectors such as hydropower, this type of research now shows so palpable a scenario where nature and ecosystems take center stage. It is a spectacular opportunity for conservation initiatives work hand in hand in the productive sectors and show that investment in the maintenance or restoration of natural systems represent an investment with a potentially high rate of return. This would be a true materialization of the concept of sustainable development. Spectacular work!

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  15. Isabel Agudelo says

    Leonardo, muy impresionante tu trabajo, me parece que ante todas las iniciativas que se han realizado en Colombia en pro de una buena gestión de bosques (estudios de captación de Co2, equilibrio ecosistemico etc), ha faltado este punto clave, en donde los beneficios económicos, se pueden ver claramente, no solo al generar grandes ahorros para el sector privado y/o Estado y así poner en la mira su conservación, si no que también se extienden los beneficios hacia las poblaciones rurales.
    Es un claro ejemplo de las iniciativas sostenible que estamos buscando, y es de gran inspiración para continuar trabajando.

  16. Leonardo Saenz says

    Querida Isabel, mil gracias por tu comentario – este paper brinda una perspectiva global de la importancia de estos ecosistemas en el desempeno de infrastructura hidraulica y lo pone en el contexto de potenicializar o dar un asidero prcatico a las estrategias de benfit sharing como los mecanismos finacieros para la proteccion de servicos hidrologicos y la compensacion adecuada a las comunidades a menudo pobres que por las condiciones de pobreza habitan dichas zonas. Pero lo mas interesante esta en el segundo paper que voy a publicar en este mes en el journal de hydropower and dams en el cual se establece el link claro del bosque de niebla y la generacion hidroeletrica y la mitigacion de impactos economicos a traves de la proteccion o mejor manejo de bosques en lo que en el paper llamo “water hotspots” donde realmente se puede incluir la poblacion rural en terminos de aliviar su pobreza de una forma mas aveidente – siempre y cuando existan las senales de mercado necesarias que permitan llevar estos descubrimientos a la prcatica. Lo comparto por este medio cuando finalmente se publique. Un abrazo. Leo

  17. antonio gutierrez says

    Dr.Leonardo no soy un experto en el tema,pero leyendo deteninamente un poco de su investigacion en materia de aguas,siento la dedicacion feaciente y el sentimiento por este gran trabajo desarrollado. Adelante con su proyectos investigados.Me siento orgulloso de personas como usted de tan brillante profesion ,que estampa otro laurel mas para nuestra querida Colombia con sentimiento y aprecio felicitaciones .

    1. Leonardo Saenz says

      Gracias Antonio por tan gratas palabras – mi sueno es que muchos Colombianos tengan la oportunidad de desarollar su potencial y como en este caso buscar angulos que permitan hacer de un pais como Colombia un lugar mas sostenible. Capital humano y capital natural son importantisimos. Un abrazo.

  18. Leonardo Saenz says

    As much as I think the cloud forests are important ecosystems, Paramos are also essential for water supply to some of the largest cities across the Andes. This is why I wanted to share this fascinating video created by John Martin and our CI Colombia team. Stunning short film shot 90% from the air using a Cineflex system. Ron Chapple, of Aerial Filmworks, and I spent thirteen hours over five days in Colombia flying in a Bell Long Ranger over the most impressive paramo ecosystems on the planet.

    Please enjoy the film:

  19. marleny sepulveda says

    Leo ,valioso trabajo,hoy y cada entiendo tu dedicacio a este gran proyecto es muy oportuno.
    Al proteger la salud de las cuencas hidrograficas,podemos perservar y mejorar la calidad de vida de los habitantes.Con la coservacion de los bosques de niebla hay que establecer muy buenas estrategias de aprovechamiento para el bienestar de todas la comunidades y futuras generaciones.Felicitaciones. Oye Leo encontre en una lectura que el promedio de vida de una presa es de 55 a60 años debido a la erosion mecanica de materiales. 58% de todas las presas son jovenes,28% son maduras y el 14% son viejas .Leo esto es muy bueno o malo?

  20. Tatiana Escovar says

    Great Job Leo! Congratulations. This study points out a clear example of the value of this type of ecosystem and its importance on sustainable energy production in tropical areas. As you have mentioned it’s a way to highlight a case of PWS and it seems like a way to engage private sector with conservation. After reading this, and knowing and having worked with FIESTA, I think it is relevant to mention the significance of this great tool and how it allows us to identify and quantify other type of services provided by cloud tropical forest such as carbon sequestration and biodiversity. This tool is also a way to generate conservation strategies that incorporate socioeconomic and biophysical aspect. Again, Congratulations! Amazing work!

