River commons are networked socio-ecological systems that integrate the social (human) and natural (ecological, biophysical) communities to practice river stewardship based on their mutual interdependence on shared riverine livelihood interests, knowledge and values. Throughout the past decade, in both the Global South and North, a large variety of civil organisations and “new water justice movements” have emerged that engage in co-governance of river commons. These grounded river co-governance initiatives deploy innovative strategies and proposals ranging from “river rewilding” to re-generating and re-animating river systems in its broadest sense; from new rules for catchment co-governance to creative, pluralist water management regimes.
The River Commons research and action program is about learning from and with river co-governance initiatives and riverine communities, which are often sidelined in conventional water management approaches. Top-down and more technocratic approaches around the world have tended to overlook or consciously disregard the critical role of local actors and organisations. As a result, their interventions often affect watersheds, river flows, water quality and river communities negatively. In this context, River Commons aims to redirect the focus: understanding and supporting innovative river co-governance initiatives.
The project’s central question is: How do innovative river co-governance initiatives dynamize river commons and regenerate river ecologies, and which transdisciplinary concepts, methodological tools, and learning configurations can help support those river commoning and co-governance initiatives?
Develop and employ transdisciplinary concepts and methodological tools for research, education and multistakeholder interaction, to understand and support innovative river co-governance initiatives and so contribute to equitable policies and sustainable socio-ecological river systems.
To study the project’s central question and pursue its objectives, PhD researchers together with local stakeholders investigate nine cases in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe, where local communities and organisations co-govern their riverine environment.
The overall project as well as the PhD studies are guided by a framework that encompasses four dimensions of river systems: (1) River-as-Ecosociety (2) River-as-Territory, (3) River-as-Subject and (4) River-as-Movement. All four dimensions and mutual dynamics are studied in an inter-/transdisciplinary way. You can find further information on the framework here.
Furthermore, in the course of the project, River Co-governance Labs (RCLs) are employed. Based on ideas from citizen science, social and transformative learning, and participatory action research, these interactive spaces are developed with diverse local stakeholders in order to co-create knowledge and action for equitable and sustainable river commons.
Project duration: 01 September 2021 to 31 August 2026 (60 months)
Project funding: River Commons is funded by the Wageningen Interdisciplinary Research and Education Fund (INREF).
photo by Laura Giraldo-Martinez
The River Commons project includes nine PhD projects that study river commoning practices in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe, in a participatory way. Each research project investigates a particular river system, its actors, dynamics and historic and current governance approaches, with an emphasis on grassroots initiatives and interactions. Methodologically, participatory approaches and specifically the initiation of River Co-Governance Labs are key to all projects. The PhD researchers together with local stakeholders will organize interaction, exchange and co-production of knowledge within and across cases and countries. This will promote cross-continental insights and the formation of an international river commons network. The focus is on research and action.
Browse the research projects below:
photo by Laura Giraldo-Martinez
The central activities of River Commons include:
Find more information on PhD Projects.
River Co-governance Labs
The River Co-governance Labs (RCLs) will be implemented in each case study site together with riverine stakeholders and researchers, and aim to foster collaborative research, action and dissemination. Each RCL will include participatory co-design, implementation, evaluation, refinement, dissemination and replication of innovate co-governance strategies and action proposals to achieve real impact in the case sites and beyond. To enhance this collaborative and co-creative setting, interaction at the international virtual River Commons platform will facilitate continuous cross-case exchange and multi-scale engagement among the PhD projects and among the RCLs.
In 2022, there was a collective summer school for all PhD students from the River Commons and Riverhood projects. It comprised training sessions on various topics and skills such as in water governance and ecology, participatory action research and visual research methods.
Joint PhD-Secondments School
After the summer school, PhD students had the opportunity to put the acquired knowledge and skills into practice right away, during a secondment. For 3 months, they learned about and did research together on the Meuse River and the Biesbosch Delta, in the Netherlands.
All Spanish-speaking students also traveled to Spain to further practice and consolidate their skills. Hosted by the New Water Culture Foundation and the Polytechnic University of Valencia, they engaged in action research with the Serpis River (Spain) platform as another case of local reclaiming of river commons.
International Master students exchange programme
This master programme focus on participatory research, education, and awareness-raising on river commons. You can find more information here.
