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Social mobilizations, environmental and water democracy in Spain and Colombia

February 17, 2023 @ 3:00 pm - 4:30 pm CET

This webinar session explored some key questions around water issues, by bringing to the table experiences from civil water networks and movements. How can researchers and activists interact and collaborate in the generation of shared knowledge and understanding of our socio-political-ecological environments? How is information produced and reproduced and how can it be transformed into actionable knowledge? The experience of water-related networked citizen organizations (Citizen water networks) and the New Water Culture Foundation (Fundación Nueva Cultura del Agua or FNCA) in Spain can provide some relevant insights. These networks are coalitions of environmental groups, citizen organizations, activists, scholars, local municipalities, and other actors organized to defend the patrimonial values associated with water and river ecosystems.

In this webinar, Nuria presented the Spanish context for water management which has been characterized in the last decades by the strong presence of the public sector in water allocation and management, along with a decentralization process that ended up with the creation of 17 autonomous regions and 13 +8 river basins districts. Most of the Spanish National Hydrologic plans sought to distribute evenly water among the different river basins especially to balance the extra water offered in northern Spain to the water deficit suffered in southern Spain. Therefore, several mega hydraulic works have been built to make interbasin water transfers possible. These decisions were taken with a closed political agenda, mostly ignoring the voices and knowledge of the affected people. In 2001, the announcement of the water transfer from the Ebro river to the south unleashed national social mobilization and contestations. The emerging riots claimed a fair water democracy in which different opinions from the people were included in the new water policies. Thus, the new water culture movement arose, it is a coalition between scholars and local social struggles. During the last twenty years, this movement has been questioning traditional authority, contesting dominant discourses and values, and creating alternatives and approaches to include emotional, cultural, ecological, caring, and dignity values in the hydro-socio territorial plans. These new proposals have been supported by the European Commission and the Water Directive Framework. Figure 1 shows the water paradigm shift proposed by the New Water Culture.

Figure 1. Priorities and values in evolution

In Colombia, the formation of these diverse justice networks is more recent. They have emerged in the last 10 years. Ana’s presentation rose questions such as, How can legal mobilization contribute to advancing environmental justice? What is the role of academia in such strategies? What are the main challenges of doing politically engaged research?

The case for the defense of La Miel river shed some light on understanding how those queries play out in the resistance against hydroelectric projects. In the East of the Caldas (Colombia), peasant communities have organized and mobilized to reject the construction of new hydroelectric projects in their territory. For the defense of La Miel river, they have created alliances with environmental groups, academics, and lawyers and have filed several legal actions such as ‘tutela’ and popular actions. Cooperation between social movements and academia can potentially strengthen Grassroots Water Justice Movements. However, such alliances do not come free from challenges and dilemmas: What to do if your research is disregarded for being ‘too political’ or biased? What are the implications of translating complex social realities into legal texts? How to deal with unequal power relations within communities? How to deal with your privilege? This presentation invited us to think about those questions, which are relevant for researchers seeking to create bridges between academia and social movements.

Ana’s heart research is to understand the different ways in which law is mobilizing social contestations. In this sense, water democracy in Colombia is being shaped by the mobilization of peasants, indigenous, and affected inhabitants by the construction of the hydraulic project. Popular consultation is a legal and participatory mechanism often used by local communities to protect their territorial, environmental, and social rights against the arrival of new projects in their living places.

For further information on the presented cases, please download here the presentations:

Ana Arbelaez Trujillo   

Nuria Hernandez-Mora


  • Nuria Hernandez-Mora

Researcher, consultant and activist – Fundación Nueva Cultura del Agua, Spain

Nuria Hernández-Mora is a researcher, consultant and activist. Her work focuses on water governance, policy evaluation and design, institutional analysis, water economics, public participation and drought and scarcity in Spain and the EU.

  • Ana Arbelaez Trujillo

PhD researcher, Riverhood – Wageningen University

Ana María Arbeláez-Trujillo is an Environmental Lawyer and PhD Researcher at WUR (part of the Riverhood project). Her research interests include environmental justice, political ecology, rural development, and critical legal studies.

  • Rutgerd Boelens

Professor – Wageningen University and CEDLA University of Amsterdam

Rutgerd is professor at Wageningen University and CEDLA University of Amsterdam. His research focuses on political ecology, water governance, cultural politics, governmentality and social mobilization. He coordinates the Justicia Hídrica alliance and the Riverhood and River Commons programs.