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Water governance in the Upper Cauca River Basin, Colombia

Webinar report

01 July 2020

The second Colombian collaboratory webinar was led by three speakers from vastly different backgrounds: a grassroots representative, an academic, and a spokesperson from the biggest environmental authority in the Colombian government. These speakers shared their views about the current state of water governance in the Upper Cauca River Basin (UCRB), describing the existing situation and the challenges impeding better management of this precious resource.

Here, Alejandro Figueroa Benitez, a doctoral candidate at Universidad del Cauca, reflects on the discussion.

Commentary

Actions and challenges towards the Cauca River sustainability

Fabián Mauricio Caicedo, Director of Integral Management of Water Resources at Colombia’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, spoke about the environmental governance of the territories, the meaning of territory, and the strategies for sustainability that have emerged from central government.

According to Fabián, the government has been working towards the implementation of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) in Colombia since 2010 when the first National Policy for IWRM was passed. Over the last ten years, the government has adopted different strategies towards strengthening the many stakeholders contributing to this IWRM goal, adapting and adopting the concerns of the many communities and institutions that are involved or directly affected by water policy in the country, as well as emphasising the socioecological characteristics of water in Colombia. Fabián then explained that these strategies have allowed the government to mitigate risks and close the socioeconomic gaps that exist in relation to water in the Colombian territory.

Ancestral guardians of the Cauca river, afro legacy in the south of “Valle del Cauca” and north of “Cauca” departments

Carlos Alberto Gonzales, Director of FUNECOROBLES (a grassroots, environmental, afro-descendent, non-profit NGO), and member of the directive board of ACUASUR, highlighted that culture is the key element to transforming the environment. Change within traditional communities is guided by the conservation and harmonious interaction of people and ecosystems – “to preserve the ecosystem is to conserve the cultural legacy of communities” – hence, these communities are the ancestral guardians of the river. Carlos emphasised that as a product of the lack of articulation between rural and urban areas in the territory, there is a lack of representation of traditional and rural communities in the planning process that the government is implementing. Carlos suggested that planning must be combined with the conscience, culture, and sense of belonging that these ancestral communities have upheld trough the passage of time.

The political character of politics and water management

Prof José Esteban Castro (CONICET, Argentina; Emeritus Professor at Newcastle University; and coordinator of the WATERLAT-GOBACIT Network) argued that governance, as a concept, is deeply troubled and reductionist in nature. Consequently, the term eliminates politics from the discussion around water and reduces them (politics) to management.

Esteban suggested that governance is multidimensional in nature, integrating diverse aspects such as: the natural-physical, the technical, the intellectual knowledge, and the bureaucratic. He argued that governance has more to do with the ends that a society decides to pursue, and with the values and material interests that a society decides to defend.

In 2019, the Superior Court of Medellín recognised the River Cauca, its basin, and its tributaries as a subject of rights. In this context, Esteban questioned what “governance” means in a basin that has its own rights – and, within the framework of the Hub, who’s water security?

Esteban posited that, in reality, governance and water management are not democratic concepts: they are in fact deeply antidemocratic. Corporate pressure and delays in implementation – two of many problems – demonstrates that there is a lack of substantive democracy  within the governing bodies, as well as in the management of the water resource.

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