Rivers and Lakes

Bringing Balance to Colombia's Magdalena River

Paulino Galindo

Direction advisor for Cormagdalena, a government agency appointed with the management of the Magdalena River watershed in Colombia.

The Magdalena River has been part of Paulino Galindo’s life since the day he was born. He grew up in the small fishing village of Yaguara, Colombia, where he could hear the rushing water from his classroom. At dinner, he would eat fish he and his father caught from the river.

And now, Galindo is working with Conservancy partner Cormagdalena to balance development pressures on the river with the need for environmental responsibility.

A Boyhood Dream

At a very young age, Galindo decided he would work on the nearly 1,000-mile-long river, which flows from the Andes to the Caribbean Sea. His skills in mathematics steered him toward engineering, and he got the unique opportunity to study hydraulic engineering in the former Soviet Union.

When Galindo returned to Colombia he was offered the prime job as the project manager for a hydroelectric dam on the Magdalena called “Betania,” the biggest hydropower construction project in Colombia at that time.

With the dam came new jobs, tourism opportunities, and a new source of power to his village and the surrounding area. Locals saw the dam as part of the natural environment.

But as the years went by, Galindo began to notice the ecological impacts of the dam, such as a decreasing number of fish species. He began to wonder: Is there a way to locate and build dams so that they provide benefits while causing minimal environmental harm?

Integrating Environmental Protection

That question led Galindo to his current position with the government agency Cormagdalena, where he works to ensure that environmental protection is more fully integrated in all aspects of the river’s management plan.

To do this, Cormagdalena asked the Conservancy for guidance — leading to a productive partnership between the two organizations—which will allow the Conservancy to support a brighter future for the entire Magdalena River. 

In April 2008, Galindo was part of a delegation from Cormagdalena that met with members of the Conservancy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in New Orleans and St. Louis. The purpose of the trip was to let Cormagdalena learn from the same development issues that the Mississippi has struggled with for more than 150 years — balancing navigation, flood control and conservation needs.

We wanted to learn from the Mississippi experiences — the successes and also the mistakes,” Galindo said of the exchange. “Our priorities for the Magdalena are flood control, navigation, natural resource management and hydropower, but this time around we want environmental impacts to be a guiding force in our design and construction.”

Aurelio Ramos, director of the Conservancy's Northern Tropical Andes program, was inspired to see that Cormagdalena officials were taking a strategic view of the river’s management.

"We can make a real difference by partnering with committed people such as Paulino," says Aurelio Ramos. "Together, we can balance the economic, cultural and conservation interests of the Magdalena in a timely manner for all Colombians."

Global Solutions

The Conservancy’s work with Cormagdalena is just one example of how the Conservancy is working to fundamentally change the way water is used, managed and valued to provide a sustainable supply of water to support people and nature.

“This project is a great example of what the Conservancy is capable of — the world is hungry for solutions that ensure a sustainable supply of water to meet human needs while also protecting ecosystem health, and we know how to help,” says Nicole Silk, co-leader of the Conservancy’s Global Freshwater Team. 

“Over the past 10 years, the Conservancy has become the leading NGO in freshwater conservation globally with unparalleled partnerships with those who drive water management at local and global levels. A hallmark of the Conservancy’s approach is promoting solutions that work for people and nature."

Looking Ahead

Traditionally, dams are planned and evaluated individually, leading to uncoordinated development and often ineffective environmental mitigation. In the coming years, the Conservancy will assist Cormagdalena in evaluating the environmental impacts of the entire system of dams along the Magdalena. This process, among other benefits, can help to keep the most environmentally important areas free of dams. 

“This is the first time environmental issues are being considered on the Magdalena and the Conservancy and the Army Corps are putting new concepts into our hands,” Galindo says. “We look forward to this partnership and the opportunity to learn from each other as we make river management decisions."


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