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Utopian River Planning and Hydrosocial Territory Transformations in Colombia and Spain

Bibiana Duarte-Abadía
Water Resources Management Group, Wageningen University and Research, 6708 PB Wageningen, The Netherlands
Water 2023, 15(14), 2545;
Submission received: 4 April 2023 / Revised: 24 June 2023 / Accepted: 27 June 2023 / Published: 11 July 2023


This paper examines how utopian river planning has arisen in Colombia and Spain since the late nineteenth century. Specifically, the paper contributes to understanding how particular ideologies of modernism and development present in territorial planning connect both countries. Taking Thomas More’s classic work ‘Utopia’ as the analytical reference, I analyze how utopian tendencies have traveled through time and space to shape territorial planning and water governance. In both countries, this was evident in the late nineteenth century through the political project to strengthen the nation state. For Spain, I describe the regenerationist movement and the hydraulic utopia led by the Spanish intellectual Joaquín Costa, who forged the dream of a water nationhood. By contrast, in Colombia, several political intellectuals looked at Europe and North America as a source of inspiration to achieve progress by controlling rivers. Through the method of disjunctive comparison, I show how the same utopian notions are expressed in similar ways in distinct contexts: violently governing the flows of rivers, standardizing minds and ordering territories towards capital growth. This paper contributes to grasping the notions and roots of the discourses that have colonized the political water agendas in both countries.

1. Introduction

Historically, many natural resource policy interventions, territorial development programs, and structural adjustment plans have deployed discourses that project utopian ideas of rescuing society from its structural chaos. They evoke imagined worlds that dream about directing society towards a new, idealized future based on universal order and common well-being. Especially the nineteen century is recognized as the time of an intense proliferation of such ideologies and the rise of modern utopian projects. At the same time, the philosophical currents of liberalism, socialism, positivism, and technocracy, among others, shaped progress and informed the idea and political project of the nation state [1]. As a result, by the end of that century, countries as distant as Spain and Colombia were involved in a similar, desperate search to consolidate a new national identity and build the nation state. In Colombia, intellectual politicians imported foreign knowledge and political ideologies from Europe and North America [2,3]. The Colombian independentist project adopted the ideas from political liberalism upon which the Modern Cosmopolitan State was established [3]. Progress was focused on unifying the country by constructing roads and stimulating industries using hydropower [4,5]. In Spain, after losing its last colonies and faling as a global empire, the intellectual movement of “Regenerationism” promoted an internal colonization, where the focus shifted to solving internal problems rather than colonizing far-away regions. For this, the regenerationist movement, led by Joaquín Costa, planned to revive the country through hydraulic modernization and the redistribution of water resources throughout the country. He hoped that this way, the poor agrarian conditions and social unrest would be improved simultaneously [6,7,8,9]. Part of the effort to strengthen the modern state in both countries in the late nineteen century, was the control of rivers to order and rule nature and society at once [10,11,12,13,14]. These hydrosocial projects and the underlying utopian notions related to modernity, progress, and economic freedom, are the focus of this paper.
An integral part of utopias and utopian ideas is the production of specific modes of knowing the socio-natural world. This knowledge production tends to be universal: normalizing a certain understanding of the world, while ignoring or suppressing others. As a result, utopias conduct us to accept these idealized projects as ‘normal’, without considering the means needed to reach the dreamed-for order. According to Achterhuis [15], violence, imposition, domination, and oppression are common in all utopias. Both literature and historical political experiences have shown that, to make utopias a reality, past and existing orders must disappear to build and create a new society ([16], p. 29). As a result, cultural diversity, vernacular knowledge, and other world views are commonly undermined.
In this article, I unpack the utopias that have been historically embedded in land and water management policies in Spain and Colombia. I explain how utopias have traveled through time and space from the sixteenth century onwards, shaping past and contemporary water and territorial ordering plans. As an analytical reference, I take the classic work of ‘Utopia’ by Thomas More (1516). Utopia is an imaginary world in which nature and society are harmoniously organized using expertocracy, planning, utilitarianism, positivism, and commensuration. Similar utopian notions have shaped nation state projects and the connected, modernist hydrosocial-territorial planning, both in Spain and Colombia (see also [17]). In Spain, the regenerationist movement believed in their capacities; they pursued Costa’s hydraulic policy to revive the national identity, create a new culture, and change the political and economic direction. In contrast, Colombia imported external thoughts, which were promulgated by the political intellectuals of the nineteenth century. These new ideological currents combined economic liberalism with hydro-territorial planification models led by foreign missions in the twentieth century. Specifically, I will refer to the three North American experts, Lauchlin Currie, David Lilienthal, and Albert Hirschman. Their legacies continue impacting water policies until today, seeking to order territories and people’s minds.
The following section describes the methodology for analytically comparing Spain and Colombia, as well as the research methods used in fieldwork to unpack the utopian river planning. The Section 3 explains Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ and its influence on the classical philosophical currents triggered in the eighteenth century. The Section 4 illustrates the “high modernism” shape the desired hydrosocial territory planification. The Section 5 shows the regenerationist dream and hydraulic utopia led by the Spanish intellectual Joaquín Costa in the late nineteenth century, as well as its materialization during the Franco regime (1939–1975), taking the violent interventions in the Guadalhorce River as an example. The Section 6 traces the utopian notions embedded in Colombian political thought in the nineteenth century and its evolution in the following centuries. Lastly, I illustrate how utopian projects may cause dystopian stories for riverine inhabitants, documenting the suffering caused by the Sogamoso hydroelectric project. I close by arguing that the historical hydro-territorial planning processes in both countries have sought the creation of planned, unified, utilitarian, and technocratic societies in a similar manner.

