Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta

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Guerrero Moreno, Naret (1); Londoño Stipanovic, Fidel (1); Mottl, Jessica (1)

(1)Students of the Master “Environmental Management” from the Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel. Final paper for the module 3.1.2 Integrated Management of Coastal Zones


The estuary and coastal lagoon systems correspond to around 15% of the world coasts. It is known that they play an important role, providing many different ecosystem services which are fundamental for the population dwelling nearby these ecosystems, or even for those in areas further away (Gónima et al. 1998). As one of these services, a very high buffer capacity has been recognized. Another aspect of the coastal lagoons is their high biodiversity with an important role of fish and invertebrate populations. Those last ones are an important economical support for the nearby communities. Proof of this is given by the fact that several civilizations have been settling near those areas. (Gónima et al. 1998).

Fast population growth has created severe problems and pressures in many of these areas and their surroundings. The demand for ecosystem services is increasing. This situation led to the total transformation of most of these ecosystems into highly contaminated places, with no food resources or even with “dead zones” which are characterized for the total absence of oxygen (Malquist 2008; Gónima et al. 1998). These have been also places which have been transformed physically and nowadays thus represent enormous costs for the population in terms of the needed measures to recover the lost ecosystem services (Gónima et al. 1998).

The current case of the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta, located in the Colombian Caribbean coast, refers to the deltaic system of the Magdalena River, which has been the most important waterway for the country since the colonial times and has been the scenario for several acts of management and mismanagement, represented by its actual condition and its reality. Nowadays in the area one can find western and Native American lifestyles, shipping and ports, wetlands and channels, highways and national parks (Restrepo Ángel 2005). This brings up some special situations for the ecosystem and a particular perspective of the future in this important region.

Description of the area:

The Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta has an area of 4280 km2 and belongs to the outer eastern deltaic system of the Madgalena River. It is situated in the north Colombian coast of the Caribbean sea, in the State (Departamento) of Magdalena, between the city of Barranquilla and the town of Ciénaga (with the reference points: 10º14’N-11º01’N and 74º15’W-74º40’W). Its main ecosystems are the mangrove areas, floodplains and coastal lagoons, which are connected by a complex net of channels, which also connect the system to the Magdalena River and to the Caribbean Sea (see figures 1 and 2). The Lagoon system by itself, occupies and area of approximately 1.300 km2 and the most important water system, the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta has an area of 450 km2, being by this the biggest and most important coastal lagoon of the country (Gónima et al. 1998).

Figure 1: Localization of the Ciénaga, (From Gocke et al. 2003)
Figure 2: The ecosystems of the Ciénaga. (From Repensando la Ciénaga 2010)

The system is connected with the Caribbean Sea through the La Barra channel, in the north part of the lagoon, passing by the Salamanca Island, which is a sand bank (barrier) consistent of sand dunes, mangroves and some other small wetlands. In the southeast it limits with the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This is the highest coastal mountain system of the world. This area is dominantly used for agriculture (banana, rice and oil palm) and has several rivers that mostly come from the glaciers on the top of the mountains. In the west it is limited by the floodplain of the Magdalena River (Gónima et al. 1998).

The climate of the area is characterized for having two rainy seasons between May -June and September-November and two dry seasons in between these. This gives special conditions to the region, allowing the system to be connected or not to the Caribbean Sea and its dynamics. It has a warm-dry climate with an average temperature of 28°C, precipitation of 400 mm/y and evapotranspiration of 1800 mm/a. Because of this dynamics and the movement of water and the connection with the rivers, the salinity of the Lagoon can vary in between 0 and 37% (Campos et al. 1991; Gónima et al. 1998).

The ecosystem is dominated by mangrove species like Avicennia germinians, Rhizophora mangle, Laguncularia racemosa and Conocarpus erectus. But their growth is limited by the salinity and by the hydrological deficit derived from the high evapotranspiration. It is also an important habitat for bird and fish species. That is why in the area 2 national parks where established, the “Santuario de flora y fauna Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta” and the “Via Parque Isla de Salamanca”.

