Protecting the páramos and mangroves: water challenges for Colombia

Green wall in Bogota

As the second most biodiverse country on the planet, Colombia is rightly taking post-conflict sustainable development and economic growth seriously. During my recent two-week stay, I was able to take in perspectives in two contrasting cities with similar water challenges: Bogota and Bucaramanga (Santander department). At the Global Challenges Research Fund Global Engagement Meeting I attended in Bogota, there were around 120 people from all over the globe (UK, USA, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Namibia, Ghana, India, the list goes on) exchanging both personal and professional stories, across the disciplines and sectors, on journeys towards sustainable and resilient development. In discussing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) we all agreed that their interplay was incredibly complex and struggled to come to consensus on which might be the one that could best help all the others. In conversations about Colombia and SDG 13 (action to combat climate change and its impacts), it became apparent that two types of ecosystem were particularly important – the páramos and the mangroves.

As well as hosting amazing biodiversity, paramos are vital for water supplies in Bogota, Bucaramanga and other large cities. As a result they are vehemently protected by citizens – the day I arrived in Bucaramanga there was a 20,000 people-strong protest against a license for mining in the paramos, which are already stressed by agricultural activities (work in this area is ongoing at the Universidad Industrial de Santander, where I had a fantastic week talking about resilience, rainwater harvesting and all things watery with staff and students).

This passion for protecting vital but vulnerable ecosystems was echoed in relation to Colombia’s mangroves located in the Choco/Antioquia departments at Bocas Del Atrato. The Manglares 360° social enterprise project (‘manglares para todos, manglares para el futuro, manglares para los ninos’ – ‘mangroves for all, mangroves for the future, mangroves for children’) has a focus on the rural-urban interface of the mangroves, as they provide water supply and flood abatement services. Facilitated by the Universidad de Antioquia, local organisations, Vision Total Caribe magazine and led by local communities, an annual ‘mangroves day’ is celebrated to coincide with UNESCO’s International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystem.

Bucaramanga reservoir

Whilst I didn’t get to visit either of these ecosystems during my city-based visit (a great excuse to go back!), I did take a ‘salida de campo’ (field trip) to visit a new dam and reservoir, a 40 minute drive from the centre of Bucaramanga. This brought home to me the scale of the ‘grand’ resilience challenge Colombia faces going into the future – protecting its ecosystems whilst meeting an ever growing demand for water. Nature-based solutions will ultimately become a huge focus as alternatives such as rainwater harvesting and green infrastructure are starting to emerge alongside traditional grey infrastructure.