2. Methodology

This article is based on a historical and political literature review of Spain and Colombia. The disjunctive comparison method allows to analyze two distinct, at first sight unrelated two case studies [18]. It consists of unpacking cultural patterns that create fixed and limited units, which make it impossible to reinterpret different cultural worlds. Following [19], this method is characteristic of interpretative anthropology and makes use of comparison categories to guide the investigation. These categories make it possible to analyze similarities and differences of what is incomparable [20]. To this end, Ref. [18] proposes to create generic categories from specific particularities, capable of transferring from one society/culture to another. Following these three authors and based on Thomas More’s work, I defined three analytical categories or utopian notions: positivism, utilitarianism, and expertocracy (scientific racism) (see Figure 1). These categories allow to shed light on the similarities and difference of these two countries regarding river governance history.
To understand how utopian thoughts have been shaped and displayed in the political regimes to order hydrosocial territories in Spain, I reviewed and analyzed Joaquín Costa’s works: ‘Oligarquía y caciquismo: colectivismo agrario y otros escrito’s ‘ (Oligarchy and caciquism: agrarian collectivism and other writings) [21] (written in 1880) and ‘Política Hidráulica (Hydraulic Politicpolicy) (written in 1911) [22]. For Colombia, I examined the work of Jaime Jaramillo [23] ‘El pensamiento colombiano en el siglo XIX’ (Colombian thought in the 19th century).
The findings and analysis of the hydrosocial territory dystopias were based on crossing secondary literature, fieldwork from my doctoral dissertation, and published books [24]. I used different research methods, such as interviews with communities affected by dam projects (farmers and fishing communities), participatory observations, and the collection of journalistic reports. In Spain, I have particularly studied the case of the Guadalhorce River in Andalusia. Since the early twentieth century, the construction of different hydraulic works has channeled and dammed this river to supply water to Malaga City. Meanwhile, Andalusian farmers have been deprived of using and accessing their water freely. In Colombia, the case study is the Sogamoso River in the middle Magdalena Santander region (see Figure 2). In 2009, the hydroelectric project on this river drastically changed the lives of its inhabitants, imposing a new hydro-territorial order. In both cases, I documented the rooted and silenced stories of the existing riverine populations.

3. Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ and Its Heritage

Since Plato imagined the ideal state in ‘The Republic’ (in 380 B.C.), and Thomas More wrote ‘Utopia’ [25] (in 1516), a long philosophical and political literary tradition has appeared with hundreds of works and designs that sought to concretize the art of utopian governance’. Utopias justify themselves by the presumed existence or imagination of structural chaos and profound societal crises. In response, utopias project ideals that evoke imaginary worlds and better futures [16,26]. More’s ‘Utopia’ can be understood as a critique of the fifteenth-century European society, where early capitalist exploitation led to the enclosure of the commons: sheep production and its oligopolies enclosed and prevented people’s access to their collective farms and crops, generating hunger and misery. In this context, More’s world of ‘Utopia’ is a protest against the abuse of power by incipient capitalism. It is the story of an island called Utopia founded by Utopos, a conqueror who raised an ignorant and disorderly peasantry to a level of development and civilization [25]. More invented the word “utopia” by combining two Greek words: Eutopos, meaning “good place”, and Outopos, translating to “no place”. Utopia is thus an ideal but non-existent place or society; it is a discourse, a piece of descriptive fiction [1].
A central aspect of More’s ‘Utopia’ is the uniformity among society and societal members, to serve the public good. As a result, there is no room for opponents, who are considered deviant or even criminal, in a system of totalitarianism. Colonial, patriarchal, oppressive, domination, and control relations are at the base of the utopian project [10]. More stated that the overpopulation of the island would justify colonization towards “areas where the indigenous population owns more land than they can cultivate” ([25], p. 33); the utopian administration would make sure to “transform a land that seemed miserable and cursed into abundant for all” ([25], p. 34). Should the natives object to living under utopian jurisdiction, the colonists have the right to expel them ([25], p. 65). Any resistance to the occupation and possession of unproductive lands would justify war by those who needed it [25].
More’s work is loaded with utilitarian, positivist, and expertocratic principles. I define each of these principles as utopian tendencies or philosophical currents that have been shaping society towards idealized coexistence. During the nineteenth century, different thinkers agreed to organize and govern society under these intellectual currents. Each one has contributed to utopianism in politics and their social and technical projects, both in Spain and Colombia and other countries worldwide.

3.1. Positivism

The construction of the philosophical current of positivism is primarily attributed to Auguste Comte (1798–1857). From his point of view, society and reality should be studied with a scientific method that organizes and understands domains separately and accurately, which would depend on men’s dominion over nature. Thus, Comte projected a unified and technified planet, designed and governed through industrial development and the scientific thought (Comte, 1830–1842, in [27]). In the same way, on Thomas More’s island, the talent of the utopians was favored by the study of science, research, and technology that would make their lives easier ([28], p. 92). Comte’s positivism supported the strengthening of the technocratic utopia, based on the belief that the ruling classes should organize their socio-political relations following the orientation of technological expertise, to achieve progress and welfare for society [29].

3.2. Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham (1806–1873) is recognized as the father of the philosophical doctrine of utilitarianism, which seeks to promote happiness as the goal of ethics and government [10,15]. The principle of utility is based on the principle of producing the greatest happiness. What is useful is defined as those actions most desirable for the most significant number of people involved [30]. Stuart Mill followed Bentham’s thoughts; he assumed that the sacrifice of an individual for the public good should be considered the highest virtue. Both authors, like in Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’, saw no problem sacrificing minorities to bring happiness to majorities. However, they assumed that majorities were not fit to govern; the virtues of reason were only found in enlightened minorities. Therefore, power should be limited to the majorities as the essence of the State and positivist protection of the freedom and rights of minorities ([23], pp. 151, 168).

3.3. Scientific Racism and Expertocracy

In Thomas More’s island design; space, nature, and society are perfectly organized through Utopos’ development. His endeavor was based on technocratic ideas, which were, over time accompanied by racist beliefs that emerged from the theory of social Darwinism proposed by Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). According to Spencer, society worked along the lines of Charles Darwin’s laws of natural evolution in which only the fittest and most capable individuals survive.
In Latin American societies, this implied processes of exclusion and ethnic discrimination [31]. The Creole elites considered the Indian race as inferior; only the European race would be suitable to lead these countries toward progress and modernity [31,32,33].

