Water security for whom?
Social and material perspectives on inequality around multipurpose reservoirs in Colombia

THESys Project

Información en español abajo | Spanish project description below

Water for Whom investigates in/equalities in water security across the water-energy-food nexus focusing on the case of multipurpose reservoirs in Colombia. Building on the large body of literature on conflicts surrounding the construction of hydropower dams, the project advances research on the post-construction phase of multipurpose reservoirs and in post-conflict societies.

Dams – like many other man-made and ‘natural’ interventions – reconfigure social-ecological systems as much in material as they do in social terms. It is thus an understanding of socio-material dynamics that forms the basis of our research on how multipurpose dams reconfigure and may disrupt local livelihoods and water, energy and food sectors. Recognizing that the social-ecological impacts of dams – and their operation – are unequally distributed across social groups and geographies, by asking ‘water security for whom’ we seek to investigate how and to what extent water security of some social groups can come at the cost of water, or food/energy, insecurity of others. A key objective is to broaden the notion of equality from a social to a social-ecological concept operationalized through the concept of ‘hydrosocial territories’ and through a novel methodology of interdisciplinary integration and contrast. This new approach of ‘situated modelling’ is advanced and empirically tested to foster conversations between social and natural sciences and affected communities around predictive knowledge and water security.

Water for Whom brings together an interdisciplinary team of researchers from IRI THESys, the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana and the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais. The project is funded by the Volkswagen Foundation as part of the initiative “Global Issues – Integrating Different Perspectives on Social Inequality”.

Project Team

PIs: Prof. Tobias Krüger (IRI THESys), Prof. Cesar Ortiz-Guerrero (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana), Prof. Leticia Santos de Lima (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais)

Co-PIs: Prof. Jörg Niewöhner (IRI THESys), Prof. Patrick Hostert (IRI THESys), Prof. Efraín Dominguez Calle (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana), Prof. Daniel Castillo Brieva (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana), Prof. Aline Mahalhães (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais), Prof. Raoni Rajão (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais), Prof. Nilo Nascimiento (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais)

Postdocs: Dr. Rossella Alba (IRI THESys), Dr. Phillip Rufin (Humboldt-Universität)

Doctoral researchers: Masiel Melissa Pereira Prado (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana), Úrsula Jaramillo Villa (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana), Camila Jiménez (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana), Caroline Salomão (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais), Thaís Oliveira (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais), Laura Pulgarin Morales (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana), Laura Betancur Alarcón (IRI THESys)

Affiliated researchers: Dr. Tatiana González-Grandón (Europa-Universität Flensburg), Johannes Schwenzer (Europa-Universität Viadrina Frankfurt)

Project Partners

  • Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin – Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human-Environment-Systems (IRI THESys)
  • Pontificia Universidad Javeriana – Faculty of Environmental and Rural Studies Rural and Regional Development Department
  • Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais – Hydraulics Engineering and Water Resources Department, Escola de Engenharia


CAPAZ grant for “Thinking with Rivers for Environmental Peace”

The German Colombian Peace Institute (CAPAZ) selected the project “Thinking with Rivers for Environmental Peace: Community strategies for the defense of four rivers of the Magdalena-Cauca macro-basin in Colombia” for a small grant from 2023 and 2014. IRI THESys is the German partner for this initiative through the “Water Security for Whom” project and THESys doctoral researcher Laura Betancur.

The resources will allow diverse activities with citizen groups living along the riverbanks, who are in need to deploy socio legal strategies for the defense of their rivers and waters. The activities will be developed together with the Colombian universities: Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, Universidad de Caldas, and UniClaretiana; the NGO Instituto Popular de Capacitación (Colombia), and Wageningen University (The Netherlands). As for IRI THESys, this action-research initiative will further strengthen the collaboration with the communities of the Sogamoso River, in the low valleys of central Colombia.

Perspectives on Social Inequality and Wealth” Symposium

On the 4th and 5th of October 2023 the ‘Water Security for Whom?’ team participated in the symposium “Perspectives on Social Inequality and Wealth”. Organized by the Volkswagen Foundation at the Xplanatorium in Hannover, the symposium was an occasion to get to know other projects and teams funded under the same program and to learn about the many different concepts and methods one can employ to research social inequalities.

Towards a reflexive approach: Connecting critical research on water modelling

On the 19th and 20th of January an interdisciplinary group of 40 researchers gathered online to exchange experiences in researching and developing models to study water distributions and governance. The event was an opportunity to present on-going research projects and gauge interest for future collaboration. More activities will follow. Stay tuned!

