MASTER’S RESEARCH: Ciénaga de Zapatosa, Colombia

Sara Mohseni

Ciénaga de Zapatosa is a largest sweet-water floodplain lake of Colombia, encompassing 360 km2 in summer and 500 km2 in winter (Aguilera, 2011). It is located in two departments: Cesar and Magdalena, and five municipalities: Chimichagua, Tamalameque, El Banco, Chiriguaná, and Curumaní (Aguilera, 2011). Ciénaga de Zapatosa is inhabited by around 150.000 people and 170.000 cattle (Viloria, 2008). There are no large companies in this area and people mainly rely on fish for sustaining their livelihoods. However, large companies upstream the Magdalena River do affect the water quality and quantity in Ciénaga de Zapatosa (Aguilera, 2011). These companies are mainly coal companies and large palm, pineapple and rice farms that subtract significant amount of water out of the river (Aguilera, 2011, Ricaurte et al., 2017). On top of that, large cities dump their wastewater in the Magdalena River which ends up in Ciénagas such as Ciénaga de Zapatosa (Aguilera, 2011). In view of the low priority given to this issue by the local government, inhabitants of the Ciénagas are rendered helpless to find concrete ways of transforming the local situation. (Boelens et al., 2018).


Aguilera, M. (2011). La economía de las ciénagas del Caribe colombiano. Banco de la República de Colombia.

Viloria, J. (2008). Economía extractiva y pobreza en la ciénaga de Zapatosa. Ía de las Ciénagas del Caribe Colombia, 54.

Ricaurte, L. F., Olaya-Rodríguez, M. H., Cepeda-Valencia, J., Lara, D., Arroyave-Suárez, J., Max Finlayson, C., & Palomo, I. (2017). Future impacts of drivers of change on wetland ecosystem services in colombia. Global Environmental Change, 44, 158–169.

Boelens, R., Perreault, T., & Vos, J. (Eds.). (2018). Water justice. Cambridge University Press.

Sempegua and la Mata are two fishermen’s villages in Cienaga de Zapatosa, located at opposite sites of the Cienaga. As in other fishermen’s villages people’s livelihood mainly depends on fishery. Both communities consist of many different people; fishermen and fisherwomen, people working on farms or in larger villages, adolescents, elderly people etc. All these people are connected differently to the river. There has no study been done yet on how fishermen communities perceive the Cienaga and respond to its changes. This knowledge is however crucial to empower their voice in policymaking and is therefore the focus point of this study.

On top of that, sedimentation processes taking place in the Cienaga affect the lives of the inhabitants. Increased sedimentation leads to more excessive floods, forcing more people to leave their houses during the rainy season. However, there is no cheap way yet to measure on a yearly basis how much sedimentation there is in the Cienaga close to Sempegua and la Mata. Gathering this information by means of participatory action research (PAR) would improve awareness of the community on the processes taking place in the Cienaga. Finally, ten years of gathered satellite imagery data will be analysed to investigate the spatial and temporal distribution of sedimentation in Cienaga de Zapatosa.

MASTER’S RESEARCH: Rio Bogotá and its watershed, Colombia

Pieter van Dalen

Wageningen University, Netherlands

Supervisory team: Jeroen Vos and Art Dewulf

A key factor in the status of water security in Colombia is the state of the Páramos in the Andean mountains. Páramos are a collection of perennially humid Neotropical alpine ecosystems identified as hot spots for climate change. Water security is “the capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability” (ESCAP, 2013). Yet water funds are precisely the mechanisms that ensure that water users compensate upstream communities for protecting forests, paramos, and other lands that safeguard water quality that supplies cities (The Nature Conservancy, 2018). These water funds not only protect water at its source, but they could also allow for improved water governance and concerted efforts by the various agencies that oversee water security. Nonetheless, there is a critique of the level of equality, participation, and democracy of water funds. It requires, therefore, a more thorough research into the power struggles within and the position of those who are negatively influenced by the existence of water funds.

ESCAP, U. (2013). Water security & the global water agenda: A UN-water analytical brief. United Nations University (UNU).