Integration and dissemination
Integration and comparison of insights from the different case studies, as well as dissemination of findings through scientific articles, movies, policy papers, this website and others, are constantly being done by the project staff and postdoc researchers throughout the project. You can find all outputs under publications.
photo by Laura Giraldo-Martinez
ABSTRACT: Megadams are controversial ventures. Despite their contentious benefits, the negative impacts on local communities are enormous. This has prompted substantial disapproval and resistance, particularly from the communities that endure the most of its adverse effects. While many megadams have been constructed in the face of opposition, others have been halted or altered as a result of the fierce protests of affected people and their allies. A better understanding of the latter is key to promoting equitable and just water governance throughout the implementation of hydraulic infrastructure. Based on ethnographic and historical research carried out between 2014 and 2017, the article shows the power relations, social actors and historical-contextual factors that have influenced the development of the Daule-Peripa and Baba megadams on the Ecuadorian coast. From a political ecology and subaltern studies perspective, this article describes and analyses the social, territorial, and historical interconnectedness of the local communities of Patricia Pilar and Daule-Peripa dam in coastal Ecuador that successfully stopped the construction of a dam and had a great influence on its final hydraulic design. I argue that, given the adequate socio-political conditions and a systematic process of knowledge and experience exchange among affected communities, anti-dam struggles can emerge with significant capacity to influence in their favour the megadam implementation processes and other hydraulic infrastructures.
ABSTRACT: Preserving cultural heritage and achieving the Sustainable Development Goal of protecting life below water do not always go hand in hand. The case of the Serpis River sheds light on the political, cultural and legal tensions that may arise when pursuing these two policy goals. To better understand these tensions, we propose acknowledging that rivers are complex natural-cultural systems imagined and shaped through various actors’ values, interests, practices and infrastructures (Boelens et al. 2016). River restoration initiatives generate divisions between actors and institutions with different ways of defining and valuing natural and cultural heritage.
ABSTRACT: This paper examines how utopian river planning has arisen in Colombia and Spain since the late nineteenth century. Specifically, the paper contributes to understanding how particular ideologies of modernism and development present in territorial planning connect both countries. Taking Thomas More’s classic work ‘Utopia’ as the analytical reference, I analyze how utopian tendencies have traveled through time and space to shape territorial planning and water governance. In both countries, this was evident in the late nineteenth century through the political project to strengthen the nation state. For Spain, I describe the regenerationist movement and the hydraulic utopia led by the Spanish intellectual Joaquín Costa, who forged the dream of a water nationhood. By contrast, in Colombia, several political intellectuals looked at Europe and North America as a source of inspiration to achieve progress by controlling rivers. Through the method of disjunctive comparison, I show how the same utopian notions are expressed in similar ways in distinct contexts: violently governing the flows of rivers, standardizing minds and ordering territories towards capital growth. This paper contributes to grasping the notions and roots of the discourses that have colonized the political water agendas in both countries.
Hoogesteger, J., Suhardiman, D., Boelens, R., de Castro, F., Duarte-Abadía, B., Hidalgo-Bastidas, J. P., Liebrand, J.W., Hernández‐Mora, N., Manorom, K., Veldwisch, G.J. & Vos, J. (2023). River Commoning and the State: A Cross‐Country Analysis of River Defense Collectives. Politics and Governance, 11(2). https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v11i2.6316
ABSTRACT: Grassroots initiatives that aim to defend, protect, or restore rivers and riverine environments have proliferated around the world in the last three decades. Some of the most emblematic initiatives are anti-dam and anti-mining movements that have been framed, by and large, as civil society versus the state movements. In this article, we aim to bring nuance to such framings by analyzing broader and diverse river-commoning initiatives and the state–citizens relations that underlie them. To study these relations we build on notions of communality, grassroots scalar politics, rooted water collectives, and water justice movements, which we use to analyze several collective practices, initiatives, and movements that aim to protect rivers in Thailand, Spain, Ecuador, and Mozambique. The analysis of these cases shows the myriad ways in which river collectives engage with different manifestations of the state at multiple scales. As we show, while some collectives strategically remain unnoticed, others actively seek and create diverse spaces of engagement with like-minded citizen initiatives, supportive non-governmental organizations, and state actors. Through these relations, alliances are made and political space is sought to advance river commoning initiatives. This leads to a variety of context-specific multi-scalar state–citizens relations and river commoning processes in water governance arenas.