4. High Modernism and Hydrosocial Territory Planification

Hydrosocial territories allude to the interactions between society, technology, institutions, and ecology: multiple systems of knowledge, values, and modes of rules and authority actively compete to form the imaginaries and relationships of the desired hydrosocial territory [34]. I will show how the imaginaries and desired orders are defined by utopias about modernity, progress, and economic freedom.
These utopian tendencies are intrinsically entwined with projects aiming to establish nation states at the end of the nineteenth century, intensifying in the twentieth century. Scott [35] refers to such undertakings as “high modernism”, which implies a total break with history and tradition to completely re-order nature and society through the application of scientific knowledge. It follows that only those who have this knowledge are fit to rule.
Baud [32] has shown how such ideologies have been inserted into the core of political and intellectual thought in Latin America at the end of the nineteenth century. Latin American elites believed that applying scientific research and methods would solve their countries’ social and political problems [32]. For this reason, the training of scientific politicians was a central element in the consolidation and empowerment of the State. The State would engineer society, while industry and private companies would transform nature [35].
As I will examine below, the histories of hydrosocial territory planning in Spain and Colombia demonstrate how the technological-modernist thinking about rivers and society led to the formation of a technocratic system under the rule of enlightened minorities who control and decide over the majority’s life [17,36,37,38,39]. Such minority rule is based on Spencer’s racist thoughts as well as the proclamation of enlightened minorities (and to-be-governed majorities) as declared by Stuart Mill and More’s Utopos on his island. As a result, bureaucrats, engineers, technicians, and planners are commissioned to control and order territories, discipline individuals, and standardize society, in order to reach maximum effectiveness and utility, as imagined by Bentham’s vision.
The modernism project had universalist traits; it transformed nature into quantifiable, tangible, and manipulable qualities to control human life and discipline their passions rationally. The desire was to order society and nature for the benefit of development, the continuous cycle of growth, change, and innovation [1], and unlimitedly use natural resources to satisfy every desire and human need. The configuration of “hydrosocial territories” [34] took the models of liberal societies such as England, France, Germany, Italy and the United States as a referent to trace a path of salvation [40].
In the mid-twentieth century, planning became a tool to make the benefits of technical and scientific progress tangible [41]. Establishing standard simplification measures to exploit nature rationally was essential in the hydro-territorial planning processes (see [42]). It meant abstracting and representing reality through commensuration, standardizing diversities and complexities of life to put them into a standard metric [43]. Commensuration transforms visions, cultural values, and knowledge to make them comparable, manageable, and governable towards the benefit of ‘majorities’ [10]. It is a key mechanism for harmonizing divergent interests and values to transform nature towards the desired order.
Thus, utopian thoughts of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries presented similar unrealistic bodies and tendencies: First, everything stems from the belief and desire to order society and nature for modernization and economic development. Second, societies are chaotic and must be ordered. This order entails commensuration processes. Third, societies have to maximize their happiness to maximize their income. Utility and economic profit should be the most important criteria for judging human activities. These three elements are normally legitimized by a social discourse that proposes to help the entire population, eradicating poverty and ancient structures. The modern utopia often implies the exclusion of a large population, denigration of widespread knowledge, and a totalitarian faith in experts (see also [17]). In the following sections I will dissect how Spain and Colombia expressed and landed their fantastic hydraulic designs and territorial projects.

5. Spain

5.1. Joaquín Costa’s Hydraulic Utopia

Joaquín Costa was one of the protagonists of “Regenerationism”, which was a political-intellectual movement that sought to radically change society for national improvement by implementing hydraulic mastery, increasing agricultural production, and establishing decentralized river management [7]. The regenerationists admired and pursued Joaquín Costa’s thoughts because his works presented Spain’s problems and aimed to change its situation. For instance, in his work ‘Oligarquía y caciquismo’, Costa [21] places the country in misery, hunger, insufficient food production, and political stagnation. The dominant power structures based on oligarchy and landowners prevented its improvement [44].
In his opinion, the development of Spain was lacking behind when compared to the rest of Europe, and already powerful countries such as Germany, France, and England. Costa aspired to turn Spain into the first European agricultural power through the construction of hydraulic works. In his work, ‘La Política Hidráulica’ [22], he argued that an adequate use and manipulation of water flows would revive decayed Spain and regenerate the spirit of social misery caused by the agrarian crisis of 1880. His work portrays his nostalgic admiration for the cultural trace left by the Arabs in the Iberian landscape, constantly invigorating the memory of that culture in his deliberations about irrigation ([22], p. 1).
To establish a new socio-natural order, the regeneration movement strengthened the positivist and scientific understanding of nature to maximize the use of its waters. ‘La Política Hidráulica’ reflected Comte’s positivism, Bentham’s utilitarian notion, and Herbert Spencer’s scientific racism. Forming a body of technicians and engineers would lead to the radical transformation of society-nature [44,45]. Costa stated that Spain should begin its internal colonization through redistributing water from the large landholders to deliver it to the lands of the peasantry’s smallholdings [26]. In this way, agricultural production would be extended and diversified throughout the country, and social reform would dissolve social inequalities in the countryside. Consequently, in 1907 the Colonization and Interior Repopulation Law was promulgated, accompanied by the law on state-financed construction of hydraulic works [46]. Land and water redistribution would multiplicate smallholdings and parcels, and public utility would justify expropriation [44,46].
The hydraulic politics utopia conceived the State as representative of the general interest. Costa held the idea of an interventionist State, defender of peasants, the poor, and protector of the common good, all benefiting from hydraulic development. The defense of the common good would imply the nationalization of the waters (Water Law of 1879) and the land, with the State being the leading representative. To direct this process of reviving the nation, Costa formulated the need for an “iron surgeon” or a head of State (authorized by the community as a whole). Such an ideal leader knew the anatomy of the people well, embodied common interests, built harmonious pacts with the people (considered as a network of collaborators of the social classes), and could regenerate the country and represent the national identity.
Simultaneously, Costa was aware of the need to support the powers of the State and, therefore, proposed the formation of the “hydrographic confederations”. That is, instead of political–administrative units, society, and its economy, would be directed from “natural hydrological units”: “Hydrographic basins would become the scale par excellence through which modernizers would try to undermine or erode traditional powers or national State bodies. Thus the regenerationist engineers incorporated the naturalization of the basins into their political project” ([47], p. 108). In 1926, the engineer Manuel Lorenzo Pardo was among the first to launch the Trade Union Hydrographic Confederation (CHSS: Confederación Hidrográfica Sindical): the Ebro Hydrographic Confederation. The CHSS was the institution that would be in charge of carrying out the Hydraulic Works Plan and the internal colonization of the country. These administrative units envisioned a river system uniting society as a family, similar to how the island of Thomas More worked [25].
The hydraulic utopia sought to improve “the race of the Spanish man” to form the “new man” to get Spain out of cultural, political, and economic backwardness [26]. Therefore, Costa privileged technical education, agricultural indoctrination processes, and the thoughts of hydraulic experts. Through positivist science, the new experts would be trained to master the waters. They would carry out hydrographic and orographic studies to put them at the service of modernism into which Spain needed to enter. The Corps of Engineers became the light of development, representing themselves as saviors of the nation [13]. Each reservoir built was a symbol of modernism, a concrete work of progress, and a cult towards that national identity that had weakened [48]. In this sense, Costa’s hydraulic policy proposed to intervene at the core of society and its territories to transform them: through the distribution and control of its waters.
In reality, however, as previously mentioned, the projection of desired orders onto hydrosocial territories often turns into dystopias [49]. The following section illustrates how the regenerationists’ hydraulic utopia generated contradictory effects by the time it materialized.

