Master Plan Cauca River

Conservation Corridor and Sustainable Use of the River Cauca system

Posted on 24 August 2015


The Netherlands and Colombia are faced with similar challenges when it comes to water management. In the aftermath of the floods, the Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos began to look for a suitable partner to help with this challenge, and he quickly found that the Netherlands was the best option. The Dutch
programme Room for the River offers an innovative vision of water management. It reduces flood risks by creating room for the water instead of making rivers narrower by funnelling them through dikes which are becoming higher and higher. Not only that, the project also cooperates with stakeholders with whom it develops innovative solutions that make a positive contribution to nature, recreational activities and other areas.

Building with Nature is the design of infrastructures in accordance with natural processes rather than acting against them. Created in the Netherlands by companies, government agencies and knowledge institutes, this idea, together with the concepts of Living with Water and Room for the River, forms the essence of a transcendental plan currently in progress in Colombia: the ‘Conservation Corridor and Sustainable Use of the River Cauca system’.

The plan aims to give this river, of immense importance for the Valle Department, a second chance of life. As Maria Clemencia Sandoval, project coordinator from the Regional Autonomous Corporation of Valle del Cauca, CVC, explains: “With Dutch technical assistance led by Klaas de Groot, an engineer and representative of ARCADIS, we seek to recover eco-systems as wetlands, to strengthen river management and, as the main goal, to reduce flooding such as the ones that struck the region between 2010 and 2011. It is a long-term exercise and will form the basis of Organisation and Management schemes for the basins located in the upper valley of the river.

The plan includes the construction of two dykes to protect Cali and the municipality of La Victoria. Other challenges will be to overcome the problems of river drainage and recover its floodplains so that the natural flow of the river no longer poses a threat. Dutch expertise in inter-agency co-ordination and long-term planning has been instrumental in shaping this project.” 

Klaas de Groot, senior advisor at design & consultancy firm ARCADIS, is the project leader from the Dutch team. Louis Bijlmakers is the cooperation manager at the Dutch water board Waterschap de Dommel. They talk about their experiences in Colombia.

Klaas: “It is an integrated plan which aims to limit the flood risk from the Cauca River and at the same time allows the river ecosystem to recover. The Master Plan will be ready by the end of September. It will act as a guide for measures to be taken in the coming fifty years. The plan is based on the Dutch three-level integrated approach, focusing on substantial, institutional and relational levels.” 
Louis: “The Dutch water board Waterschap de Dommel is mostly involved on the institutional side: how do you organise water management in cooperation with responsible governments and all the other concerned parties? And then there is the main question: how do you sustainably manage the water infrastructure?” 

Klaas: “You need to know a lot about the physical system, the ecosystem and the socio-economic system. That’s basic knowledge. Besides this, you have to deal with a range of different parties that are involved in the project. Who is responsible for what and which parties have to deal with the water? You don’t want to go against the interests of farmers or city dwellers. For example, the city of Cali is growing on both sides of the Cauca River. Given this situation, how can you make sure that there is enough room for the river so that it doesn’t flood when water levels are high?” 

Klaas: “The Dutch river basins and the area around the Cauca River are similar in many respects, so our years of experience with the Room for the River programme were a deciding factor. The programme has gained worldwide recognition, as we were able to successfully limit the risk of flooding using an integrated approach.” 
Louis: “Due to its long history of water management, the Netherlands has built up years of experience in this area. In Colombia, water is managed mainly by volunteers and local initiatives, but these initiatives need to be professionalised in order to ensure that water is managed efficiently. Dutch water authorities can make their own contribution to this development by taking on the role of discussion partner.”
Klaas: “I hope that the work we have done in this project istestament to the expertise we have back in the Netherlands and will create opportunities to carry out similar projects for other areas. It would also be great if we have the chance to develop and implement parts of the Master Plan.”

Klaas: “Colombians are extremely driven. They know what they want and are prepared to work hard for it. Cooperation is crucial if goals are to be met, and that is reflected in the way in which they involve the different stakeholders in the project.” 
Louis: “While the Dutch and Colombians are confronted with the same challenges, the situations are very different. In the Netherlands, we are looking to give more freedom to local initiatives, whereas in Colombia the government could take on a greater role. This is definitely an area where we can learn from each other.”

Project location

Project partners

  • Arcadis Nederland B.V.
  • Deltares
  • Dutch Water Authorities | Unie van Waterschappen