RECONECT’s international collaborator in Colombia

Story by Carlos A Madera P, M.Sc, Ph.D, Universidad del Valle, Cali-Colombia; Daniel Ascuntar R, M.Sc, DAGMA, Cali-Colombia.

The Cañaveralejo, Meléndez and Lili river basin.

Santiago de Cali or Cali, is the capital of the Valle del Cauca department, and the most populous city in southwest Colombia, with 2,227,642 residents.

Cali is Colombia’s second-largest city and third most populous after Bogota and Medellin. As the only major Colombian city with access to the Pacific Coast, Cali is the main urban center in the south and has one of Colombia’s fastest-growing economies.

The IPCC 2021 Assessment Report revealed that the entire southwest region of Colombia will be highly susceptible to climate change. National authorities recognize that in the coming decades, the population of this region will be highly exposed [1] to floods and landslides.

As a response, Colombian environmental policy is focusing on developing resilience to climate change and aiming to reduce carbon emissions[2].

Figure 1. CaMeLí basin and bordering basins. CaMeLí = Cañaveralejo, Meléndez and Lilí rivers. Source: Adapted from IDESC — DAPM (2020).

Most of Cali´s rural area is composed by National Protected areas where three main river basins are identified: Cali, Jamundí-Pance and Cañaveralejo, Meléndez and Lili Rivers (See Fig. 1). In terms of water supply, 20% of Cali’s water comes from the mountains and 80% from the Cauca River, Colombia’s second largest river.

In March of this year, the city saw 60% of the rain it would normally see in the whole month in just over one hour. Central areas of the city were flooded after the Cañaveralejo river broke its banks, the Cauca river was also very high and a yellow alert was issued. Two people died after the heavy rains triggered a landslide. These disasters are occurring ever more frequently in Colombia, and around the world.

March 2021 floods in Cali

The Cañaveralejo, Meléndez and Lili river basin (CaMeLi) was selected as the partner in the RECONECT project as it is a main artery of life but also of destruction when hydro-meteorological disaster hits the region.

The term Nature-based Solutions (NBS) has received numerous definitions throughout time and some can be found in Cali city already that did not necessarily carry the NBS “label” but were originally infrastructural designs that combined green and grey infrastructure (Fig. 2 and 3).

Figure 2. Recovered Isaías Duarte Cancino urban wetland in CaMeLí basin.

One example is urban wetland restoration. Over the past decade, almost 50 hectares of urban wetlands have been recovered which were previously covered by urban expansion, clogged or landfilled.

Restoration of such ecosystems allowed for hydrological connectivity between rivers and wetlands and alleviates ecological fragmentation whilst improving green coverage.

Figure 3. Recovered Charco Azul urban wetland in CaMeLí basin. Source: Univalle (2017)

The benefits and co-benefits of NBS implementation are undeniable. Some of the NBS in Cali began to display ecosystem services that were lost during urban expansion (Fig. 4 and 5), such as improvement of urban drainage systems, risk reduction from flooding in urban areas, recuperation of biological connectivity, habitat for biodiversity protection, capacity building and environmental education, community participation, recreational and tourism activities, community appropriation of NBS recovered sites, and municipal acceptance of NBS for the city’s development plans.

Figure 4. Birdwatching on Charco Azul recovered wetland

Selection, design and implementation of NBS with stakeholder’s participation from different levels, from government, society and academic is crucial. The Universidad del Valle-Univalle as an academic actor and the Cali urban environmental authority, DAGMA, are the most involved stakeholders. Others sectors have joined, such as Risk Management, Public Utilities, Planning and Housing, water company, community and local organizations. In the future, many other stakeholders will probably join, such as regional and national environmental authorities, health and social protection, etc.

Colombia is a tropical country with excellent environmental conditions for NBS, such as a rich biodiversity, extensive sun radiation, large photo periods (12 hours sun light), several natural wetlands, among others. We are progressing on data system information and legislation for NBS implementation.

Figure 5. Environmental education on recovered sites

The Colombian people have a strong environmental awareness and care deeply about the loss of biodiversity and natural areas. Likewise, the government at different level (National, regional, local), is improving the regulations and legislations that allow NBS in order to minimize the risks from flooding, landslides and flash flooding. In order to be more effective, stronger coordination is needed to embrace NBS and embed it within planning instruments that allow its articulation at all levels.

In this context the academic and scientific sector play an important role, working on the research and practical innovation needed to bring about change. In this sense, support and alliances with partners around the world is important. Universidad del Valle, based in Cali-Colombia, trough EIDENAR School and CINARA Institute of Engineering Faculty, has been working in the water sector for over 40 years. Univalle have a historical and long cooperation with the IHE Institute as academic partners.

Univalle and Dagma joined the Reconect project as International collaborators, meaning we can learn from the project’s consortium and adapt it to our own local problems with the support of international experts. This is a win-win situation where we can contribute our experience and knowledge, but we can also learn from the multidisciplinary Reconnect team. Finally, there is potential to upscale insights from the RECONECT project outcomes in guidelines and regulations that can contribute to Colombia and Cali’s institutional organizations.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos source©DAGMA

[1] Política nacional de cambio climático / Luis Gilberto Murillo, Ministro (2016 — :); [Eds.] Dirección de Cambio Climático: Florián Buitrago, Maritza; Pabón Restrepo, Giovanni Andrés; Pérez Álvarez, Paulo Andrés; Rojas Laserna, Mariana; Suárez Castaño, Rodrigo. — — Bogotá, D. C.: Colombia. Ministerio de Ambiente y Desarrollo Sostenible, 2017.

[2] https://www.minambiente.gov.co/index.php/politica-nacional-de-cambio-climatico

The RECONECT project demonstrates the effectiveness of Nature-Based Solutions for hydro-meteorological risk reduction in rural and natural areas www.reconect.eu