Integrated river basin management

The challenge

The Río Frío and Río Sevilla basins in the Magdalena region of Colombia increasingly face challenges between different water users in terms of both water quantity and quality. The two rivers also provide fresh water for the livelihood of the approximately 185,000 inhabitants of the surrounding municipalities. The Río Frío and Río Sevilla originate on the western flank of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a UNESCO-declared Biosphere reserve. Downstream, the rivers join and flow into the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta, a Ramsar wetland. The middle and lower section of the river basins supports the production of commercial crops such as bananas, oil palm, and coffee. The sustainability of these production systems is threatened by water shortages and inefficient irrigation practices, alternating availability of water (shortage during dry seasons vs frequent flooding in the wet seasons) due to climate change, and other environmental problems such as salt intrusion and soil erosion. Lower river discharges in the dry season also mean that access to water is restricted. The unpredictability in water supply poses difficulties in farm planning and decreases the efficiency of operations. Not only agricultural producers suffer from these issues, but also the rural population and natural ecosystems, since the rationing of water during the dry season does not only affect water utilized for irrigation purposes, but also water destined for domestic use and environment.  

The solution

Building on previous RVO-funded activities that aimed to improve water efficiency in the banana and oil palm sectors in the Magdalena region, this project aims to improve water allocation amongst all users, by adjusting governance practices and developing a Decision Support System (DSS) in collaboration with key stakeholders from both the management and the users’ side. To support the development of the DSS, the project conducted a stakeholder assessment of the Río Frío and Río Sevilla basins, combined with a baseline assessment based on literature review and data collection to assess the status of identified water sources, water availability, water demand and water quality for the Frío and Sevilla River Basins. The project is carried out in consortium with Acacia Water and the Dutch Water Authorities.

Within the basins, many stakeholders from different societal groups play a role in the governance of natural resources. With regard to water management, most of them are brought together within the Plataforma de Custodia del Agua (PCA), a stakeholder platform initiated by WWF Colombia. CORPAMAG is the regional environmental authority which grants long-term water use permits in the area, while two irrigation associations (ASOSEVILLA and ASORIOFRIO) allocate the water from both rivers to the different users.  

The baseline assessment concluded that during the dry season, competition among different water users is fierce and water demand far exceeds water availability. Even when not taking into account environmental flow requirements, water availability is not sufficient for all the producers during the dry season, leading to a decline in agricultural productivity. Other issues are the declining availability and quality of water for human consumption, the increasing salinization of groundwater and soils, increased sedimentation, and increasing incidence of floods. 

In terms of water governance, incoherent policies and contradicting jurisdictions sometimes hamper effective water governance. Data availability, monitoring and transparency regarding water use and availability is another challenge that limits trust and engagement in the basins. Another key issue is the underrepresentation of several groups and water users, most prominently the Ciénaga Grande and the communities depending on this ecosystem. Moreover, water allocation priorities are unclear and environmental flow is often not met. 

The next step for the project is to develop a Decision Support System (DSS) based on the findings of the baseline study and governance assessment. This DSS will be developed according to a user-centered design approach, in which use cases and needs are defined together with the intended users. The DSS will give insight in the state of water resources within the basins, on the basis of which a more constructive water management dialogue can be held among all user groups within the PCA. Moreover, the DSS can be used to assist the responsible authorities in taking better informed water allocation decisions which are based on actual data regarding water availability and water needs in both basins.

Implemented in

Magdalena, Colombia

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Contact person

Susanna Cocchini