Academic journal article Human Organization

Hydropower, Encroachment and the Re-Patterning of Hydrosocial Territory: The Case of Hidrosogamoso in Colombia

Academic journal article Human Organization

Hydropower, Encroachment and the Re-Patterning of Hydrosocial Territory: The Case of Hidrosogamoso in Colombia

Article excerpt


June 8, 2014. Environmental tragedy...the Sogamoso River, Betulia, Santander has fallen completely dry. IS AGEN recognizes its error in operating the dam reservoir, but says that few fish died. Fishermen assure however that thousands of fish have died.... The Sogamoso River's riparian areas turned into mud and stone beaches.... Communities close the road and claim ISAGEN to take responsibility. Chronicle of a death foretold.1

Contemporary intervention processes involving large-scale ecosystem transformation have major redistributive effects. In the case of mega-hydraulic projects and large-scale river diversion schemes, these impacts are usually to the advantage of powerful stakeholders outside the project area (such as mega-cities and industries) and mostly to the disadvantage of the vulnerable groups in the affected river basin territory (McCully 2001; Moore, Dore, and Gyawali 2010; Sneddon and Fox 2008; WCD 2000). Development of hydropower plants is an important driver of such transformations, and the case of Hidrosogamoso in the Department of Santander in northeast Colombia is illustrative. Construction of the hydropower plant in the Sogamoso River started in 2009 and was finished at the end of 2014. At the moment, the dam inundates an area of thousands of hectares, affecting a large number of communities and the territory-based livelihoods of many people (Roa-Avendaño and Duarte-Abadía 2012).

The project received strong support from international institutions, the national government, and the private sector, which used arguments of overall public interest, "clean" energy, the environment, and the national economy to legitimize it. Support for the project implies a prioritization of high-value urban electricity over the water needs of fishermen and peasant subsistence agriculture. However, project plans claim that the hydropower plant's so-called non-consumptive water use is not competing with the diverse consumptive and livelihood-based water uses of the territory's stakeholders (DNP 2007).

In Sogamoso, this claim is contested by local residents. They are confronted with the re-patterning of their existing hydrosocial networks and profound changes in the ecosystems on which their livelihoods depend. Experiences to date show how some collective land and water user groups have been forced to privatize and sell their properties while other properties were outright expropriated. In Colombia, constitutional and legal norms for building infrastructure projects in indigenous and community territories require agreements between companies, the Government, and the people affected. The Sogamoso basin experience, however, seems to indicate that the interplay of negotiations is significantly asymmetrical. Values placed on territories are different for the diverse parties and often incommensurable (see also Escobar 2011; Martinez-Allier 2002). Socioenvironmental conflicts have been growing since the early phases of hydroelectric construction, while deterritorialization profoundly challenges the local social fabric.

This article examines the profound alterations in the existing human-nature interactions triggered by Hidrosogamoso hydropower development and analyzes the impact and effects of such changes in the local, socionatural territory, conceptualized as a hydrosocial network intersecting biophysical, ecological, sociocultural, and political-economic domains.2 The section below reviews the broader debate and conceptual background of hydropower and large dam interventions that trigger the profound socioecological transformation of hydrosocial territories. It also proposes a conceptual framework for analyzing water conflicts in terms of struggles over resources, norms, authority, and discourses. The third section describes the reconfiguration of the territory that is affected, and the fourth analyzes the socioenvironmental conflicts that emerge as a result of changing control over water in the river basin. …

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