5.2. Franco’s Hydraulic Surgery

The civil war Spain faced between 1936 and 1939 meant the failure of the peace and scientific prosperity project, which many of the regenerationists had advocated. The close power relations between feudalism and the oligarchy prevented land reform and redistribution. Most of the peasants in Spain continued to live in conditions of poverty, hunger, and human injustice. Consequently, various agitations and social tensions arose in different parts of the country. Communists, anarchists, and socialists would face the unified and integrated vision that the regenerationist movement evoked. Therefore, many communities and regions sought their path towards independence. Soon, however, the civil war became the means of domination by which the conservative and liberal forces came to order the “ideological and political chaos” that hindered the regeneration and unification of the Spanish homeland [50]. The victory of the nationalist front led by Francisco Franco projected the transformation of the various regional identities and hydro-socio logics to align them under a single dominant government system [51]. Ironically, similar to Costa’s writings, the Falangists promoted the need for an “iron surgeon”, to undertake “surgical politics”. One of the dark faces of the regenerationist utopia was a head of State capable of representing the interest of the majority, reaffirming the national identity, and building the national hydraulic system; that is, “surgical remedy” to correct the “water imbalances of the country” and thus regenerate the soil and increase agricultural production [11].
One of the missions at the beginning of the Franco dictatorship (1939–1975) was to adopt Joaquín Costa’s hydraulic policy to integrate the national territory. The urgent need was the national patriotic regeneration and to break any regionalist or autonomous aspiration. Franco’s regime consolidated the national patriotic union; dominant social groups, united under the same discourse, mobilized to fulfill the political project advocated by the regenerationists, “unification, peace, and national integrity” [6]. On the one hand, the power alliances woven between the military, the church, the national industrial bourgeoisie, the landowners, and the state corporation showed how the hydraulic works led to industrial development and the entrance to modernity [46]. On the other hand, a body of consolidated engineers occupied most of the political positions to direct the ministries. Meanwhile, the large landholders supported the regime as long as it promised not to alter the distribution of property and, instead, proposed to build new towns.
The democratic ideas, the project of social justice and protection for the common good, defended by Costa in his social reform, were dissolved under the Franco government. The concept of “general interest” was replaced by “national interest”, which ended up satisficing the purposes of the regime’s families and the businesses of the great power groups [52]. The same happened with the democratic, participatory, and collective structure pillars that shaped the CHSS. This perspective was replaced in 1942 by a more centralized and nationalist hydraulic administration [6]. In addition, the internal colonization regeneration project took another turn: the National Institute of Colonization (INC) purchased the communal dry lands and marshes to enable irrigation extension. The INC stopped the land distribution to peasants and small producers without property, and stimulated the Law of Forced Expropriation for purposes of national interest (the Forced Expropriation Law grants the State the right to expropriate at a “fair price”, that is, what the government considers fair). As for the traditional irrigation systems (mostly of Arab heritage) that Costa admired, they were destroyed or adapted to be part of a canal, swamp, and reservoir plan. Indeed, from 180 reservoirs that existed in 1939, they increased to 800 in 1975; 58% of these were destined for power generation, and only 32% for irrigation [6].
Water planning after the 1950s was more concerned with satisfying the needs of the industrial sector than those of agriculture [53]. In this way, the social mission of irrigation, proclaimed by Costa’s hydraulic policy during Franco’s regime, became the mission of electrification and industrial modernization. For the many affected communities, the regenerationist hydraulic utopia would manifest as the intensely dark face of the hydraulic-territorial dream of Spain. Its drastic and violent interpretation through the fascist dictatorship of Franco would remain for many years after the transition to democracy. For instance, rural communities in the Guadalhorce River experienced forced mobilization towards the “colonization towns”. There the peasants were subjected to agricultural indoctrination, abandoned their traditional Arab irrigation systems, and lost the self-governance of their hydrological systems [36]. In this case, the hydraulic utopia in the name of the national interest meant accepting the self-sacrifice of Andalusian peasant families in exchange for obtaining the well-being of the “majorities” [36]. Today, most of the water dammed from the Guadalhorce River is transferred to the growing tourism sector of Malaga. Tourism development was another dream of Franco. Since the 1960s and 1970s, this new economic engine marked profound transformations in southern Spain’s hydrosocial and territorial planning [36].

