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Local water goes global: exploring water narratives beyond boundaries

Adopting a single water narrative may lead to the misinterpreting of specific local challenges or to the denial of how water is transferred through products or economic or physical connections across scales. We present how current water management approaches consider natural and social processes beyond boundaries and further explore the concept of water teleconnections with case studies from Colombia and Southeast Asia.

Cláudia Coleoni / Published on 16 September 2021

Key messages:

  • The long-distance connections between coupled natural and human systems, defined as teleconnections, are not fully considered in water management approaches, such as imports and exports of agricultural commodities and their associated water requirement.
  • Water is a borderless resource. It flows across political boundaries and circulates through the atmosphere, landmasses and oceans as part of the hydrologic cycle. Renewable freshwater resources are finite and suffer increasing pressure from growing water demand across sectors such as agriculture and energy. Defining the scale and the scope for water management is a complex endeavor. Since scales and boundaries are constructed as a result of sociopolitical processes, such as jurisdictional, institutional and management, they are subject to constant change.
  • Although conventional water management approaches integrate to a certain extent the biophysical and societal process at different scales and within productive sectors, they may overlook the cumulative impacts of water-intensive activities operating beyond the boundaries of the management unit. The examples of coffee production in Colombia and rice cultivation in Thailand highlight the need to consider multiscale water management in participatory decision-making.
Lago en Colombia

Photo: Cristo Pérez / SEI.

Given our increasingly interconnected society linked by commerce, communication and agriculture, globalization has driven a wedge between humans and the natural water resources that fuel our livelihoods. The long-distance interactions between coupled natural and human systems – sustained by societal production and consumption patterns – are defined as teleconnections.

At SEI, we promote the Water Beyond Boundaries initiative to pinpoint the crucial interdependencies required to address teleconnections as part of the effort to implement integrated water resources management at all levels (Sustainable Development Goal 6.5.1). The initiative looks closely at multiscale water management processes through multiple narratives in the Magdalena-Cauca River Basin, Colombia and the Mekong River Basin, Southeast Asia. We present several initial conclusions based on literature reviews and water narratives from Colombia and Southeast Asia.

Teleconnections from a water perspective

Originating from meteorology and climate change studies, the concept of teleconnection “invokes a sense of (large) spatial distance between the systems interacting to produce the connection”, such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, a well known phenomenon in the physical sciences. In the global water system, we highlight three main teleconnections (summarized in Figure 1):

  1. Atmospheric moisture recycling and the impacts of land cover change: moisture recycling may multiply available water resources at a continental scale. Vegetation plays an essential role in regulating the hydrological cycle at the terrestrial level, which means that land cover changes such as deforestation and agricultural intensification may modify atmospheric dynamics.
  2. Trade with agricultural commodities and associated virtual water imports and exports: virtual water refers to the water resources embedded in traded food commodities. Although trade may mitigate local water and land scarcities, the associated virtual water generates an increasing externalization of resource use and degradation to the producing and exporting regions. SEI’s Trase Earth initiative maps out certain global commodity trading flows.
  3. Foreign direct investments (FDI) and their impact on local water resources in the target regions: Rapidly growing FDI in agricultural land can be related to growing demands for food, feed, fiber and biofuel as well as water and land scarcities. However, there are negative local environmental or social impacts associated to the externally driven use of local resources. Research shows that “water and land availability were found to be higher in almost all sub-Saharan Africa FDI target countries compared to typical investor countries”. SEI’s Aid Atlas provides visualization of development finance commitments and disbursements that shows which countries provide development finance and to whom.

Figure 1. Three main water teleconnections, the opportunities for water management, and the specification for the water resources base. Source: adapted from Hoff (2013).

How do water management approaches consider teleconnections?

Many approaches to tackle water challenges have attempted to integrate to a certain extent the biophysical and societal processes at different scales (municipal, state, national, regional and transboundary) and within different water sectors (energy and agricultural production). To further understand the interconnectedness among processes, scales, and sectors, we have reviewed multiple water approaches, such as Integrated Water Resources Management, the Water-Energy-Food nexus and virtual water, and system thinking frameworks, such as socio-hydrology (Table 1).

Table 1. Summary of water management approaches and their main teleconnection considerations.

Table 1. Summary of water management approaches and their main teleconnection considerations. Source: SEI.