Colombia: Protecting Water at the Source. (2018, 1 july). The Nature Conservancy. Available at:

On a global scale, investments in watershed conservation mechanisms have been growing rapidly for the last couple of decades. Water funds are such mechanisms and are referred to as Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES). These mechanisms aim to protect or restore hydrological services by investing in natural infrastructure and for example water security. They do so by allowing downstream beneficiaries to pay for the capacity of upstream users to incentivize them to engage in nature conservation. However, there is growing competition and interdependence of all users in the upland concerning forest, land, and water resources. This competition potentially leads to conflict and inequality between different stakeholders due to an imbalance in resources.

The aim of this research is to gain more empirical evidence into how governance processes in the Rio Bogota watershed area are structured in relation to the interests and needs of the actors involved. In addition, the aim is to focus on the extent to which water funds are democratic mechanisms focused on participation and legitimacy, and improve the livelihoods of upstream users.

PhD RESEARCH: Yangtze River, China and Loire River, France

Yixin Cao

Interdisciplinary Research Center of Cities, Territories, Environment and Society, University of Tours, France

Supervisor: Prof. Dr Karl Matthias Wantzen

This research explores how a fragmented river management structure hinders comprehensive river revitalization and whether recent projects and new approaches applied in these regions (e.g. transdisciplinary approaches to river landscape conservation and the Sponge City program) can redefine people’s connection to rivers. Through the comprehensive analysis of several case studies, this research project aims to synthesize feasible approaches to improve Urban Human River Encounter Spaces (UHRES) in different urban settings and contribute to a co-management scheme. The UHRES approach, based on the principles of “River Culture”, conceptualizes social-ecological systems in human-river relations without promoting human domination.

PhD RESEARCH: 44 rivers in the South Indian state, Kerala, India

Alvin Manuel Vazhayil

Interdisciplinary Research Center of Cities, Territories, Environment and Society, University of Tours, France

Supervisor: Prof. Dr Karl Matthias Wantzen

In the global context of hydrosystem restoration, the available hydraulic and ecological engineering techniques are relatively well known. However, ‘social engineering’, i.e. finding ways to match the goals of citizens’ or NGO initiatives with government policies, remains a major bottleneck for restoration projects. This PhD research aims to identify a holistic eco-social approach to river restoration in the Global South. To this end, it explores the participatory initiative to regenerate 44 rivers and adjacent streams in the southern state of Kerala, India (part of the “Now let me flow” campaign) in cooperation with the local government. The thesis hypothesizes that the role dynamics between local governments and local communities can contribute to improved outcomes based on the principles of “River Culture”. The study will determine the roles played by these two actors and whether it has contributed to improving the human-river relationship. The results will be utilized to develop a guide for collaborative river management projects in the Global South.

PhD RESEARCH: Lakes Bretonnieres, Bergeonnerie and Peupleraies – Tours, France / Donghu Lake, Wuhan, China

Chaozhong Tan

Interdisciplinary Research Center of Cities, Territories, Environment and Society, University of Tours, France

Supervisor: Prof. Dr Karl Matthias Wantzen

Urban lakes can support high biodiversity and provide critical ecosystem services. This research focuses on urban lakes, which are classified as a type of ‘urban stagnant water’ (USWs), and their ecological and social aspects. It aims to identify the drivers of macroinvertebrate diversity in urban lakes and explore how the public perceives naturalness in such areas. The study of three urban lakes in Tours, France (Lakes Bretonnieres, Bergeonnerie, and Peupleraies), and one in Wuhan (Lake Donghu), China, provides evidence to contribute to the sustainable management of urban lakes that can simultaneously enhance aquatic biodiversity and improve the provision of ecosystem services. To that end, this research analyses how USWs can be strategically integrated into urban planning, designed, and maintained from an interdisciplinary vantage point in order to tackle the environmental and social challenges related to urban lakes. To support this study, an extensive review of the past and current status of USWs is undertaken to further our understanding of the ecological, social, and engineering aspects of USWs management.