5.3. The Silenced Voices: Stories of Social Displacement in the Guadalhorce River

In this section, I aim to show the testimonies of the inhabitants who experienced the materialization of the hydraulic dream during Franco’s regime and the new hydrosocial relations between Malaga City and the Guadalhorce Valley. In the upper basin, the river was dammed by three large dams (1966–1973), while along the river, on both sides, irrigation canals were built. These hydraulic works had a double purpose: to irrigate the valley and to supply water to Malaga City [7]. The testimonies presented in this section correspond to the fieldwork and interviews made about one dam of the Guadalhorce River: El Chorro (see Figure 3).
In 1972, El Chorro dam flooded the fertile lands of several Andalusian families. The electricity company, Sevillana, came to buy plots and rural houses at the most reasonable price for the State and the hydroelectric industry. Manolo was a child when the government ousted his family from their farm. He can’t forget this moment: “In 1974, the expropriations began. I still remember when the machines came in to tear up the groves we had tended so lovingly. […] The expropriation, dam-building, and uprooting of people from their land and customs were all traumatic” (pers. Comm., 22 June 2016 in [7]). His mother added: “I remember seeing the bulldozers there, waiting to clear out the trees laden with lemons. It was so sad and sorrowful. While the machinery razed everything, all the children cried like babies; it was terrible” (pers. Comm., 6 October 2016, in [7]). She was 35 years when she had to leave her rural life. She never got to be happy in the Andalusian cities. His son argues: “we were displaced in time and space” (pers. Comm., 6 October 2016 in [7]). The trauma of displacement was not only experienced by the parents; the memories of the dispossession are transmitted in the following generations. For Manolo, flooding his lands meant losing his family’s rights to hand them over to outside interests, to an anonymous modernization.
The new territorial order contains multiple dystopian faces reflected in the rural exodus and empty landscapes where the ruins of farmhouses exist now. According to [54], approximately 80% of the population moved from the surrounding towns to Malaga, 15% migrated from the city to rural areas or intermediate towns, and 5% remained in rural areas. Today the primary use of the Guadalhorce River is to supply the water demands of Malaga City, highly represented by the tourist population and the establishment of golf courses. This situation has caused unrest among farmers. From their perspective, using water for domestic consumption covers lucrative activities. At the same time, inhabitants and food producers are deprived of using water from a system that was initially built for them.
The current hydrosocial relations between Malaga City and Guadalhorce Valley reflect how utilitarian notions privilege fictitious majorities, mainly constituted by a seasonal and outsider population. Simultaneously, this utilitarianism is supported through the technical domain to govern the Guadalhorce River, based on positivist knowledge. The failures of positivism lie in constituting itself as a universal knowledge, excluding multiple wisdom and water governance practices. Thus, the intertwined relation between positivism and utilitarian notions hinders the alternatives to break the long cycle of river domestication and its destruction.

6. Colombia

6.1. Political Thought in the Nineteenth Century

The Colombian dream of independence was full of contradictions manifested in the tendency to look back at its colonial past and compare itself to the European and North American world. Its leaders imported knowledge and external political models to construct a cosmopolitan nationalism and the nation state [3]. They adopted the ideas of political liberalism—progress and free circulation of goods, ideas, knowledge, technologies, and resources—and shaped the imaginary of Colombian modernity [3]. According to Florentino (1984, cited by [55], p. 146), “progress meant improving material conditions; to do so it was essential to open roads, fix waterways, measure and divide communal lands, attract foreign immigrants, and give life to commerce. None of this was possible without knowing the country’s details and without maps to guide yourself”. Just as the regenerationist movement proposed to study Spain with precision to make it a modern country, the chorographic commission (1850–1859) and the scientific expeditions in Colombia (led by Europeans and Spaniards) proposed to carry out a detailed description of the national territory to inventory existing resources [56].
The legacy of Comte, Stuart Mill, Bentham, and Spencer in Latin America paved the way for the modern world. It aimed to conquer nature through science and organize a society in which the engineer represented the new man’s ideal ([23], p. 444). Importantly, utopian inspirations reached Colombia through the activities and ideas of Colombian political intellectuals such as José Eusebio Caro (1817–1853), José María Samper (1828–1888), Miguel Samper (1825–1899), and Rafael Núñez (1825–1894). Based on the work ‘El pensamiento colombiano en el siglo XIX’, by Jaime Jaramillo [23], in this section, I will show how utopian thoughts permeated Colombian political-economic thinking in the nineteenth century until guiding the country’s hydro-territorial planning models in the twentieth century through the missions of foreign experts (see also [48]).
Many historians consider José Eusebio Caro one of the first and most important Latin American positivists. He proposed to obtain human social perfectibility through science, printing, progress, and the free association of individuals [23,57]. Like the hierarchical relationship between superior races (utopians) and inferior races (barbarians) in More’s work, Caro accepted harmonious relations in society as long as technical experts of the white race directed it. For their part, the intellectuals and brothers Miguel Samper and José María Samper were the most prominent exponents of English classical liberalism [23]. Like Stuart Mill, they agreed to limit the power of the State to the will of the majority and put it at the service of enlightened minorities in defense of individual freedom. For Miguel Samper, the development would come from the work of a private company. Therefore, he defended laissez-faire policies to guarantee individual sovereignty and harmonize social relations. The latter would be based on commercial exchange and dependency relationships between social classes. He visualized nature and all its elements as a vast field for developing industrial activity and free trade ([5], p. 250).
Moreover, José María Samper conceived the State as the controller of national life and the caretaker of social classes that promoted development. For him, society was born from a free contract of individuals. He considered that: “In Colombia, an immense world, almost entirely wild, it was necessary that colonizers were not the governments, but the individuals … it is the individuals who, by freely exploiting those territories, creating interests and associating, they prepare the ground for any collective or governmental action” ([23], p. 51). Similar to utopian management, settlers were required to transform communal lands into rich and productive land [25]. Le Grand [58] documented that this internal colonization began in Colombia as early as 1880 with the continuous expansion of the agricultural frontier, forced displacement of traditional populations, and the deployment of armed conflict.
For these Colombian intellectuals, Spencer represented a way to undertake the creation of the industry and the expansion of modern capitalism, and to face the political, economic, and social problems the country was experiencing [23]. Their ideology highlighted the construction of modern industrial men to reach perfectibility. Since 1850, the idea of producing helpful knowledge and implanting the practical spread through technical-scientific education remained as a way to maintain social order and thus contribute to national well-being [59,60]. Like in Spain, engineers undertook the mission of public service, promoted technical education, encouraged the construction of public works, and guided the nation’s politicians in decisions about the development and progress of the country [59].
In developing this mission, as Menga and Swyngedouw [48] suggested, water reinforces national identity and the construction of the nation state, as it is the basis for energy, industrial, and agricultural export development. Thus, at the end of the nineteenth century, in urban centers of the Santander department, foreign engineers explored the falls and water sources to foresee energy use. However, at the national level, the sociopolitical panorama still prevented the forging of the nation state project. It was necessary to unify the differences between liberal and conservative politicians, discipline the races, and normalize the rebellious masses [2,3].
Combining the doctrines of Bentham and Stuart Mill, Rafael Núñez—defined by Jaramillo [23] as the most outstanding representative of neoliberalism within modern Colombian thought—set out to promote a conciliatory policy based on religion. The church would serve as an element of cohesion between the various peoples and empower the State ([23], p. 301). Under the ideals of peace, tolerance, and unification, Núñez’s political work is known as the “regeneration” (1878–1900). In this period, Colombia saw the Spanish legacy as a way to evade the ideological influences of socialism, communism, and anarchism that were strengthened in Europe [3]. It meant to put aside the external mirages and look at the country’s internal conditions—ironically, similar to the ideas of the Spanish regenerationists. Individuals had to be reorganized and regenerated through religion and governmental action. For this, it was necessary to integrate the people into the elites’ projects, thus avoiding the violence generated by political differences. Consequently, regenerationism raised the nationalist ideology under the construction of the norm and authority, referents that paradoxically were adopted from conservative Europe [3]. The repressive apparatus, the interference of the elites in political life, and little popular participation strengthened the State authority.