ABSTRACT: En las últimas dos décadas los fondos de agua (FA) han cobrado importancia como mecanismos de conservación del agua y sus fuentes. Éstos promueven una serie de acuerdos entre diversos actores que participan en diálogos sostenidos en contextos de alta desigualdad socioeconómica y política. Así, los FA han logrado conectar a poblaciones peri-urbanas y rurales, habitantes de ecosistemas hídricos estratégicos, con importantes usuarios del agua como ciudades, hidroeléctricas, empresas públicas, privadas y multinacionales, entre otras. Bajo el enfoque de justicia hídrica, este artículo analiza el tipo de participación que tienen los distintos actores involucrados en la co-creación de conocimientos en torno a la seguridad hídrica promovida por distintos FA. El artículo ilustra dos casos de estudio, el primero en Ecuador (Fondo de Manejo de Páramos Tungurahua y Lucha contra la Pobreza (FMPLPT) y el segundo en Colombia (Fondo de Agua de Bogotá). Concluimos que estos FA centran sus esfuerzos en contextos urbanos y poco miran la seguridad hídrica rural.
ABSTRACT: In this article we introduce the notion of imaginaries as a conceptual entry to study and better understand how and why commons re-create and transform. We do so by first exploring imaginaries as assemblages, and second by analytically dividing imaginaries in dominant and alternative imaginaries. While the former refer to how people imagine and live their social existence around built expectations and their underlying notions, the latter refers to imaginaries that critique instituted society and through it create ‘germs’ that can lead to transformation. Through this lens we analyze contestations that have emerged around the introduction of drip irrigation in two irrigation communities in the Valencia Region of Spain. These two case studies (Carcaixent and Potries) show how, among the commons, alternative imaginaries are challenging the dominant imaginaries of drip irrigation. We show how these alternative imaginaries result from a different way of assembling irrigation and the social, cultural, material, and economic relations around it. These insights, we argue, open up avenues that allow us to better understand the imaginary creations that reproduce a specific existing order, as well as the germ(s) that can lead to transformations and change.
How can we make sure there will still be tuna in our seas in the future? How should we tackle Panama disease, which threatens the banana as we know it? And how can palm oil producers in Indonesia and Thailand make a living in a sustainable way? These are just some examples of subjects investigated in the Interdisciplinary Research and Education Fund (INREF) of Wageningen University. All are linked to the major global issues concerning health, energy, food and water, captured by the UN in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This publication presents a selection of projects funded by INREF, including River Commons, which aim is to support the equitable co-governance of rivers.
The Secondment was a 2-month course designed to provide Riverhood and River Commons PhD students with action-research tools and experiences in preparation for their actual fieldwork in various countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. In this course, the PhDs developed a short-term action-action project in partnership with local initiatives and institutional actors working on the Meuse River, in the Netherlands. Three excursions, to different locations along the Meuse River, were organized as part of the groups’ assignments. The first excursion was to Limburg; the second, was to Brabant; and the last trip was to Biesbosch. Download here the photo report.
The Seminar Rivers, Commons, Movements took place in Valencia, Spain, and gathered scholars and PhD researchers who focus on theoretical and methodological concepts, strategies and experiences related to studying and supporting evolving ‘river commons’ and new water justice movements (NWJMs), to revitalise rivers. The seminar’s case presentations and research frames and proposals engaged with conceptualizing river systems in all senses, and understanding and supporting river knowledge co-creation and democratisation from the bottom up. Click here to download the Seminar Rivers, Commons, Movements Report.
World’s rivers are fundamental to social and natural well-being but profoundly affected by mega-damming and pollution. In response to top-down and technocratic approaches, in many places, riverine communities practice forms of ‘river co-governance’, integrating ecological, cultural, political, economic and technological dimensions. In addition, new water justice movements (NWJMs) have emerged worldwide to creatively transform local ideas for ‘enlivening rivers’ into global action and vice versa. The Summer School aimed to provide PhD students who conduct research on these ‘river commons’ and NWJMs with transdisciplinary concepts and approaches for studying their emerging ideas, concepts, proposals and strategies. The different sessions thereby focused on conceptualizing river systems in all senses, and capacity-building for (understanding and supporting) river knowledge co-creation and democratisation from the bottom up. Click here to download the Summer School Report.
ABSTRACT: Utopians organized space, nature and society to perfection, including land and water governance – rescuing society from deep-rooted crisis: “The happiest basis for a civilized community, to be universally adopted” (Thomas More, 1516). These days, similarly, well-intended utopian water governance regimes suggest radical transformations to combat the global Water Crisis, controlling deviant natures and humans. In this essay I examine water utopia and dystopia as mirror societies. Modern utopias ignore real-life water cultures, squeeze rivers dry, concentrate water for the few, and blame the victims. But water-user collectives, men and women, increasingly speak up. They ask scholars and students to help question Flying Islands experts’ claims to rationality, democracy and equity; to co-create water ontologies and epistemologies, and co-design water governance, building rooted socionatural commons, building “riverhood”.