PhD RESEARCH: Kinshasa, N’djili and Congo River, Congo

Raita Bala

Interdisciplinary Research Center of Cities, Territories, Environment, and Society / University of Tours,  France

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Karl Matthias Wantzen

Kinshasa is the 3rd most populated city in Africa; it is located on the bank of the Congo River and has many urban rivers and a diversity of cultures linked to riverscapes. In the last 50 years, the city has witnessed exponential population growth and uncontrolled urban expansion. Due to the hydrography of the city, a large proportion of the population lives near an urban river, which has been affected by high levels of pollution from different sources and unplanned land occupation. For that matter, it is essential to study how the city has developed, in the past 50 years, environmental protection actions and its river culture. In order to understand how a fast-developed city like Kinshasa can regenerate its riverscape, this research analyses the current situation and investigates the applicability of the ‘River Culture’ concept in the local urban planning. Fundamental to this approach is to research how to learn from local cultural diversity and how this knowledge can contribute to mitigating the deterioration of the local riverscape.

MASTER’S RESEARCH: Magdalena River, Ciénaga de Zapatosa, Colombia

Ilaria Carbellotti

Wageningen University, Netherlands & Fundación ALMA, Colombia

Supervisory team: Bibiana Abadia Duarte, Juan Carlos Gutiérrez Camargo

Ciénaga de Zapatosa is the largest continental marsh in Colombia. It derives from the Magdalena river basin and it’s largely supplied by the Magdalena and Cesar rivers. Located in a depression between two departments, Magdalena and Cesar, it accounts for 5 municipalities (Tamalameque, El Banco, Chiriguaná, Curumaní, and Chimichagua). In Chimichagua is located the two fieldwork sites involved in this research: Sempegua and La Mata. It has an average extension of 40.000 hectares, and it’s populated by fishing communities which amount to 150.000 inhabitants. Artisanal fishing, livestock raising, and game hunting are the main livelihood activities. Farming, instead, is limited to the dry season, when waters recede, and plots of land become available for cultivation.

Especially in the Magdalena catchment, wetlands are highly degraded by human activities, and so are the multitude of ecosystem services they deliver (Mitsch and Gosselink 2000; Ricuarte et a., 2017). Intensive cattle ranching, monocropping, mining, urban development, and construction of dikes led to wetland drainage, deforestation, extreme floods, land loss, drastic reduction of catches, and water contamination (Viloria J., 2008). This, in turn, had direct repercussions on the fishing communities living on the riverbanks of the Zapatosa, affecting their subsistence activities and resources. They suffer from food insecurity, poverty, and diseases due to poor sanitation and polluted water (Fundación ALMA, n.d.).


Fundación ALMA – Por la naturaleza y la vida. (n.d.).

Mitsch W. J. & Gosselink J. G. (2000). The value of wetlands: importance of scale and landscape setting. Ecol Econ 35:25–33

Ricaurte, L. F., Olaya-Rodríguez, M. H., Cepeda-Valencia, J., Lara, D., Arroyave-Suárez, J., Finlayson, C. M., & Palomo, I. (2017). Future impacts of drivers of change on wetland ecosystem services in Colombia. Global Environmental Change, 44, 158-169.

Viloria, J. (2008). Economía extractiva y pobreza en la ciénaga de Zapatosa. ÍA DE LAS CIéNAGAS DEL CARIBE COLOM, 54.

This research aims to investigate several aspects that could improve food security and economic stability in the fishing communities of Sempegua and La mata, in the Ciénaga de Zapatosa area of Colombia. Thereby it intends to contribute to both the need to diversify the diet of the local community and to introduce crops that can be processed and stored for the wet season, when the community relies solely on fishing.  Based on principles of agroecology, and an action research (AR) approach aimed at the co-creation of knowledge with the local community, this research will focus on studying ways to (1) introduce new endemic crops in the vegetable gardens; (2) identify and implement methods to preserve the local harvest; and (3) develop a tool to harvest uva de lata (corozo).

MASTER’S RESEARCH: Río Nagsiche, Ecuador

Meike Klarenbeek

Wageningen University, The Netherlands

Supervisory team: Rutgerd Boelens, Juan Pablo Hidalgo Bastidas.

