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Initial insights on co-production of water management and risk mitigation infrastructures

'Exploring the development and implementation of co-produced water management infrastructure solutions to adapt to climate change-related risk: The intersection of rural-urban areas in Medellin, Colombia'

While Covid-19 has impacted the project's timeline and delayed fieldwork activities, the Colombian and UK research teams have continued to make progress in the preliminary stages of the project, developing a review of the theoretical context and preparing for fieldwork once restrictions allow access to the case study neighbourhoods in Medellín. An international and Latin American level joint literature review is underway around themes of co-production, community-based risk management, water management and water-related infrastructure solutions for building resilience to climate change-related hazards. Meanwhile, the research team in Medellín is working on a local-level water management policy review, as well as a characterisation of the case study neighbourhoods on the NE urban edge of Medellín.

Previous research (led by UoE and Heriot Watt University in partnership with various universities and community organisations in Colombia) around risk monitoring and mitigation at the household level with a focus on landslides, has identified the different threatening factors for the guarantee of the citizens’ right to water (e.g. mass movement, earthquakes, flooding, torrential avenue, forest fires, agrochemicals, deforestation and sewage collection). As such, a focus on the co-production of water-related infrastructures and community-based water management is essential not only to address issues of equity in water management, but also building capacity for climate change adaptation and reducing vulnerability and exposure to risk for low income and/or informal communities. This review aims to emphasise the link between water management, risk management and innovative and sustainable infrastructure solutions within the context of climate change, while providing a study of key precedents in the context of the Global South relating to community-based water management aimed towards reducing vulnerability and building resilience in informal settlements.

At a local and national level, the Colombian research teams have produced a draft report that focuses on (1) the normative and political framework at a national, regional and municipal scales relating to risk management, sustainable development, water management, and urban infrastructures; (2) the geological and geomorphological contextualisation of the three city of Medellín; and (3) a characterization of Medellín’s socioeconomic conditions at the city level. This includes a characterisation of Comuna 3 and 8, the case study areas and a review of each of the three case study neighbourhoods with respect to population growth and settlement processes, community management, and water-related challenges and conflicts.

This initial report highlights the vulnerability of these informal habitats and their exposure to complex urban dynamics, where precariousness and forced displacement are determining factors in how the peripheries of the city have developed. This unplanned growth in the rural urban edge is characterised by the processes of self-construction of neighbourhoods and dwellings, many of which do not meet safety criteria, either due to construction methods or due to their location in unsuitable areas, demonstrating the emergency to develop and implement appropriate and sustainable water management infrastructures. Moreover, self-construction reflects processes of struggle, permanence and territorial identity, given its progressiveness over time determined both by the needs and financial capacity of dwellers. Hence, community-led interventions (i.e. artisanal community water infrastructures), have engendered a sense of ownership and belonging, forging a neighbourhood-level shared cultural memory. The increasing demand for water and the difficulty in accessing the provision of formal drinking water service, however, make management and self-management necessary for the creation of community aqueduct infrastructures systems.

The following are a set of key challenges to water management that have been identified at the outset by this draft report, within the three case study neighbourhoods in Medellín:

  • Conflict: Conflicts and tensions within community organisations due to internal dynamics and practices such as clientelism, authoritarian leadership, corruption and individualism, which generate mistrust among the community and cause fragmentation in the construction of water, risk and territory management processes.

  • Contamination: Contamination of water sources due to pollution and the expansion of agricultural and urban borders. 25% of the inhabitants of communes 1 and 3 who only make use of the community aqueduct systems must see a doctor between 2 and 7 times a year due to diseases associated with the consumption of contaminated water.

  • Territorial Planning: The non-recognition of the cultural references of its inhabitants when defining limits or scope of the territorial division on behalf of the state.

  • Service Provision: In terms of the city, various problems arise due to the intervention carried out by EPM (Empresas Públicas de Medellín). They are perceived as actions that violate certain rights since some interventions are linked to disconnection, increase in rates and access problems emanating from the privatisation and exclusion processes that affect the dignity of the families and people who live on the periphery of the city. These actions are also perceived as an impediment to the right to community management of water, a challenge this project will have to confront.

  • Infrastructure: The neighbourhood community aqueduct infrastructures still have significant deficiencies (e.g. physical and chemical treatment of the water, tanks in good working order, closing of the intake, etc.). In addition, there is no sewerage service – sewage and rain waters are transported through artisanal pipelines that lead directly to the streams without any type of treatment.

  • Access: Limited access to water in some catchment points, which contradicts the universal human right to access to the vital minimum of water that includes the provision of safe and drinking water.

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