When drinking a glass of water or walking on the banks of a river, one hardly thinks about numerical models, algorithms and lines of codes. And yet, models are widely used in the management, governance and study of water flows. They vary from Agent-Based Models, Bayesian Belief Networks but also 3D models and serve different purposes, from simulating and mimicking a known-situation, for instance by simulating water distributions, to exploring unknown situations through scenario-building. Some are used to support existing paradigms while others believe they are instrumental in fostering progressive water governance.

In short, there is a multitude of models and usages. However, there are relatively few studies interrogating the roles of models in water management and governance. Encouraged by increased engagement between natural and social scientists in the water sector, and as a follow up of the socio-hydrology conference held in Delft in 2021 we gathered with an interdisciplinary group of early career and senior researchers. The event was co-organized by the Hydrology and Society group at IRI THESys, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the Water Resources Management Group of Wageningen University. In the workshop, we shared experiences and examples of critical, creative and reflexive engagement with modelling water use and governance.

The first day of the workshop was focused on ‘opening the black box’ of numerical modelling. Presentations covered issues related with the process of modelmaking including computer code development and automatization processes. Participants shared reflections on how specific ways of understanding relations between water and society are embedded and fostered through numerical models. This connects with the idea that a model can contribute to making certain processes or problems visible or invisible, and certain (water) management options seemingly more favorable than others. In the workshop, participants shared interesting examples of these dynamics. For instance, in Mexico, a model was developed to inform policies on the filling of a reservoir, based on the question of how deep the reservoir should be to allow for inter-basin transfers. None of the scenarios that were modelled provided an option in which a village in the intended reservoir, Temacapulín, could be saved from inundation. The different scenarios were questioned by IHE Delft researchers (Godinez-Madrigal, Van Cauwenbergh & van der Zaag, 2019; 2020). The team modelled alternative scenarios with the villagers, and through this engagement were able to raise questions about the intended inter-basin transfers with the decision makers. Ultimately, the village was not flooded.

During the second day, participants shared their experiences in developing models through interdisciplinary scientific collaborations. One such collaboration was between hydrologists, climatologists, and politic-ecology scholars to explore if critical modelling, based on an integral approach to Nature-Society would result in different ideas about how future hydroclimatic extremes could possibly impact societies.

The presentations and discussions emphasized that interdisciplinary cooperation requires time, trust, and curiosity to engage with different ways of seeing the world and understanding science, and showed how models can be useful tools to bring natural and social sciences together. The workshop was not complete without discussing participatory modelling. A highlight we note is a project that engages with theatre and science to discuss the possible impacts of climate change and strategies to engage with this.

The presentations confirmed that models can be many different things. They can be powerful tools to coordinate divergent datasets, to imagine and predict possible futures. They can be communication tools, as well as tools that help to think collaboratively. Models can be tools to legitimize decisions, world-making as well as truth-making machines. Although all these models are different, and their aims vary, they all have a ‘social life’: their development and application is for instance shaped by modelers’ choices, by the technologies used for modelling (i.e. codes, computing power), and by requests and expectations of funders stakeholders involved in the modelling (i.e. water users). These choices and influences matter, and this calls for a reflexive approach as to why, how, and for what purposes models are developed and used by whom.

All the participants – modelers and non-modelers alike – underlined the need for further collaboration and exchange across social and natural sciences in relations to modelling practices and use in water research and policy making. There was both a wish to understand the power of models, perhaps as a critique, and a wish to engage with modelling from a constructive perspective to interrogate how numerical models may help to foster transformative pathways towards more just and equitable water distributions. How can the impacts of (the use) of models be further researched? How could limitations and possibly unwanted side-effects of modelling be identified? What are the impacts of specific modelling practices on different groups of people and the environment? To this end, several suggestions were put forward including the need to foster a safe space for interdisciplinary exchanges and joint learning while being mindful of differences in vocabulary, as well as for remaining curious to explore fundamental epistemological and ontological questions related with modelling water(s).

There are numerous societal and scientific questions that remain still to be explored related to models, water and society. The discussions and reflections will continue, in the form of discussion groups, publications, and explorations to develop collaborative interdisciplinary projects in the near future. In case you are interested to join this group and the follow up activities, please reach out to the organisers: Rozemarijn ter Horst () and Rossella Alba ()

The event was co-organized by the Hydrology and Society group at IRI THESys, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the Water Resources Management Group of Wageningen University.