6.2. Liberal Water Policies and Its Utopian Contents

The water law of 1915 reflected the utilitarian doctrine introduced by Núñez. It established that the missions of the State and individuals were to provide “The greatest happiness for the greatest number”. Water was conceived as: “an element of driving force of easy and cheap application that must reach the greatest possible number, and as an essential element for life, civil laws must regulate its use in a manner that humanity derives from it the greatest amount of utility” ([61], p. 5). Benthamist conceptions created a universal language to construct efficient laws for social control. This was similar to the language of mathematics that seeks to reduce the complexities of individuals and thus facilitate the art of government. Guaranteeing maximum use for the most significant number implied that: “ [...] Colombian waters would be regulated under scientific principles and according to the needs of the country” ([61], p. 11). It implied that no water should flow into the sea without first having produced the goods for which province destined them [61].
Starting modernity, together with economic development and the urgency of industrializing the country, required strengthening the order in the legislature for the use of water. Valerio Botero Isaza, professor of political economy and industrial promoter, was the first to enrich the existing legal literature with his work entitled ‘El régimen legal de aguas en Colombia’ (The legal regime of water in Colombia) [4,62]. In two volumes, this work studied the legal problems of public water use among riverside communities, the demands of the industry, and agricultural needs. Hydraulic force was considered the only inextinguishable power, resulting in an understanding of water as a dynamic element of abundance, expansion of progress, and economic development ([62], p. 167). Botero’s work [62] states that Colombians waterfalls’ acquisition and control would ensure the towns’ possession, their subjugation, and the promotion of industrial development.
Consequently, through Law 113 of 1928, the government postulated itself as the supreme administrator of hydraulic force [62,63]. Water was considered as a public good due to its importance for the country’s economy. For this reason, only economic uses were considered legitimized water use [63]. The hydraulic force became the indicator of the country’s productive capacity; a benchmark for progress and wealth [62]. This vision of water led to the formation of a utilitarian government. As Botero ([62], p. 134) states: “Hydraulic force is … the one that, due to permanence and stability, best ensures the uniform movement of society, as it guarantees human activity in all possible branches, from the development of large industries to the minimum comforts of family life”. These ideas reflect the same conception of uniformity with which Thomas More’s island functioned. Moreover, the utilitarian utopia of Bentham, who proposed organizing society as a scientific laboratory in which the State installs a technical bureaucracy and a rational system of legislation, is taken up again. In this way, controlling water through the creation of a uniform order implied the possibility of governing the population and territories at the same time [10].
The scientific concern focused on quantifying and studying the potential hydraulic force and use. In 1927, a technical group was created to draw a complete map of the country’s fluvial network. The Colombian government hired national and foreign technicians to study the river flows and evaluate their hydraulic force. The notion of water abundance potentiated the idea of expanding trade relations with other countries. These two new ideas would benefit the emerging social classes and State formation “[…] when the technical commissions travel and study our immense river network, in its multiple applications to the various industries. The task of wise men and far-sighted rulers will be to advance this significant undertaking since we are owners of a country of infinite wealth, still intact, that we are largely unaware of and that the civilized world envies us and needs” (Report of the Senate Commission, 1928 in [62], p. 219).