Problems and Hazards in the Eco-Region:

  • Alteration of the hydrological cycles:

The interrelations of the three water bodies Río Magdalena, the Ciénaga and the ocean was highly disturbed by the construction of the main roads between the cities of Barranquilla and Ciénaga in the 50s, and between Palermo and Sitio Nuevo in the 70s. The first one separated the delta of the Ciénaga from the ocean by the construction of an embankment, inhibiting the exchange of waters and thus initiating the ongoing deterioration of the ecosystem. Additionally the Magdalena River was prevented from flooding the delta by the construction of channels and dikes. The artificial outlets of the river to the Ciénaga were intentionally blocked by the land owners or filled up by sediments carried by the river due to deforestation in the upstream catchment (CORPAMAG 2007, Gónima et al. 1998). The sediments carried by the river are estimated at 133 Mio t/ year. A high percentage of these sediments settle in these channels (Martínez 2005).

The outlets of the rivers draining the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the east also suffer from high aggradation rates and blockage due to the severe erosion processes caused by upstream deforestation. Aquifers in the agricultural areas are overexploited.

Thus the hydrological processes in the region got severely disrupted and the water exchanges between the water bodies got strongly limited causing extreme hyper- salinization in the soils of the laguna and the accumulation of sediments (Botero 1990, Gónima et al. 1998).

Due to the lack of sewage treatment in the region the waste waters from the neighboring settlements are discharged directly into the water bodies. The intensive application of fertilizers in agricultural practices, as well as the discharge of organic material by the rivers draining the mountains in the east (Gónima et al. 1998), leads to an additional increase in nutrient and organic material input. During the rainy season the accumulated detritus of the dying mangroves is also washed into the Ciénaga.

The reduction of water exchanges above mentioned together with this extreme nutrient accumulation leads to severe eutrophication processes causing blooms of cyanobacteria and repeating anoxic conditions in the Ciénaga (Gónima et al. 1998).

The discharge of untreated domestic and industrial waste into the rivers leads to an accumulation of a variety of contaminants, including heavy metals. This has to be added to the entrapment of pesticides from nearby agriculture that are discharged by the rivers in noxious concentrations (Espinosa et al. 1995). The investigation by Campos et al. (1991) measured the amounts of hazards stored in the leaves of the mangroves. They measured the organichlorides lindano, heptachloride, aldrin, DDE, DDD and DDT, as well as some of the most hazardous heavy metals, cadmium, copper and zinc, and additionally calcium, sodium and potassium.

Theoretically healthy mangroves are able to not only eliminate and immobilize nutrients, but also heavy metals and other contaminants (Clough et al. 1983). But tropical plants already survive at the temperature tolerance limit and get more easily disturbed if other pressures increase to a maximum level like in this case the soil salinity. This might make the mangroves more vulnerable towards high amounts of contaminants like for example the detected heavy metals (Moore, 1972).

  • Deterioration of the ecosystem

The increasing salinity of the Ciénaga Grande led to a massive die off of the mangroves (Cardona & Botero 1998). In 1966 the area still covered 51150 ha (González 1989), which was already reduced to 23510 ha by 1991 (Campos et al. 1991). This deterioration caused the habitat loss for a high number of species reducing substantially the diversity and abundance of birds, fish, invertebrates and bentic organisms associated to the mangroves (Botero & Marshall 1994).

The increase in concentration of suspended solids from the sediments washed from the deforested slopes of the Sierra Nevada might be the cause for the reduction of the oyster banks in the Ciénaga (Toro 1995). The anoxic conditions due to the cyanobacteria blooms could be, among others, the reason for the occasional massive dying of fish that occur in the Ciénaga (Mancera & Vidal 1994).

  • Other associated problems

Further degradation can be expected based on the substitution of the forests by monoculture agriculture and degrading fishing practices. A general decrease in fishery capture volume can be observed accompanied by the capture of small fish that still did not reach the age of reproduction (CORPAMAG 2007). This is a clear sign that fish stocks already reached a threatening depletion.