In practice, multiple factors affect the implementation of a water management approach, such as political willingness, socioeconomic conditions, institutional setting (presence or absence of water-related governing bodies), stakeholder engagement (between water user groups that may have competing interests) and hydroclimatic conditions. Essentially, each proposed approach faces context-based conditions that illustrate the difficulty of defining one single approach to portray the water dynamics that shape diverse societies. The single water narrative, such as Integrated Water Resources Management or the Water-Energy-Food nexus, may lead to misinterpreting specific local challenges or denial of how water is transferred through products or economic or physical connections across scales. In the end, real-world applications of water management approaches require the combination of one or more approaches to set and achieve water management and policy goals.

On-the-ground water management implementation: theory and practice

We have selected six case studies to explore how existing water resources management frameworks have been applied across scales ranging from state- to transboundary-level. We performed a literature review on water management frameworks from Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, California, the EU and the Mekong River Basin in Southeast Asia. We also drew on our professional experiences in the selected regions to provide additional insights based on a 10-step process (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Workflow to identify implementation gaps for water management frameworks in six case studies.

Figure 2. Workflow to identify implementation gaps for water management frameworks in six case studies. Our 10-step process consists of 1. Choice of the case study area; 2. Definition of the water management framework applied; 3. Identification of the relevant regulatory framework; 4. Major framework implementation gaps (between choice of water management approach and current on-the-ground practices); 5. Applied approaches to address implementation gaps; 6. Mechanisms for water management implementation; 7. On-the-ground practices (in terms of participation, finance and operations); 8. Stakeholder mapping and different user interests; 9. Official scale for water management; 10. Governance instruments. Source: SEI.

To illustrate our findings, we will focus for now on two case studies from Colombia and the Mekong River Basin. Table 2 summarizes the major water management implementation gaps (fourth step of the revision process).

Table 2. Summary of major implementation gaps per case study according to the adopted framework for water management.

Table 2. Summary of major implementation gaps per case study according to the adopted framework for water management. Source: SEI.

Water narratives: further exploring teleconnections in Colombia and Thailand

To further explore multiscale water management processes, we present water narratives from the Campoalegre River Basin (located in the Magdalena-Cauca macro-basin, Colombia) and the Songkhram River Basin (located in the Mekong River Basin, Southeast Asia), with the example of agriculture production.

Coffee plantation comprises 24% of Campoalegre’s area, while about 45% of Songkhram produces rice. In 2019, the Campoalegre produced 15 000 metric tons of coffee, while the Songkhram produced over 1.3 million metric tons of rice. Both activities are water-intensive: each kilogram of dry parchment coffee requires 40 liters of water; rice’s water requirement is 5354 cubic meters per hectare. However, not all local water stays local.

The rice produced in Songkhram (for example, Thai jasmine, which is known for its high export quality) is also sent to nearby provinces and international markets, leaving the watershed boundary as virtual water. Only 5.3% of the coffee produced in the Campoalegre watershed is consumed in Colombia. They share a common narrative: water teleconnections. These unseen flows generate water-related dependencies beyond watershed boundaries, yet they are not explicitly considered in water management.

The water narratives from Colombia and Thailand highlight the need to consider multiscale water-related processes in the participatory instances of water decision-making within a water management framework.

The way forward: water teleconnections consideration

Adopting a solely watershed-based approach to water management and planning can lead to blind spots in how water is linked to terrestrial and freshwater systems, productive sectors such as agriculture and industry, and societal preferences. The examples of coffee and rice production in Colombia and Thailand illustrate the challenges of integrating considerations of productive sectors whose impacts operate at scales larger than water planning and management units and the complexity of the dynamics between the areas that concentrate water-dependent activities, the areas that consume the products generated and the cumulative effects. This means that the river basin may be too large for analysis of small-scale issues affecting communities and ecosystems or too small to address connections to regional or global drivers, or cumulative impacts operating beyond the boundaries of the management unit.

In summary, conventional water management strategies alone cannot fully account for these complex water teleconnections. The way forward needs to consider the scientific advances in understanding the multiple water-related interdependencies – from local to global.

Author contributions

Conceptualization and writing: Claudia Coleoni.

Supervision and revision: Marisa Escobar and Tania Santos.

Methodology: Héctor Angarita, Claudia Coleoni and Tania Santos.

Literature review for each case study: Claudia Coleoni (Bolivia and Brazil), Tania Santos and Héctor Angarita (Colombia), Uttam Ghimire (Mekong), Susie Bresney (California) and Ylva Ran (EU).

Written by

Cláudia Coleoni

Research Associate

SEI Latin America


Tania Santos

Research Fellow

SEI Latin America

Héctor Angarita
Héctor Angarita

SEI Affiliated Researcher

SEI Latin America

Profile picture of Uttam Ghimire
Uttam Ghimire

Research Associate

SEI Asia

Ylva Ran
Ylva Ran

Research Fellow

SEI Headquarters

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