6.3. Missions of Foreign Experts: Taming the Rivers, Re-Ordering Territories, and Burying Cultures

The ideals of independence, state sovereignty, and uniformity embedded in the Water Law at the beginning of the twentieth century were incompatible with the diverse interests that triggered the process of internal colonization at the end of the nineteenth century (see also [58]). Each department desired its own hydroelectric project because behind each energy company was a group of merchant-commissioners wanting to benefit from the construction and operation of new dams [64]. Private companies and landowners were pioneers in electrification and control of the country’s public waters [65]. These actors created their technical commissions to generate ‘adequate’ water use [66]. Under regionalist demands, in the 1930s, the government granted concessions authorizing the diversion and allocation of waters to establish large-scale agriculture ([62], pp. 270–275). The construction of significant hydraulic works such as irrigation canals and reservoirs was one of the means used by the ruling classes to capture state resources and thus dispose of water at the service of their interests [64]. In this way, water management started to respond to the regionalist needs of the political-economic classes [64].
Under this scenario of disintegration of interests, plus the political violence between liberals and conservatives in the mid-twentieth century and Colombian skepticism regarding its own professional capacities, the World Bank undertook a mission to guide the progress of national development. In Colombia, the decade of 1950–1960 is defined by Arturo Escobar ([67], p. 142) as the “age of planning” due to the constant missions of foreign experts. World-renowned economic and political thinkers such as Lauchlin Currie, David Lilienthal, and Albert Hirschman arrived in Colombia to advise on and design the first national development plans. Such a vision was not far from what Thomas More envisioned in his work: “ utopians are eager to welcome any interested visitor if they have any special intellectual gifts to offer … They are eager to learn what is happening around the world” ([25], p. 92). The mission of this foreign expertocracy would have important impacts on the hydrosocial territory planning models of the twenty-first century.
In 1949, the World Bank chose Currie to lead Colombia’s first comprehensive study missions (1949–1953). According to Currie’s premises, only foreign experts could understand the reality of the Colombian problem precisely because they were external agents and experts. Colombians could not understand it because their logic came from underdeveloped circumstances [68]. Currie identified that most lands with an agricultural vocation in the valleys suffered from periodic flooding. For that reason, he advised drying wetlands and swampy areas (see Camargo, 2014, press release, 6 September). Meanwhile, David Lilienthal, director, and promoter of the famous Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), influenced river planning in Colombia. As in Spain, this process emerged from the concept of the hydrographic basin, which constituted the particular management area and the primary criterion for its administration [69]. For Lilienthal, the hydrographic basin would be the administrative unit that would reconcile the application of technology, the management of science, and planning with the democratic participation of the people [70].
Lilienthal promoted the integration of sectors such as the environment, agroindustry, energy, and irrigation, based on the management of hydrographic basins and the creation of Regional Autonomous Corporations (CARS). These are the current environmental authorities, similar to what was the TVA. CARS have had the competence to allocate water and grant water concessions and have fostered the regional economy [70]. For instance, the Valle del Cauca Corporation (CVC) was created independently of the State and allowed large businesses and financial elites in the region to negotiate directly for loans from the World Bank [66]. De la Pedraja [64] states that Colombia has always needed more faith in its ability to develop and control technology. Therefore, the ruling class handed over the exploitation of the country’s water resources to foreign companies, which were also mixed with short-term personal interests to profit from hydro projects.
To complete the triangle of these foreign experts, Albert Hirschman identified that Latin American intellectuals (and, in general, Colombian society) carried inferiority and backwardness complexes [68]. Hirschman was hired in 1953 as an advisor to the National Planning Council and funded by the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD). His strategy involved studying local development using successful local companies as a reference. He focused on understanding the industrial class of the country. In this way, Hirschman built a plan for the country’s development centered on the model of “local entrepreneurship” [68]. In his work entitled ‘The Principle of the Hiding Hand’, written in 1967, Hirschman states that uncertainties and unpredictable scenarios, which are always part of extensive development and hydraulic projects, should be hidden within the planning processes [71,72,73]. He suggests that “optimal ignorance” is required to develop a good project; the obstacles will be solved through its execution [72].
Precisely these concealing rationalities generate dystopias and adversities in the face of the good intentions contained in all utopian projects and thoughts. For many affected communities in Colombia and Latin America, the legacy of Hirschman’s benevolent ideas and dreams has turned into veritable nightmares (see, for example, [72,73]). The democratic and energy security policies during the governments of Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002–2010) and Juan Manuel Santos (2010–2018) intensified the materialization of mega-hydraulic projects, rural violence, and displacement [74,75,76,77]. One illustration of many is the hydroelectric project on the Sogamoso River (see [24]).

6.4. Distopian Hydro-Territorial Experiences: Stories from the Inhabitants of the Sogamoso River

The hydroelectric project on the Sogamoso river took place in 2009, after paramilitary actions provided a relative state of security and tranquility for the interests of the construction company. This dam was a dream of the Santander political class, which paradoxically displaced the riverine communities from the banks of the Sogamoso. Most of these inhabitants conceive the violence and paramilitary intervention as a statal strategy to clean the territory and thus enable the dam’s construction. Like in the case of ‘The Principle of the Hiding Hand’, Albert Hirschman kept his faith that developing large projects could bring constructive changes upon unfavorable political conditions [24]. The construction of this mega hydraulic work reflects how energy security discourses shape a utopian political project that justifies the enclosure of river commons through the use of violence, the dispossession of land, and cultural alienation. In general, the construction of large dams in the country has been aligned with the interests of regional authoritarianism but not with the basic needs of local populations.
Following the results and interviews of my fieldwork in Colombia (2011–2018), in this section, I detail how riverine inhabitants upstream, downstream, and those located in the flooded area experienced the construction of the Hydrosogamoso dam. The last part explains how modernism and hydro-territorial planification is applied to mitigate the socio-environmental damage.
In 2011, during the construction of the Hydrosogamoso dam, the downstream river had drastic changes in its water quality and geomorphology. It caused high mortality rates of fish; the beaches, meadows, and islets where people planted, disappeared; others were reduced or reappeared in other places. These biophysical alterations impacted the food security and sovereignty of river inhabitants. Four years after the reservoir construction, the cognitive and psychosocial affectations are visible in this population due to the new control over the river’s water flows. One of the women fish sellers testifies: “When it rains, the noise of this dam is very scary, it can be heard at night, when the floodgates open, a lot of water is heard falling” (pers. Comm., 28 October 2017 in [24]). Furthermore, the fishers face a lack of knowledge of their river, as well as strong disorientation regarding the management of their swamps and beaches: “We managed the cycle of the river, the floods, summers where one returned and cultivated … we are so bad today at river knowledge, now we have to call the central [of the dam] to ask if they are going to release water” (pers. Comm., 6 February 2018). They have also been restricted from passing through certain river sections; the fishers territory is fenced and guarded. The wife of a fisherman affirms that: “The fishermen cannot go from the La Paz bridge to the wall; otherwise both the army or the police will arrive… those are Isagen properties—the company-” (pers. Comm., 16 February 2018 in [24]). Longing, desolation, and restlessness are the feelings that are present in fishing communities, while they persist in navigating the river to sustain their livelihoods.
To compensate for these hydro-territorial dystopias, the company has installed payments for environmental services upstream of the reservoir. This mechanism conserves nature at the expense of restricting land and soil management autonomy. The economic background of these measures is to reduce and control the sediment load that reaches the reservoir from the mountains and to ensure the entry of pure water. Meanwhile, downstream, the inhabitants are employed as “river guardians”, rescuing the fish when the water levels drop or monitoring the effectiveness of the fish population programs in the reservoir [24]. These are the commensuration practices embedded in the utopian planning of the hydroelectric company. Besides standardizing and simplifying the complexity of the socio-environmental damage, commensuration is a critical mechanism that seeks to incorporate the populations into the new hydrosocial order imposed by the dam.
This new logic was the utopian dream conceived through techno-scientific studies led by North American companies in the early twentieth century and followed by the Colombian ruling class. They determined the Sogamoso River’s hydraulic power and its water harnessing. Like in the Guadalhorce River, the scientific visions concealed and erased the rooted knowledge and traditional use of riverine inhabitants. Thus, the existing order must be destroyed and turned into the past to make any utopia feasible. In such a manner, the modernity project comes true and creates a new society ([16], p. 29).