A high percentage of the local population is living under the poverty line, favoring the practice of prohibited fishing. Illegal settlements are establishing in the natural park. They are also blocking the water outlets of the Río Magdalena and exploit the resources of the mangroves in an inadequate manner (Martínez 2005). This is accompanied by the absence of any type of sewage treatment or waste disposal system in the region (CORPAMAG 2007).

Restoration Progress:

Due to the fast changes in the lagoon, since 1978 several projects were started to treat the problems of the Eco-region Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta. The most significant are listed below.

  • 1978: The Centro de Estudios Técnicos e Investigaciones Hidráulicas (CETIH – Center of Technical Studies and Hydraulic Investigations) realized a hydrological and saline study of the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta to suggest solutions to the ecological and social problems (INDERENA). It was not implemented.
  • 1983: SODEIC Ltda. studied the problems and possible solutions regarding the Isla de Salamanca. A water balance was elaborated and a hydrological model to calculate the existing and optimal water fluxes in this zone.
  • 1986: The Colombian Government initiated together with the FAO and the government of the Netherlands a Plan for Forestry Action for Colombia (Plan de Acción Forestal para Colombia - PAFC) which incorporated the project of the recuperation of the mangroves of the Eco-region Ciénaga Grande.
  • 1987: Establishment of the inter- institutional commission for the Recuperación del Complejo Deltáico Estuarino del Río Magdalena (Recovery of the estuarine system in the delta of the Magdalena river). Participants were: Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transporte, Ministerio de Salud, Ministerio de Agricultura, INDERENA, INCORA, SENA, CORPES C.A., Departamento de Magdalena, Departamento Nacional de Planeación, INVEMAR.
  • 1992: With the help of a credit of the Banco Interamericano de Desarollo BID to the Colombian government, the institutions CORPAMAG, INVEMAR-COLCIENCIAS, CORPES COSTA ATLANTICA and the German GTZ were able to start the studies and preparations of the project called Rehabilitación de la Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta, PROCIENAGA. The main objective was the definition and execution of a plan to handle the ecological and socio- economic conditions of the region. Four programs were developed for the operation of flora and fauna, the operation the hydrological resources, the social development and the institutional strengthening (CORPAMAG et al. 1995).
  • 1993: DebbSossaSC. was contracted to design the hydraulic structures necessary through the development of a simulation model of the Cienaga hydrological system.
  • 1994: A Plan for Social Alleviation (Plan de Alivio Social - PAS) was conducted by the government, facilitating €1.2 Mio. through the Social Solidarity Network (Red de Solidaridad Social) to aspects related to alimentation, health, housing and education.
  • 1994: With the help of credits from the Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo (BID) and investments of the GTZ the development of the component Recuperation of the Ciénaga Grande of Santa Marta (Componente de Recuperación de la Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta) starts. The four sub- components are: hydraulics, monitoring, socio- ecologic and protected areas (PROCIENAGA project). More than € 9 Mio. were spent to recover the outlets of the Río Magdalena to provide freshwater to the system, for the implementation of monitoring campaigns, to establish or strengthen local organizations and CORPAMAG and to maintain projects regarding aquaculture, fisheries and agro- ecology (Martínez 2005).
  • 1998: Declaration of the wetland to the first Colombian RAMSAR site.
  • 2000: Declaration of the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta as Biosphere Reserve of the UNESCO

Future perspectives for the restoration of the Ciénaga Grande:

As mentioned above, in the Ciénaga Grande we find a high diversity of plant and animal species, but these are being affected by a bad management of the resources and the lack of a sewage treatment in the area. The problems in the Ciénaga affect not only the local population, but also the international community, given its regulation of climate at a global scale. For these reasons the Ciénaga Grande was recognized as a Ramsar site (1998) and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (2000).

In 1997 the German Government together with the Colombian Government, with the support of regional institutions and local communities, developed the Project for the Rehabilitation of the Ciénaga Grande of Santa Marta (Agenda Común). This project brought good results. The most important was the formulation of a integrated plan for the management of the area, which included the management of the hydraulic system, improvement of the institutions involved, the social development and the recovery of the flora and fauna, among others. Also, it was the beginning of the action of public and private sectors together, through a meeting for finding solutions to the environmental problems.

