The Sinú River in Colombia has provided food, water, and transportation to local people for thousands of years. In recent decades, wealthy landowners used violent force to push through construction of a dam that has caused disastrous flooding in the region.

In 2022, Momil, an indigenous town located on the edge of an extensive network of cienagas, experienced severe flooding that lasted several months and received no help from the local or federal government. (Kurt Hollander)

As can be seen on nightly news around the world, flooding is at an all-time high globally. While this widespread increase in aquatic disasters is in large part the product of the climate crisis, another less-discussed contributor to extreme flooding is human manipulation of the natural environment — often undertaken to allow for the commercial raising of livestock.

The Sinú River runs throughout the northern state of Cordoba in Colombia and has provided food, water, and transportation for local communities for thousands of years. Over the past few decades, however, due to dam construction and the increasing population of cattle, it has been responsible for the flooding of major towns and cities in the region. Like many other major rivers in Colombia, the Sinú finds itself in a deplorable condition: alternately dried out and overflowing, heavily polluted, its aquatic life decimated, and used as a clandestine transport route for criminal organizations.

Colombia has been at war with itself for over fifty years, and the extreme violence the country has experienced is in large part a result of struggles over land, sought either for its minerals or for cattle pasture. Land equals wealth and power, but only those who control the water around the land profit from it. As a result, rivers like the Sinú, which have long served as a lifeline to surrounding communities, have become tools, and at times even weapons, in armed conflict over the land, and have suffered as a result.

Using the River as a Weapon

There is a progressive movement in Colombia to grant rivers rights as if they were living beings. In 2016, the government was ordered by a high court to protect, conserve, maintain, and restore seven rivers in Colombia. Unfortunately, the Sinú River is not one of them.

Most of the major cities and towns in Cordoba were founded on the edge of the Sinú River, where 70 percent of the state’s inhabitants currently reside. Born in the tropical rain forests located on the mountains of the Paramillo National Park, the Sinú River runs north over two hundred miles all the way to the Atlantic Ocean — the only river in Colombia, and one of the only in the world, that connects four different biosystems (tundra, rain forests, wetlands, and estuaries).

The Sinú Valley possesses some of the most fertile land in the country, comparable to the land that the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers irrigate. The original inhabitants of the region, the Zenú, named the river Sinú, which means “beautiful land of water.” Due to the Zenú people’s intimate relationship with their river, their culture has been defined as “amphibian.” Over one hundred indigenous communities stretch along the river, dependent upon it for food and trade with other indigenous groups.

The Zenús, like many indigenous peoples in the Andes region, developed sophisticated systems of canals called waru waru (the Spanish called them camellones) upon which they constructed raised-field agricultural land. This system of “floating” gardens allowed them not only to grow crops in areas around the river that often flooded, but also to help ameliorate the extremes of the wet and dry seasons and to siphon off excess water to prevent flooding, as the waru waru were constructed perpendicularly to the river.

The many cienagas (marshlands) stretched out along the Sinú River help maintain land-water equilibrium and provide fail-safe mechanisms to avoid disasters caused by extreme precipitation or drought. Yet the waru waru, the cienagas, and the river itself have become victims of destructive environmental practices.

In towns on the Sinú River, small handmade wooden canoes are used to catch fish and to transport fish and fresh produce to market. During floods, they are also used as taxis or personal transportation to get around town. (Kurt Hollander)

Europeans first came to Cordoba in search of precious metals. “Poor Peru should they discover the Sinú” was a famous Spanish saying, coined to attract Europeans to dig for gold along the river. Heeding the call, the European-owned Compañía del Sinú was founded in 1844 to extract gold and platinum from the area. Two days after heavy mining machinery was installed, the Sinú River overflowed, immediately and forever burying the machines and business prospects of the company.

Today, it is beef and milk that have led profit-seekers to utilize the land and water in destructive, extractive ways. In the 1920s, in the wetlands around the bay where the Sinú flows into the Atlantic Ocean, locals cultivated rice. When the owners of the nearby cattle haciendas tried to drive them off of their land to create grazing land, armed conflict ensued.

The owners of the haciendas, in a move to both cut off their enemies’ water supply and at the same time augment their own land and wealth, diverted the river kilometers away from its original path. Since then, the Sinú River has been not only a valuable resource, but also a means to increase or decrease the value of land and the animals grazing upon that land — and a weapon to be used against local peasants and indigenous peoples.

How to Destroy a River

By far the greatest usurpation of the Sinú River’s water for private ends is the Urrá Dam. First proposed by the Colombian government in the 1940s, the dam was authorized in 1974, and the construction deal was given to the government of the USSR. After several years of delays, a more ambitious project was proposed, which included the construction of a hydroelectric plant.

The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank refused to finance the project due to a lack of environmental impact studies and doubts about construction viability, so the Colombian government instead obtained funding from a Swedish bank and a Canadian corporation, with an additional $270 million coming from the federal and state governments. In 1996, the Sinú River was diverted from its natural course through two giant tunnels, and an artificial lake was created by flooding more than seventy million square meters of land, displacing several large indigenous communities and five hundred campesino families.