Following the National Water Law, both national and regional governments in Ecuador have set out to distribute water rights in a fixed liters/second allocation. Yet, in a country that is characterised by highly seasonal rainfall and flow patterns, this practice is increasingly seen to result in an overallocation of existing water resources. In the Nagsiche river basin, this overallocation presents periods of water scarcity, during which a myriad of actors scramble for access to water. While most of the water users have a formal right to extract water from the river, the opportunities to materialise these water rights are drying up. The institutionalised water scarcity along the Nagsiche river therefore results in tensions between the multitude of water right holders in the river’s territory and the existence of fictitious water rights, or agua de papel – water rights that exist on paper but do not result in actual water access in practice. The situation in the Nagsiche river basin reveals how power asymmetries between different water users open up a new realm of environmental injustices in Ecuador, where access to water has become a highly politicised subject.

This research aims to unravel the realities of water users that depend on the flow of the Nagsiche river in Ecuador. It aims to uncover the power dynamics that are encapsulated in the rules and regulations that determine water access along this river, and how both explicit and subtle rules of inclusion and exclusion influence the opportunities of various water users to materialise their water rights. Involving the water users along the Nagsiche river basin, the research aims to reproduce the stories of what it means for various actors to defend their water access and control in a waterscape that is filled with an increasingly wide variety of actors with highly divergent interests. The focus is specifically on the conflictive realities that are generated by the inconsistency in the opportunities for different actors to materialise their on-paper-rights, and how affected water users in the Nagsiche river basin would envision a more just waterscape.

MASTER’S RESEARCH: El Río Monjas, Quito, Ecuador

Mariska Bouterse 

Master student, Cultural Anthropology Sustainable Citizenship – Utrecht University

Supervisor: Dr. Hayal Akarsu (Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Utrecht University)

In 2008, Ecuador has granted Rights to Nature. However, this has not been enough to protect the environment from human destructive actions. In February 2022, the Constitutional Court has ruled that “El Río Monjas está enfermo” The river is sick and its rights have been violated through heavy pollution. It has for decades been receiving excessive flows of rainwater from the city, and domestic and industrial sewage water is discharged into the river without treatment. The increased flux exceeds the natural level of the river, causing erosion which has deepened the river bed and widened its channel. Houses near the river are affected by these changes, some have collapsed while others are damaged and are at permanent risk. The Judgment states that the ecosystem of the Monjas River is deeply degraded: pollution prevents its life cycles from developing, the increase in flow destroys its channel, and causes its structure to be lost and to fulfill its ecological functions. Different actors are involved both in the contamination process and in the possible recovery processes of the river. There are several uses, and ways of valuing and relating to the river that are at stake and mediated by power relations that should begin to be explored.

The belief that Nature should receive rights has been growing around the globe; being perceived to be a solution to Anthropos’ catastrophic activities, which are negatively affecting all other forms of life on the planet and beyond. However, research on the effects of such legal changes is lacking. This research will focus on how the Rights of Nature framework impacts the lives of the citizens living next to el Río Monjas, Quito, Ecuador. This will be done through ethnographic research within the Anthropology of Water by combining two perspectives: the political ecology and political ontology lenses. Firstly, by investigating how the Rights of Nature, in this case, are perceived and used by the different stakeholders involved, and what these rights do in practice; how is el Río Monjas shaped and used as a subject? And what are the social, political, and economic effects and conflicts of these rights? Secondly, the human-river relations will be explored by looking into how and what the different actors relate to the river by exploring the different cosmologies and ontologies of the actors. Additionally will be researched how relationships between the different actors are shaped through the river.  The third focus will be on the people living close to the river who have to deal with the effects of environmental pollution on a daily basis. Therewith will be explored how this affects their thoughts, beliefs, and actions and shape their hydrosocial lifeworlds. The research will hereby create an overview of how the Rights of Nature in the case of el Río Monjas work, the power relations involved, the different meanings ascribed to the river, and the everyday lived experiences of such rights.