UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Water-Energy-Food Nexus Colombia seed grant program has announced the selection of three research projects led by faculty from Penn State and Universidad Jorge Tadeo Lozano (UTADEO), in Bogotá, Colombia, to support research and development work with three departments in Colombia.
This multi-institutional, collaborative program is aimed at building long‐term partnerships among Penn State and Colombian partners and is supported with funds from Penn State Global Programs and the Office of International Programs in the College of Agricultural Sciences, and by grants to UTADEO from the Public Affairs Office of the U.S. Embassy of Bogotá, Colombia, and the Colombian Institute of Educational Credit and Technical Studies Abroad.
More than 50 years of armed conflict have left Colombia with many vulnerable and marginalized communities living in extreme poverty. The goal of this program is to support faculty-driven, high-impact projects focused on research and implementation of water-energy-food nexus models for development.
With these projects, researchers aspire to provide systems-level solutions for the communities and ensure social and environmental sustainability, explained Siela Maximova, research professor of plant biotechnology and a Global Faculty Fellow in the College of Agricultural Sciences.
“Almost two years of planning and team building by the faculty, students and administrators at Penn State and in Colombia has resulted in a partnership that has great potential to contribute to much-needed development in Colombia,” said Maximova, who is coordinating the initiative. “The teams have an incredible range of expertise that will be applied to develop adaptive and coping strategies to support water, energy and food security needs while safeguarding natural resources in Colombia.”
During the virtual project kickoff session held recently, Jay Raman, cultural affairs officer in the U.S. Embassy, said, “These projects will have a direct and positive impact on the essential topics of our time — water, energy and food. The power of educational exchanges is that they go beyond just development assistance; they create a better understanding of the world and our relationship to each other. This initiative sets a new standard for higher education cooperation between the U.S. and Colombia.”
The projects and principal investigators are as follows:
— “Piloting a water-energy-food nexus model for improving smallholder livelihoods and environmental sustainability in Magdalena, Colombia,” led by Rachel Brennan, director of the Water-Energy-Food Nexus Initiative at Penn State, and Rodrigo Gil Castañeda, associate professor of natural sciences and engineering, UTADEO.
Subsistence farming represents the main activity of marginalized smallholders in Magdalena. Although tropical conditions make year-round food production possible, it is limited by factors such as low-tech infrastructure, mismanagement practices, and limited access to extension and financial services.
“I am deeply motivated to address the challenges of providing safe water, renewable energy and nutritious food for communities around the world,” said Brennan, associate professor of environmental engineering. “The interdependencies between these fundamental human rights are quite complex and unique for each community. These challenges cannot be solved alone — collaborative teams, working directly with communities, are needed to provide holistic and culturally-appropriate solutions.”
— “Multidisciplinary assessment of the livelihood conditions of the vulnerable communities of La Guajira, with a roadmap for change under the water-food-energy nexus approach,” led by Paige Castellanos, assistant research professor at Penn State, and Carlos Ricardo Bojacá, professor of basic sciences and modeling, UTADEO.
La Guajira communities experience poor living conditions and lack of public utilities resulting in extreme poverty and malnutrition. The project will raise awareness among community members regarding opportunities to improve food and resource security through multilateral and collaborative applied research.
“Our project also will identify gendered differences in resource access and management,” said Castellanos, who manages the college’s Ag2Americas initiative related to Latin America. “Over the past several years, I have worked with faculty and administrators from UTADEO. I am excited to see the partnership grow, and I look forward to contributing to projects that incorporate local and community-based organizations.”
— “A water-energy-food nexus approach for describing climate change impacts on water-based ecosystem services by the Páramo of Chingaza, Colombia,” led by Andrew Warner, director of the water initiative in Penn State’s Institutes of Energy and the Environment, and Michael Ahrens, research group leader of natural sciences and engineering, UTADEO.
Project leaders seek to study the effects of climate and land-use changes on water provision, food security and downstream energy generation by the Páramo of Chingaza. This high-altitude Andean hot spot of biodiversity currently provides 70% of Bogotá's freshwater supply, generates critical hydropower and underpins important agricultural activities.
There is an urgent need to develop a better understanding of the relationship between Páramo hydrological processes and key biological and soil factors that control water regulation, Warner explained, adding that this knowledge is crucial for estimating the effect of global change on water provision services and for designing appropriate land-use plans to ensure adequate future water supply.
Deanna Behring, assistant dean and director of international programs, along with her counterpart at UTADEO, Julian Prieto, director and head of national and international cooperation, praised the hard work of the Penn State and UTADEO teams.
According to Behring, “the partnership with UTADEO is an important foundation for our work in Colombia and throughout the region.” For his part, Prieto said that partnering with a land-grant university with a strong extension program such as Penn State is a strategic priority.
“Rural education in Colombia is challenging due to the long-term effects of armed conflict,” said Prieto. “Now that we are moving toward peace, there is huge potential to help communities in need. Despite the added obstacles presented by COVID-19, our multi-institutional teams carried on and developed projects that will have a great impact.”