7. Discussion and Conclusions

This article has shown that territorial planning and water governance designs in Spain and Colombia present utopian similarities that echo Thomas More’s work. In ‘Utopia’, the harmonious organization between society and nature is only achieved through mechanisms that standardize complexities and diversities, and discipline any uprisings. The island supposes the unanimous existence of interests among the utopians, considering that individual happiness is found in constructing the public and collective good. The Enlightenment thoughts of Bentham, Comte, Spencer, and Stuart Mill reflected the utopian referents from Thomas More’s work: utilitarianism, positivism, expertocracy, modernity, planning, and commensuration. This article has revealed how these utopian referents and philosophical current of the Enlightenment have traveled through time and space, influencing past and current water governance models in Colombia and Spain.
For example, the followers of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) have spread, among others, the principle of maximization, the rationalist and utilitarian vision that these two countries would later adopt to manage hydrographic basins. The positivism of Auguste Comte (1798–1857) influenced the study of rivers exclusively with engineering expertise. The legacy of Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) visualized the perfection of man from social evolution and the spread of “scientific racism”. The philosophy of Stuart Mill (1806–1873) had an impact so that water management would remain in the hands of the fittest and most qualified: expert engineers, the business industry, and the State, those who would make up the elite to control water and reorganize the territory. Stuart Mill, while defending forms of self-government and the rights of enlightened minorities, proposed utilitarian development in favor of majorities, justified by the public good—a common principle in large-scale hydraulic infrastructure projects in both countries.
Utopian references influenced all the ideas of these intellectuals. Positivism through science and technology not only dominated the flows of rivers but was inserted into political thought to solve the time’s social, political, and economic unrest. The search for the modern industrial man and the formation of engineering rationality was conceived as a solution to tackle the problems of both countries. It motivated its adoption in the construction of the nation state project. Thus, utopian thoughts have colonized supposedly uncivilized worlds by rebuilding chaos, making a homeland, and founding a fixed, uniform, and permanent society.
The utopian aspirations in Colombia did not idealize their past, nor the conditions of their present, as they did in Spain, to regenerate and rebuild the country through the water. Spain self-colonized its waters and territories under principles of self-confidence and national identity, as manifested by the utopian hydraulic policy of Joaquín Costa. In Colombia, the development and ordering of the hydrosocial territories respond more to the mixture of different utopias derived from Colombian intellectual politics and their education abroad. This way, Colombia assumed an internal colonization of its hydrosocial territory based on North American expertise. In addition, eclectically, it followed the utopian thought of European intellectuals. Despite these ideological differences, the utopianisms in the history of hydraulic domination in both countries have converged towards the same direction: alignment of minds and ordering territories to satisfy capital growth needs. The modernist expert knowledge in both countries aimed to agglomerate the socio-nature diversities into utopian hydraulic mega-project that dominate rivers, tame nature, and order basins and their peoples.
In Spain and Colombia, the boom in the construction of hydraulic works coincides with periods of violence, oppression, and the imposition of authoritarian regimes. In Spain, it happened during the Franco regime (1939–1975); in Colombia, it is more contemporary and corresponds to the governments of Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002–2010) and Juan Manuel Santos (2010–2018). Through the alliances between the national army and paramilitaries, these policies and the hydraulic works triggered policies of fear in the affected communities. They have faced a slow and painful water dystopia that translates into processes of dispossession, displacement, and exclusion of the common goods offered by the river.
The comparison between these two countries, through the three analytical categories of positivism, utilitarianism, and expertocracy, led me to understand that water policies are constituted from strongly universalist criteria, which strive to fix and order worlds that they consider chaotic, imperfect, and disordered. Likewise, the historical processes in governance and water policies contain utopian notions, which, in the end, are associated with the eternal dilemma of humanity, the denial of its diversity, and the freedom to understand the world based on its differences, complexities, and particularities.


This research was supported by the ERC European Research Council under the EU’s Horizon 2020 program [Riverhood, grant no. 101002921]; and by the INREF-WUR funded transdisciplinary research and education program [River Commons, INREF2020]. See (accessed on 9 July 2023).

Informed Consent Statement

Informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study.

Data Availability Statement

The data presented in this study are not publicly available due to the sensitivity of data and associated ethical concerns.


I thank Lena Hommes for the final proofreading and the three anonymous reviewers for their comments. Their considerations helped importantly to improve the article. I also thank the inhabitants of Soagamoso and Guadalhorce rivers for sharing their memories and experiences. Finally, I thank Rutgerd Boelens, Michiel Baud, and Julienne Weegels for supporting the comparative and analytical process in both countries.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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Figure 1. Disjunctive comparison method. Own elaboration.
Figure 1. Disjunctive comparison method. Own elaboration.
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Figure 2. Location of the illustrative cases: (a) corresponds to the Sogamoso River, the middle Magdalena Santander region, and (b) to the Guadalhorce River, Spain. Source: [24].
Figure 2. Location of the illustrative cases: (a) corresponds to the Sogamoso River, the middle Magdalena Santander region, and (b) to the Guadalhorce River, Spain. Source: [24].
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Figure 3. Guadalhorce River and dams. Source: [26].
Figure 3. Guadalhorce River and dams. Source: [26].
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Duarte-Abadía, B. Utopian River Planning and Hydrosocial Territory Transformations in Colombia and Spain. Water 2023, 15, 2545.

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