Perceptions of Water-related Risk Management in Peri-urban Medellín

'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' (2020-22, British Academy)

As we initiate fieldwork activities in the three case-study neighbourhoods in Medellín (El Faro in Comuna 8, and Bello Oriente and San José la Cima 2 in Comuna 3), a first point of contact has been a presentation of the project’s proposed activities and timeframe at a virtual meeting held on the 12th of February with community leaders and local actors in the territory (including leaders and members of the Community Action Boards (JAC) and Water Committees of Comuna 3 and 8). A key objective for this project is to understand the territorial dynamics in the rural-urban interface, from the perspectives and experiences of selected communities in relation to water risk management. The main purpose for this meeting was therefore to generate an understanding of the local perceptions and priorities from the perspective of community members around water management, as well as reflections on risk, in the context of climate change impact. Harnessing the community knowledge and experience, this exchange was an initial opportunity to find points of alignment between the project and the current local plan and priorities in the neighbourhoods, in order to ensure a positive impact and to build closer links with the community’s real needs.

We received valuable insights from the ten community members and leaders, all of whom shared different perspectives and offered a set of priorities reflecting the immediate needs of each neighbourhood around water-related risk management. These relevant points and initial connections will help structure the co-creation process and orient the next stages of the project, particularly in relation to the co-production of prototype infrastructure solutions at a later stage.

On the impacts of COVID-19 on community-based water management

An increasing number of people arriving in the informal urban edge of Medellin due to the pandemic has increased the pressure on resources and community water management systems. Issues around uncoordinated connection to community aqueducts and the need for improvement of existing infrastructures were raised. However, the lack of collaboration on the part of the inhabitants, particularly those who have recently arrived in these areas is a source of concern.

Proposals for the co-production of technical and social knowledge:

With regards to the local priorities and their alignment with the project’s activities, community leaders expressed their ideas that relate to the need for processes of co-production of technical and social knowledge.

In order to better understand the territory, one of their ideas is to develop a topographic survey and to co-produce a physical model that allows the recognition of the territory for the community workshops, planned to take place later in the project, and to serve as a working tool for the Community Action Boards. In addition, they propose to execute a registry (or mapping) of networks, mapping the structure of the community aqueduct while building on the local knowledge of leaders and other members of the community. The management and use of rainwater is a key issue. Thus, the mapping must also include the outcrops, source, runoff and water resources of the territory. A key point that was raised was the importance linkages between neighbouring aqueducts, which demonstrates the need to recognise and map the location and trajectory of the supply networks.

Coupled with this, community leaders propose conducting a co-produced census of water and risk across the different neighbourhoods, to document, for example: how many homes are connected to public service providers; how many homes are located within the Local Authority-classified ‘expansion ground for comprehensive improvement’ and may benefit from the Connections for Life (Conexiones por la Vida) programme; and, how many homes are connected to the community aqueduct.

Overall, the community’s priorities lie within the dynamics between water and health, water and food, water and territorial management, water and risk, water and communication. Moreover, through the community’s focus on community-led premontane forest recovery, permaculture and sustainable habitat design through participatory action-research, the aim of the project, as viewed by community leaders, is to strengthen capacities and community-based education to respond to the local needs: ‘soluciones propias a necesidades propias’.

Co-production of water-related risk management infrastructure

In the El Faro neighbourhood, the priority is the development of a prototype for water purification, as the most critical issue is the high levels of contamination and overall poor quality of water that households currently receive. Equally, the issue of sewerage is perceived to be fundamental, as well as bio-purification systems for improved wastewater quality.

The use of appropriate technologies to avoid increasing landslide risk was highlighted (e.g. aerial aqueducts and drainage pipes to reduce the risk that could result from an underground sewer excavation). However, a challenge to co-produced infrastructure systems is the lifespan of the artefacts, as maintenance and replacement costs can directly affect low-income families.

With regards to the role of the partnering Universities, community leaders made a call to establish a dialogue between academia and the Medellín Municipality, in particular with the Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM) as an operator in the matter of public services, and the Administrative Department of Risk Management and Administrative Department of Planning, specifically the Connections for Life (Conexiones por la Vida) programme. Through this dialogue between academia and local institutions, the aim is to explore different options for a more effective use of existing infrastructures.

Overall, a call was made for the design of a sustainable and environmentally friendly aqueduct in collaboration with the community, to address its health problems resulting from poor water quality, as well as to preserve the premontane forest and the river basin.

Power dynamics around water management

Power dynamics and stakeholder commitment are important challenges for community-based water management. In order to engage with and achieve improvements in water management it is necessary not only that the presidents of the Community Action Board are committed but also the wider community, the inhabitants of the neighbourhoods and the community organisations. Moreover, reflecting the complexity of territorial dynamics, it should be noted that community actions are often governed by third parties (i.e. criminal groups and other entities) that limit the actions of the presidents of the Community Action Boards.

Building Trust

The importance of an approach working in collaboration between institutions and the neighbourhoods, based on mutual responsibility and trust, is evident. However, in these types of processes, there is a risk of mistrust from the community, given that expectations of the residents in relation to their needs are often greater than what a project like this could contribute. Within this complex environment it is important to define the project’s scope and the benefits to the communities.

It is also important to determine the parameters of the co-production or articulation exercises within the project, generating a common understanding of the project’s scope and resources, as well as the commitments of each of the parties.

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