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Magdalena River Basin

Past, present and future of Colombia

Explore Colombia's Magdalena River

Join a team of Nature Conservancy staff and scientists as they navigate the Magdalena river and bring to life its rich communities & culture through a series of short stories.


At 3,685 mts above sea level, in the Páramo de las Papas, the great river of Magdalena is born. Next to the Cauca River, its major affluent, the Magdalena basin covers 24% of national territory, 269.129km2, covering 19 departments, 724 municipalities, 13 regional environmental authorities and 4 urban environmental authorities. In this basin, 32.5 Million people live, which is 77% of Colombian population! There, is where 80% of the Gross Domestic Product, 75% of hydraulic energy and 70% of national agricultural production are generated; its water is used for human consumption, crops, industrial production and it provides 50% of continental fishing. Its geography cuts across the Andes mountains range from south to north, dividing the upper basin, the middle basin and the lower basin; going through plateaux, canyons and depressions before its mouth on the Caribbean Sea by Bocas de Ceniza in Barranquilla and in the Cartagena bay through the Canal del Dique.

This altitudinal variability resulted in a great variety of aquatic and terrestrial diversity, as well as diversity in species and cultures; positioning the Magdalena river basin as a mega diverse region. All this natural richness is reflected in the services that this basin provides:  moorlands that generate water; fertile inter-Andean valleys for agricultural production; a variety of forests that capture carbon and provide pure air; floodplains that retain sediments, house great biodiversity, and mitigate floods and droughts. It is also a source of income and protein for approximately 50,000 fishermen and their families, since 229 fish species can be found in the basin, from which 109 are endemic to the basin, 43 have some threat level; 14 are migratory; 38 are exploited as fish resource and 19 are used as ornamental. Besides, it is the main waterway in Colombia, because it connects the Caribbean with the Country’s inland.

However, the country’s main waterway, is also subject to different kinds of pressures. Its resources have been exploited since ancient times to develop economic and social wellbeing, together with a marked environmental deterioration. Along with the strong pressure from the economic demand over its resources, the basin’s vulnerability due to extreme climatic events has been added, just as evidenced by the floods caused by the winter wave in 2010-2011. 

TNC Tackling the Magdalena

The Nature Conservancy works for a basin that is managed in an integrated and sustainable way for the development and wellbeing of the Colombian people. Considering the growing interest of the National Government in maximizing the potential of the river regarding navigation, hydroelectric energy among other development projects, we are facing the challenge of assuring that this growth adjusts to sustainable environmental parameters. We are in time to take measures that maintain the health and resiliency of the basin, without its capacity being affected in order to keep providing goods and services.

TNC works with public and private institutions on a national, regional and local level in the generation of technical and scientific tools to support the decision making process and the design and implementation of conservation strategies. These are constituted in models that can be replicated with different geographies and scales, under a vision of Integrated River Basin Management -IRBM. Since we are consolidated as technical advisors of the Government and the Environment and Sustainable Development Ministry of Colombia, TNC works in the promotion of policies that ensure the viability and durability of conservation initiatives.

This IRBM vision is understood as a collaborative process that integrates water conservation and management, the land, and related resources with the different actors present in the Basin, in order to improve the economic and social benefits, derived from hydric resources in an equitable way; while maintaining and restoring the freshwater ecosystems.

Because of its importance supporting the country’s life, the Magdalena river basin has not only been prioritized on a national level as a development axis, but also internationally, since it is part of the Great Rivers Partnership – GRP; a global community with a vision in common: ensure the health of great rivers around the world for the benefit of people and nature. The GRP has enabled the exchange of experiences and knowledge and capacity transfer regarding Basins and freshwater systems between eight prioritized rivers: Mekong, Yangtzé, Níger, Ogooué, Colorado, Mississippi, Tapajós and Magdalena.


Follow us then in these six video and blog series, and keep track of the river’s pulse.

1. Fishing in troubled waters
2. Illegal Mining
3. Zapatoza
4. Last Stop, Dique Canal

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