Unfortunately, the lack of responsibility of the local government, and the insecurity of the area stopped the improvement of the environmental situation. The regional institutions and local leaders decided to continue the positive results obtained before and to improve the management of the Ciénaga. Thus in 2000 the Common Agenda of the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta was created, which aims to work together for a better management of the resources, and to define a coordinated work with all the parties involved (Agenda Común). The Common Agenda comprises 4 areas:

  • Education and culture: implies the creation of the base for a new adaptive culture.
  • Natural system: includes actions to improve the situation of the soils, water and flora and fauna, including monitoring.
  • Socio-economy: proposes clean technologies for the production of different sectors, promotes the use of renewable energy.
  • City and environment: brings the concept of green city to the action.

In the Common Agenda, it is recommended that the organizations that started to work during the Colombian-German Project should continue to work, in order to facilitate the management of the eco-region of the Ciénaga Grande. It is still implemented today.

The working groups of INVEMAR – Institute of Marine Investigations - every year monitor the status of the plant communities and the fish production in the Ciénaga Grande for the last 10 years (1999-2009), for the evaluation of the new water regime during the process of recovery of the ecosystem (INVEMAR).

From 2001 to 2003 the Colombian Government carried out the social program Strategic Alliances, for bringing the native human populations back to the Ciénaga Grande, who were displaced due to the violence and insecurity in the area. They developed a series of projects called The Blue Revolution (Moscarella & Pinilla 2000), which presented alternative solutions for a clean production in agriculture and the maintenance of the habitat for the flora and fauna, having in account the economic development of the local community in the future.

From 2005 to 2007 in the Salamanca Island investigations on the status of Lepidopyga lilliae, an endangered bird species, were carried out to monitor the progress of recovery after the Project of Rehabilitation, which ended in 2001. Also, the working group of the Park evaluates from 2007 the abundance of mammals within the park, and the development of the marine fish communities.

In 2005 the implementation of the law 981 for the use of transit taxes for crossing the road Ciénaga(town)-Barranquilla, which has caused the biggest damage to the Ciénaga Grande, for the recovery of the area. The organization CORMAGDALENA uses these taxes for the maintenance (dredging), the monitoring on the state of soils, water and flora and fauna, and the maintenance of an aquaculture farm for the management of local communities (CORPAMAG 2008). The project is planned to last from 2006 until 2020.

In January 2008 an international Workshop-seminar on the Analysis and challenges of the management in the socio-ecological system of the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta was held in the city of Santa Marta. There it was pointed that one of the biggest problems for the improvement of the Ciénaga is the lack of communication between parties. For this reason the tool for dialogue Repensando la Ciénaga (Rethinking the Swamp) was created. It is a website where the interested parties can access to detailed information of the workshop and others.


Coastal systems provide many ecosystem services as climate regulation, food provision and biodiversity. The biggest and more important coastal lagoon in Colombia – the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta-, has also a high biodiversity, and provides fish and other services for the community. But due to the ignorance on the importance of the ecosystem, drastic changes were allowed in the system, such as the construction of dikes and of a road through the lagoon, and the opening of channels. These changes had consequences like alterations in the hydraulics of the lagoon, perturbing the exchange between water bodies; eutrophication, increase in salinity, which removed vast areas of mangroves, which at the same time affected the biodiversity, and therefore the ecosystem services given by it.

Because of the impacts on the system, local and international organizations implemented different projects to recover the lagoon system.

Since the restoration of the freshwater inlets the hydrological regime has been improved, salinity has decreased, and consequently the fishery capture and the surface area of the mangroves are increasing. The entire region is now under the protection of international agreements like Ramsar and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Also, two national Parks have been created to protect the mangrove area.

The communities in the area have been part of capacity building programs. The official competences have been delimited and established. An increase in local agricultural production can be observed. The baselines for chemical and sanitary quality of water have been established. The risk levels of heavy metals and other contaminants where established.

The main driver for the change in the Ciénaga was the integration of social and ecological aspects of the problem, with the collaboration of public and private sectors working together.


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