You can find the call for participation (PDF) and the full programme by clicking this link. In case there are any questions on specific presentations, please feel free to reach out to the presenter directly or via the organisers.


Godinez-Madrigal, J., Van Cauwenbergh, N., & van der Zaag, P. (2019). Production of competing water knowledge in the face of water crises: Revisiting the IWRM success story of the Lerma-Chapala Basin, Mexico. Geoforum, 103, 3-15.

Godinez-Madrigal, J., Van Cauwenbergh, N., & van der Zaag, P. (2020). Unraveling intractable water conflicts: the entanglement of science and politics in decision-making on large hydraulic infrastructure. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, 24(10), 4903-4921.

Photo by Peggy2012CREATIVELENZ

Exploring Colombia’s Hydro-Social Territories: First fieldwork of the Water Security for Whom project

The ‘Water Security for Whom?’ project started fieldwork activities in Colombia in November 2021. Our partners from Pontificia Universidad Javeriana (Colombia) and Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (Brazil) traveled to Huila, Santander, and Córdoba, the three regions of our case studies. 

The research team traveled across three regions in Colombia. From left to right: Úrsula Jaramillo Villa, Caroline Salomão, Cesar Ortiz Guerrero, Laura Pulgarín Morales, Camila Jiménez, Masiel Melissa Pereira Prado, and Thais Oliveira de Oliveira. Credit: Letícia Santos de Lima.

From tropical dry forests in central Colombia to the rainforest in the north of the country, eight members of the Water4Whom project carried out exploratory fieldwork visits in the three case studies. Our interdisciplinary research project investigates water security and socio-material inequalities around multipurpose reservoirs.

During the three-week fieldwork, the researchers traveled across more than ten municipalities in three different provinces to know by first-hand the experiences of downstream communities, fishers’ associations, local universities, energy companies, and other key actors in these regions.

The dams studied by the project respond to different phases of Colombia’s energy expansion and environmental regulations. Above: Topocoro dam (Hidrosogamoso). Credit: Letícia Santos de Lima.

The aim was to start understanding how the construction and operation of Hidrosogamoso (Santander), Urrá (Córdoba) and El Quimbo – Betania (Huila) dams and their hydropower plants influence livelihoods, water access and other socio-ecological changes in the regions. After almost a year of online events, the fieldwork was also an opportunity for team members to meet in person and explore linkages between their doctoral research projects.

Professors Cesar Ortiz-Guerrero (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana) and Letícia Santos de Lima (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais – IRI THESys alumni) led the visits together with the doctoral researchers: Úrsula Jaramillo Villa, Masiel Melissa Pereira Prado, Camila Jiménez, Caroline Salomão, Thais Oliveira de Oliveira, and Laura Pulgarín Morales.

Fish farming near or within the Betania dam has been an important economic activity in Huila region since the construction of the dam 35 years ago, but at the same time has also been a driver of aquatic pollution concerns. Credit: Letícia Santos de Lima.

After the fieldwork, the research team underscored the three cases’ socio, ecological, and political differences. “It was remarkable to see the contrasts in the three cases. For instance, differences in water quality in the reservoirs are linked to the environmental regulations in place when dams were built, but also to the boom of aquaculture in some regions rather than others”, explained Camila Jiménez (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana), whose research focuses on hydrological analysis.

Úrsula Jaramillo (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana), who is delving into governance systems, added that the role of the companies managing the dams and how they engage with local inhabitants and indigenous communities is another crucial aspect of identifying the different trajectories of these large infrastructures and their impacts on water access and distribution.

“From the visits, I witnessed how the consequences of these dams are concentrated in the most vulnerable communities,” highlighted Thais Oliveira (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais). In the same vein, Prof. Cesar Ortiz-Guerrero explained that these visits prompt the team to further analyze the interlinkages among power, equity and ethnicity.

Doctoral researchers got to know local stories in Córdoba region, where Urrá dam was built in the ‘90s. Credit: Letícia Santos de Lima.

Besides identifying the local impacts, the research team learned about community-based responses to socio-ecological changes in the territories. In Córdoba province, they met the Association of Fishermen, Farmers, Indigenous and Afro-descendant Community Development of the Bajo Sinu Ciénaga Grande (ASPROCIG, for its acronym in Spanish) and its Family​ ​Biodiverse​ ​Agroecosystems​ ​(ABIF), home-based and communal strategies designed to improve food sovereignty and household income.

