The Upper Cauca River Basin

From snow covered peaks to tropical beaches, deserts, and grasslands, Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, but sourcing water for everyone is still a problem. 1.2 million people in Colombia lack access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene. 

The Upper Cauca River Basin (UCRB), our Colombia Collaboratory study area, is the second most important basin in Colombia. Part of the Great Magdalena River Basin (the main basin in Colombia), the UCRB has vast cultural and biological diversity, with over 40 different types of ecosystem and a prominent mono-crop agriculture industry. The UCRB is approximately 21,809 km2 in size, covering five Colombian departments: Valle del Cauca, Cauca, Risaralda, Quindío, and Caldas, with a population of approximately 5.9 million people. 75% of the population is urban, and 25% rural, with dispersed villages and townships located throughout the countryside with campesino, indigenous, and afro-descendant communities. The Basin’s cultural diversity is important because of the distinct worldviews, values, knowledge, and experiences that they hold.

Hydropower provides 65% of Colombia’s electricity, but rural populations face social inequalities, with some regions lacking essential services. The Basin is also recovering from long-term conflict and resulting complex governance, with inhabitants facing residual consequences and problems. Deep-rooted issues in the area include possession/dispossession of land, control and grabbing of natural resources, and safety in the countryside. This socio-political reality is fundamental when approaching water security.

Over the past 30 years the water quality of the Cauca River has deteriorated. In 2019, the Superior Court of Medellin recognised the Cauca River, its basin, and its tributaries, as legal entities subject to rights, and ordered their protection, conservation, and maintenance. Throughout the UCRB there are ecological conservation efforts going on, including designated protected areas and community-driven projects. Community based water organisations, as well as indigenous and campesino communities, have implemented agro ecological strategies that consider water security/sovereignty, food sovereignty, socio-ecological justice, and climate variability. 

Human activities such as large-scale monocrop production, such as sugarcane and coffee; concentrations of land ownership; and changes in land use have caused significant socio-ecological issues and environmental conflicts throughout the basin. The UCRB also faces challenges resulting from climate variability such as drought, flooding, and landslides, that have affected availability of water and food. The consequences of these conditions manifest inequitably throughout the basin, with the largest impacts felt in the most vulnerable communities.

Residents of the Kisgó indigenous reservation during the sowing water project

Research

Our Colombia Collaboratory is carrying out research in six sub-basins located within the UCRB in the departments of Valle del Cauca and Cauca, which include Colombia’s third largest city, Cali, and the mid-size city of Popayán. The team’s research objectives are to (1) recover to some extent the water regulation services in the Upper Cauca River Basin; (2) implement agroecological systems among farmers and smallholders for equitable water management and increased resilience to extreme climatic events; (3) integrate planning tools and agreements within and across government institutions; (4) strengthen processes for more autonomous community water management.

As an interdisciplinary team, the Colombia Collaboratory applies systems-thinking framework, approaching the UCRB as a socio-ecological system. Through remote sensing, water quality monitoring, and the development of field equipment, the team strives for innovative technical solutions, met with social innovations. Hub researchers actively work to include stakeholders in the research process, through participatory methods and tools, citizen science, and community representation. The team’s overall goal is the exchange and co-creation of knowledge, mutual learning, and implementing projects that are co-constructed by the local communities where our research is taking place. The team’s research compliments the work already being done in local communities by focusing on building capacity of autonomous water practices, such as conservation and restoration, territorial management, and equitable technologies, directly contributing to the water and food sovereignty of local communities.

As a strategy for water security/sovereignty, food sovereignty, and climate change adaptation, the Colombia team is exploring current and potential nature-based solutions (NBS) and agroecological processes, and how they may play a role in improving the resilience of the UCRB towards a more sustainable scenario. The Colombia Collaboratory is also working with the mayor’s office of Jamundí on a Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) project.

Through the Hub’s research, the Colombia Collaboratory builds communication, interactions, and relationships between community stakeholders such as rural farm workers, community water supply systems, and indigenous communities, as well as institutional stakeholders like local and regional government offices. In strengthening these relationships and partnerships, the goal is to develop more sustainable and equitable water management in the UCRB.

Mapping with community members in the field

Colombia Collaboratory leadership

The Colombia Collaboratory is leading on the Hub’s research on a number of different research areas, namely, interdisciplinarity methodologies; ethical dimensions of the Hub’s work; Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) models; nature-based solutions for water management and climate resilience; environmental conflicts; multiple values of water; remote sensing and satellite imagery; implementing local, indigenous knowledge; community-based water management; and valuation of hydrological ecosystem services.

Alongside our Malaysia Collaboratory, the Colombia team is working extensively to understand links between water and public health.

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