Plagued by delays, corruption, and budget problems, the hydroelectric dam didn’t begin operating until 2000. The Sinú River and the region surrounding it has not been the same since. In addition to the high human cost of forced displacement and the end to river commerce, the intentional flooding produced to form the artificial lake for the dam caused widespread deforestation, increased the salinity of river water (as the sea’s influx increased due to lower volume of river water), and led to more erosion as well as the drying out of surrounding wetlands. Several species of birds, fish, and land animals that locals had depended on for survival disappeared from the region.

Rural towns strung out along the Sinú River were heavily affected by the high levels of precipitation in 2022, especially those located near extensive cattle ranches, and roads became transformed into rivers. (Kurt Hollander)

But the dam was a boon to the local cattle ranchers who had promoted the project. Cattle had been brought to the New World by the Spanish, and since the mid-nineteenth century have been the state of Cordoba’s main source of income. Around 60 percent of the land in Cordoba is used for cattle ranches today. There are around two million head of cattle destined to be used as beef, and around 135,000 for the production of milk, making Cordoba the second-most important cattle producer in Colombia and one of the country’s biggest exporters of bovine products worldwide.

The conversion to cattle ranching brought with it massive deforestation, and allotting vast areas to grazing land has led to widespread soil erosion, river sedimentation, and increased flooding. And the use of Cordoba’s land — some of the most fertile in the country — for cattle ranching means that land isn’t being used to grow crops for human consumption. The indigenous population, which relies largely on a plant-based diet rather than beef, has consequently suffered.

As the cattle ranchers in Cordoba accumulated land and wealth, leftist guerrilla groups emerged that stole cattle and shook down and kidnapped wealthy ranchers. To counter the guerrillas, two hundred cattle ranchers in Cordoba got together to create the far-right paramilitary organization Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). When negotiations for the construction of the dam between the government and the local indigenous and campesino communities broke down, paramilitary violence increased sharply, with the AUC intimidating or murdering those who protested the dam’s construction.

The AUC, organized and funded by the ranchers, sent a letter to the senate and the then president of Colombia that alleged that guerrillas were forcing the indigenous communities to oppose the construction and accused these communities of supporting the rebels. The AUC promised that if the construction of the dam didn’t go ahead it would be forced to take matters into its own hands. The president signed the license to allow the continuation of the construction of the dam five days later.

Under cover of protecting the dam from subversive elements, the military and paramilitary groups waged war against all liberal elements in the region. The victims, including university professors, who were “disappeared” were often found floating down the Sinú River. An indigenous leader, the most outspoken critic of the dam, was kidnapped and murdered in 2001, one year after the dam began functioning, and the violence in the region still hasn’t ceased.

Although the stated purpose of the dam was electricity generation, the construction of the dam and the flooding of the area was actually undertaken to allow the cattle ranchers to greatly expand their landholding in the region. The paramilitary groups, working in conjunction with the army — supposedly fighting communist guerrillas — forced many campesinos and indigenous communities off their land, which was later snatched up by the cattle ranchers.

The violence and land grabs in the region were supported by Cordoba politicians and judges, many of whom would later wind up in jail for corruption and association with paramilitaries and narcos. Several of these politicians were also accused of embezzling government money destined for reforestation and of diverting the Sinú River to their own ranches, depleting the source of water to communities and leading to the drying out of large areas.

The Legacy of the Urrá Dam

Although the Urrá Dam was supposed to control flooding, in 2007 massive flooding occurred throughout the region, for which an additional two meters were added to the dam’s wall. Flooding, however, is worse than ever. In 2022, high levels of precipitation led to a sharp rise of water in the dam, which released the water to control the pressure, leading to one of the worst floods of the past century. It left land, homes, and towns underwater for months.

Severe floods swamped the cities and towns along the Sinú River, especially those located next to the cienaga marshlands that in the past have helped mitigate the flooding, with more than 5,500 families affected. Many in the towns along the river were forced to build bridges with planks and branches to allow people to reach their homes, although other families abandoned their homes for months. The floods that occur in April tend to remain within the cities and towns until December. Other major floods occurred in 1998 and in 2010, but 2022–23 has been by far the worst.

The main market in the town of Lorica, located on the edge of the Sinú River, where locals buy their fresh produce and fish, was flooded for several months in 2022. (Kurt Hollander)

While ever-more extreme rainfall caused by the global climate crisis affects the water level of the river and the cienagas, the treeless cattle ranches with dikes around the grazing areas make the flooding much worse for the towns and cities in the region. The self-serving defenses against flooding by the local ranchers help protect their giant herds of cattle but exacerbate problems for the indigenous and campesino communities.

Flooding is no longer a natural event in Cordoba, but rather a controlled process that selectively affects the surrounding areas and populations, favoring the wealthy descendants of European settlers and their vast cattle ranches while undermining the living conditions of the indigenous and campesino populations who have long called the area home. The unnaturally extreme flooding of the Sinú River and other major waterways throughout the country can be seen as a measure of social justice in Colombia today.

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