ABSTRACT: Infrastructures and their roles and connections to and in territories and territorialization processes have increasingly become objects of study in political geography scholarship. In this contribution, we build on these emerging insights and advance them by further conceptually disentangling the agential role of infrastructure. We bring together the notions of territory, governmentality, imaginaries and subjectivities, to clarify how exactly hydraulic infrastructure acts to transform relations between space, people and materiality. We start by introducing territorialization as a process of ‘ordering things’ in a certain space and time through different techniques of government. We then show how, at the base of such territorialization processes, are imaginaries that contain normative ideas about how space and socio-territorial relations should be ordered. Imaginaries are consequently materialized through hydraulic infrastructure through the inscription of morals, values and norms in infrastructure design, construction and operation. This set of materialities and relations embedded in infrastructure brings changes to the existing relations between space, water and people. In particular, we highlight the repercussions of infrastructure for how people understand and relate to each other, the environment, water, technology and space: in other words, how subjectivities change as an effect of hydraulic infrastructure constitution. Last, we show how infrastructure and the related hydrosocial territories that develop around it are a dynamic arena of contestation and transformation. We argue that socio-material fractures, emerging counter-imaginaries and the disruptive capacities of subjectivities constantly challenge the ‘fixes’ that infrastructures aim to inscribe in hydrosocial territories. Throughout the paper, we use empirical examples from recent research on hydraulic infrastructure and territorial transformations to ground the conceptual ideas.
ABSTRACT: This article analyzes how smallholders of Subtanjalla, in coastal Peru, conceive irrigation water as a central element and carrier of hydrosocial relations and territories. We base our analysis on an exploration of the local notions of agua nueva and yocle. These two notions bind together time, space, nature and culture into specific understandings of territorial connections and reciprocities. Through these understandings water is much more than H2O. Instead of just representing an economic good or a material input for irrigated agriculture water is seen as a binding element that bridges and brings together the Andean world with that of Subtanjalla in the Peruvian coast. Water is, from this perspective, a lively and always in-the-making composition of humans, non-humans, and more-than-humans in which there is no clear distinction between nature and culture, past and present, object and subject. We argue that water as an assemblage opens up now lines of inquiry into hydrosocial territories and relations across time and space through the departure of a fundamentally relational understandings of water, its use and governance.
This book builds a comparative and analytical narrative with a historical basis on the modernist utopian thought that shapes hydroterritorial planning policies in Colombia and Spain. At the same time, it highlights contemporary dystopias and analyses the role of social movements in protecting their rights and reviving the flow of rivers and their territories. The book is the result of Bibiana’s Ph.D. research. It’s available at Ríos, utopías y movimientos sociales – Editorial Abya Yala
Rutgerd Boelens, Juliana Forigua-Sandoval, Bibiana Duarte-Abadía & Juan Carlos Gutiérrez-Camargo (2021). River lives, River movements. Fisher communities mobilizing local and official rules in defense of the Magdalena River. The Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law, 53:3, 458-476
ABSTRACT: The Magdalena River, Colombia’s main river backbone, features multiple tensions and socio-environmental conflicts. They manifest themselves in the river’s ecological degradation and negatively impact the riparian communities and artisanal fishermen, whose productive activities and rights of access to water are restricted. For these communities, the river is a means of passing down and exchanging knowledge between generations. However, their knowledge and practices are not recognized in the dominant governance processes over the Magdalena River. In an interview with Juan Carlos Gutiérrez-Camargo, environmental activist, researcher and companion of artisanal fishermen, we illustrate the universe of epistemologies and worldviews of these communities. We discuss, from a legal-pluralism perspective, the contradictions between state norms and authorities, parastatal powers, and the customary rights of fishing communities. We analyze how the simultaneous presence of various authorities and the complex, unequal arena of legal, extra-legal and illegal forces, hinders enforcement of fishermen’s customary socio-legal repertoires and also of the Colombian Constitution to protect riverside communities’ human rights. The interview reflects on the great complexity of exercising community leadership, environmental protection and defense of artisanal fishing in the midst of a socio-normative political arena permeated by state abandonment and paramilitary violence. For this reason, the interview stresses the importance of recognizing artisanal fisher collectives as political subjects in river co-governance. It also highlights the ambivalent implications of granting rights to nature and rivers: their meaning, functions and impact depend on their political trajectory and mobilization by grassrooted collectives. Finally, Gutiérrez proposes strengthening knowledge networks to bolster river co-governance where the political-cultural and socio-normative frameworks of riverside communities play a preponderant role.
photo by Laura Giraldo-Martinez