In Huila, researchers met with Asoquimbo, a local association that works with communities to guarantee their rights related to the impacts imposed by the construction of El Quimbo dam. As with other adaptative responses, these local initiatives are valuable signs to trace the capacities to aspire of inhabitants impacted by large energy infrastructures.

The Water4Whom project will continue developing fieldwork activities in the next three following years. Get to know more about the project (also in Spanish) here and follow our conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #Water4Whom.

By Laura Betancur Alarcón

23.03.2023, press release
HU-Wissenschaftler:innen erforschen im Water4Whom-Projekt mit Unterstützung der Volkswagenstiftung die Auswirkungen von Mega-Staudämmen in Kolumbien.

Kolumbianische Wasserwirtschaft: HU-Geographen erforschen Mega-Staudämme
Staudämme erzeugen grüne Energie, doch können auch der lokalen Umwelt und Anwohnern schaden. Geographen der Humboldt-Uni untersuchen diese Problemlage am Beispiel Kolumbien.

Información en español  | Spanish project information

Seguridad hídrica, ¿para quién?
Perspectivas sociales y materiales sobre la desigualdad en torno a los embalses multipropósito en Colombia

El proyecto ‘Agua, ¿para quién?’ investiga las des/igualdades e in/equidades en la seguridad hídrica a través del nexo agua-energía-alimentación, enfocándose en el caso de embalses multipropósito en Colombia. Partiendo de la extensa literatura sobre conflictos en torno a la construcción de presas hidroeléctricas, el proyecto busca profundizar respecto a la fase posterior a la construcción de embalses multipropósito y en sociedades en situación de posconflicto.

Las presas, al igual que muchas otras intervenciones artificiales y ‘naturales’, reconfiguran los sistemas socio-ecológicos tanto en términos materiales como sociales. Por lo tanto, entender las dinámicas socio-materiales es crucial para analizar cómo las presas multipropósito reconfiguran y pueden perturbar e influir en los medios de vida locales y los sectores del agua, la energía y la producción de alimentos.

Reconociendo que los impactos socio-ecológicos de las presas -y su funcionamiento- se distribuyen de forma desigual entre los grupos sociales y las distintas geografías, al preguntarnos ¿para quién es la seguridad hídrica? investigamos cómo y hasta qué punto la seguridad hídrica de algunos grupos sociales puede generarse a costa de la inseguridad hídrica, alimentaria o energética, de otros.

En este contexto, un objetivo clave del proyecto es ampliar la noción de igualdad y equidad de una mirada meramente social a una conceptualización socio-ecológica, a través del concepto de ‘territorios hidrosociales’ y de una metodología novedosa de integración y contraste interdisciplinario. Este nuevo enfoque de ‘modelación situada’ se implementa y pone a prueba empíricamente para fomentar el diálogo entre las ciencias sociales y naturales y las comunidades afectadas en relación con el conocimiento predictivo y la seguridad hídrica.

‘Agua, ¿para quién?’ reúne a un equipo interdisciplinar de investigadores del IRI THESys (Alemania), la Pontificia Universidad Javeriana (Colombia) y la Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (Brasil).

El proyecto está financiado por la Fundación Volkswagen en el marco de la iniciativa: ‘Cuestiones globales – Integrando diferentes perspectivas sobre la desigualdad social’.

Equipo del proyecto

Líderes: Prof. Tobias Krüger, (IRI THESys), Prof. Cesar Ortiz-Guerrero (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana), Prof. Leticia Santos de Lima (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais)

Co-líderes: Prof. Jörg Niewöhner (IRI THESys), Prof. Patrick Hostert (IRI THESys), Prof. Daniel Castillo Brieva (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana), Prof. Efraín Dominguez Calle (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana), Prof. Aline Mahalhães (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais), Prof. Raoni Rajão (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais), Prof. Nilo Nascimiento (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais)

Investigadores pos-doctorales: Dr. Rossella Alba (IRI THESys), Dr. Phillip Rufin (Humboldt-Universität)

Investigadoras /candidatas a doctoras: Masiel Melissa Pereira Prado (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana), Úrsula Jaramillo Villa (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana), Camila Jiménez (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana), Caroline Salomão (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais), Thaís Oliveira (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais), Laura Pulgarín Morales (Pontificia Universidad Javeriana), Laura Betancur Alarcón (IRI THESys)

Socios del proyecto

WaterLandClimateInfrastructure & Energy