Transformative Water Pact

Cathy Holt
5 min readOct 26, 2023
Paramo Santurban

This 2023 Pact was the result of a UN conference to set up a framework for just water governance in Colombia. Many NGOs and governmental bodies are partners, including International Rivers, Riverhood, Water and Development Partnership, Alianza Abrazar al Rio, Fundacion Plurales, among others. The gathering was called in response to the recognition that there is a water crisis, an environmental justice crisis.

Goals of the 2023 Water Pact:

1. Articulate a framework for water government with environmental justice.

2. Consolidate progressive actors and movements with a shared vision of water governance.

3. Guide decision making and increase trans-disciplinary learning among groups.

Key principles:

1. Recognize water as essential for all life, prioritize water bodies and ecosystems

2. Recognize that water has cultural, indigenous, social, and spiritual value

3. See water as a commons, with local communities as custodians of knowledge for its care

4. Protect and enforce human rights to water, sanitation, a sustainable environment, the rights of indigenous and women

5. See the current crises of water quality and access as related to extractivism, deforestation, biodiversity loss, intensive agriculture, industrial groundwater extraction, corruption, and climate change

6. Recognize that unequal power and injustice have led to the maldistribution of water, to the detriment of women, the marginalized, the poor, and the indigenous

7. The crisis has roots in capitalism, colonialism, privatization, patriarchy

8. Responsibility for change lies with multinational corporations and elites

9. Public institutions must be responsive, progressive, collaborative

10. Need for safe civic space with inclusive, just decision making

Water mismanagement

Latin America has one-third of the world’s fresh water (mostly from the Amazon basin); yet one-fourth of the population suffer from water scarcity due to mismanagement. This is true in Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Chile and Brazil. Rivers and lakes are contaminated by mining and degraded ecosystems. 20 million hectares have been polluted due to agribusiness and livestock.

Colombia is one of the 9 countries with the most water, but a third of the population suffers water stress. The indigenous suffer most, because mining is poorly regulated and mercury contamination results. One-third of the paramos (over 3,000 meters high, with many springs, a key source of freshwater) have already been lost. Now under threat from gold mining are the Paramo de Santurban and Complejo de Paramos, Los Nevados. There is presently litigation to prevent mining in the paramos, to protect the water supply for two million people. There are also hundreds of threatened species, including the ojo de anteojos (spectacled bear).

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the home of four indigenous peoples, including the Kogi and Arahuaca. 92% of the snow cover/glaciers of Sierra Nevada has been lost.

An Arahuaca leader said, “Water is female, the veins of our Mother, our blood, that feeds all of life. It’s not a ‘resource.’ Water is integral to Mother Earth; we cannot let foreign investors come and damage water.”

Rights of Nature

Atrato River

Four years ago, the Atrato River in Colombia was granted the rights of personhood. This was the first river in South America and the third river in the world ever to be granted such rights. 700 km long, the Atrato flows to the Atlantic. In the Department of Choco, the river is key for transportation, food, and basic services; now, this river has official guardians. And yet, there is still illegal mining, extraction, and contamination. The “less developed” countries are too easily exploited by the “developed.” Power follows money. When water is seen as a commodity, local communities are pushed out.

For fair water governance, a longer-term focus is needed. Governments must not give privileges to corporations, but instead care for the more than human world, making the right to water and fair water governance a guiding principle. Knowledge must be interchanged among academics, NGOs, and government so that Colombia’s biodiversity can be protected.

Community Needs vs. Industry

In Colombia there are 95 cases in which indigenous and peasants’ water is threatened; 45 are in the Andes, 23 on the Caribbean coast. These regions hold 90% of Colombia’s inhabitants and are also rich in fossil fuels. Social movements are crucial to stop the exploitation; strikes and blockades have taken place. Between 2011 and 2014, unfortunately, many small gold miners sold their rights and multinationals moved in. The government protected less than half of the ecosystems.

Businesses must be legally accountable. Women are doing water monitoring because in many areas their families’ health and agriculture are affected by water pollution; yet the “tests” done by industry say that contamination is within normal limits. We must value the inputs of the marginalized.

AIDA (Inter-American Association for Environmental Defense) promotes policies that protect the environment and indigenous communities. Xeny Junco of AIDA pointed out that the water cycle is delicate; the Colombian government must implement agreements for a national development plan for water, honoring societal and biophysical aspects, communities, and ethnic groups.

Artisanal Mining and Illegal Mining

Decisions made in Santander will affect 34 other paramos. In 2016, Judgment C-035 prohibited any mining. Many feel that it’s unfair for the government to demonize small, artisanal miners, many of whom see it as their only option for survival, while giving rights to multinationals. There are an estimated 34,000 Colombians who depend on Artisanal/Small Scale Mining (ASM), a practice since the 1600’s. FARC and other armed groups also want to mine — it’s seen as easy money. Illegal mining is more profitable than cocaine, and since it’s illegal there is no regulation.

Andean philosophy

Andean traditional philosophy recognizes complementarity and reciprocity: use of water implies responsibility to protect and care for it. Andean concepts of justice place the collective good above that of the individual. We must defend the sacred space of the pueblos and ancestral wisdom caring for water; water use must honor indigenous practices and their relationship with nature.



Cathy Holt

Cathy has been living in Colombia for 2 years. She’s passionate about regenerating landscapes with water retention, agro-forestry, and biogas digestors.