Playing our part in the Magdalena river basin in Colombia

Written by Joanne Craven, on 21 December 2015

What if a certain part of the basin was used to generate more energy? How would that affect the quality and quantity of the water aquatic ecosystems need to survive? And what about people? How could this affect economic development, food production or drinking water supplies? Questions like these were at the heart of the discussion during the “Playing our part in the Magdalena basin” forum held in Bogotá, Colombia earlier this year.

modelling stakeholder decision making

Representing the environment, hydropower, risk management and food production sectors, more than 60 high-level decision makers, involved in sustainably managing water and other natural resources, got the chance to play at developing a fictional basin, taking similar decisions to those they take every day in the Magdalena.

The game, based on the Magdalena´s very own water evaluation and planning model (WEAP Magdalena, developed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC)), modelled the players’ decisions and represented then in indicators covering ecosystem health, energy production, food production and flood risk in two settlements in the fictional basin. In this way, the participants could see in an instructive and engaging way the complexity of the interactions which take place in river basins, driven by the resource use for different economic sectors. The game was developed by Joanne Craven as an MSc thesis supervised by Dr. Gerald Corzo (IHE Delft), Hector Angarita (TNC) and Prof. Christian Bernhofer (TU Dresden).

The graphic above is the interface of the game that the players see. On the left is a picture of the fictional basin illustrating the interventions they've made, and on the right are graphs showing the player's performance history in different sectors.

predicting the basin's future

Essentially, the game is a simplified version of the decision support system for the Magdalena-Cauca macrobasin, SIMA. SIMA, currently being developed by TNC, is an open platform which integrates various scientific instruments to provide insights into the complex network of interrelations present in the basin. This system allows development scenarios to be created and compared, to promote dialogue and coordination between private and public institutions alike, to harmonise the differing perceptions of the management and use of water in the basin.

"A river, however, has so many things to say that it is hard to know what it says to each of us" - Norman MacLean

During the event, as MacLean wrote, the fictitious game river spoke to each of the players. The participants were divided into four tables. Each table developed their basin 30 years into the future, responding to decisions presented to them by the game, such as whether to declare protected areas, expand agricultural areas or change farming methods, or build a new hydroelectric scheme. In two of the tables, the players had the chance to discuss with each other and took the decisions by consensus. The players at the other two tables were divided into sectors and the decisions were taken separately, with each sector focussing on its own needs.

The results were striking. In the tables where each sector played separately, the negative impacts were larger and some sectors did not manage to meet their game targets, since the decisions made by some sectors had large repercussions for others. On the other hand, at the tables where there was dialogue and consensus, most sectors met their objectives and the negative impacts where both smaller and distributed more equitably.

game for capacity building

Closing the event, Juliana Delgado, a freshwater specialist at TNC, gave a presentation introducing SIMA, inviting all the different actors to come together and build a shared vision of the basin. She highlighted what had become clear during the discussions: that the best decision is not one which seems best in the short term, but one which opens up a sustainable and equitable development pathway, for the economy, the environment, and people.

Afterwards, many of the participants demonstrated their interest in SIMA, either as users or collaborators, convinced of the benefits it can bring to all sectors to foresee the social and environmental impacts of their actions. They also believed the SimBasin game to have a high potential for capacity building and familiarizing other actors with the concept of decision support systems; so much so, in fact, that some public institutions want to use the game in national decision-making processes, such as the Climate Change Adaptation Fund (Fondo Adaptacion) with strategic actors in the Mojana.

Go to the basin management simulation game