    1. Leonardo Saenz says

      Thank you Tatiana,

      FIESTA y sus herramientas asociadas como waterworld and costing nature desarrolladas por el King’s son excelentes para lo que mencionas. Hay otra herramienta desarrollada por el King’s llamada compandes, muy interesante.

  21. Leonardo Saenz says

    Gracias Marleny,
    Si, por nuestra investigacion sabemos que los bosques de niebla son fabricas de agua de calidad increibles. Ahora en terminos de infrastructura, toda obra tiene un periodo de vida que tiene que ver con su operacion optima tanto economica como estructural. El hecho que haya muchas obras de estas que son jovenes es una buena noticia, pues quiere decir que si se optimiza su operacion a traves del mejor manejo de sus cuencas aportantes entonces esa infrastructura podrian funcionar mas eficientemente durante su periodo de vida.

  22. Leonardo Saenz says

    Going to the meeting in Bonn and presenting in Water in the Anthropocene of the Global Water System Project. Seminar : Trade- Offs and Choices for Society and Environment: Ecosystem Services on Thursday from 3:30 to 5:00 Pm. Please find below a link to my session Focused on the Andes Amazon, this is a continuation of my cloud forest work

  23. Leonardo Saenz says

    From Angela Andrade on

    Very interesting analysis. I wonder what the future situation of these dams would be, under potential climate change scenarios. In Colombia, on the one hand, we find that most of the dams are located in areas with high vulnerability to extreme events, especially for a possible water shortage due to decreased rainfall, according to the 2nd NC to the UNFCCC, and on the other hand , we found an increase in the minimum temperatures, above 2700msnm. All this will have a major impact on existing dams, and it would be quite interesting to evaluate the possible economic, social and environmental impact of these possible changes.

  24. Lina says

    fantastic – we need more of this kind of analysis to illustrate the importance of ecosystems to human well being.

    1. Leonardo Saenz says

      Thanks Lina – hopefully we can use these type of ideas in order to give some context to the water and energy nexus, which I don’t think is still very clear in global spheres as I learned in water in the anthropocene, the conference I attended in Bonn a week ago. We should follow up on the concept you sent and see how this work contribute to the global strategy from the science.

  25. Mariano Useche says

    Felicitaciones Dr. Sáenz. Su trabajo sin duda contribuirá a resolver no sólo una problemática relativa a los mecanismos de funcionamiento de los ecosistemas que aprovisionan los embalses sino que ilustra la disputa política en torno a la conveniencia de estas megaestructuras en las zonas altoandinas. Un mayor conocimiento sobre la interacción de estos ecosistemas con los de páramo propiamente dichos, ayudaría al debate sobre la intangibilidad y medidas de protección y administración de los mismos, actualmente en curso en Colombia, a propósito de las actividades extractivas. De nuevo felicitaciones. Colombianos como usted son un orgullo para sus conciudadanos y nos devuelven la confianza en un país tan azotado por tantas tragedias. Cordial saludo. Mariano Useche.

    1. Leonardo Saenz says

      Mil gracias Mariano,
      De acuerdo, en el caso de los servicios generados por la infrastructura de embalses, la idea puntual es la cada vez mas necesaria obligacion de incluir el role de infrastructura verde dentro de su desempeno y asi mismo incluirlo desde el principio, en procesos de expansion, puesno hay mejor mecanismo para expandir un sistema que hacerlo desde la optimizacion del estado actual del mimo. Pienso que los paramos y los bosques de niebla son verdaderas infrastructuras verdes que pueden contribuir a dicho fin, ademas de todo su valor biologico, social y cultural. Gracias. Leo

  26. leonardo saenz says

    My second paper on the connection between cloud forests and hydro-power was published on May 31st in the International Journal of Hydropower and Dams. The name of the article is: “The role of cloud forests in maintaining hydropower performance. The case of the Calima dam, Valle del Cauca, Colombia.”

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  28. Leonardo Saenz says

    Important note by Charles Vorosmarty on the Bonn Declaration on Global Water Security. He highlights that we need to design solutions to deliver basic water services while preserving freshwater. I would argue that protection of critical cloud forests and paramos can contribute to this new path across the tropics.

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