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Collaboratory case study | Colombia

Capacity building for resilience: vulnerability, water security, and social inequity

01 September 2021

Wayuú community members using a water well to access clean drinking water, La Guajira, Colombia
Wayuú community members using a water well to access clean drinking water, La Guajira, Colombia

Wayuú community members using a water well, La Guajira, Colombia


Inequitable access to clean water and food insecurity during the pandemic continues to be a major issue in the economic, social, and cultural development of vulnerable communities in Colombia. Socio-technical innovations are vital to the democratisation of water management and access as well as food sovereignty; COVID-19 (the “inequality virus”) exposed the urgent need for such solutions.

Colombian researchers’ rapid response to COVID-19 helped indigenous and peasant communities ensure water and food security in rural territories while the use of geo-coding enabled the agile response of municipalities to manage virus outbreaks and prioritise relevant water security interventions in urban areas.

Using a socio-ecological justice framework, our interdisciplinary team of biologists, medics, environmental scientists and social workers worked with historically marginalised communities, community water supply organisations, and the National Institute of Health to build resilience in the face of COVID-19 through bi-lateral engagement and scientific and technical interventions.

Dialogic co-production for community resilience

Transdisciplinary research in indigenous territories of Cauca during the pandemic has focused on capacity building and systematization, integrating advanced scientific technology with indigenous and local knowledge (a novel connection of research and practice).

In June 2020, Colombian researchers collaborated with the K-11 indigenous school Misak Mama Manuela Educational Institute to distribute 62 pounds of organic seeds to over 400 students and their families within the Andean indigenous reservation of Guambia. The seeds had a two-fold impact: (i) providing hundreds of families with a secure source of healthy food during the pandemic, during which time the Misak community had limited access outside their reservation; (ii) enabling the continuation of students’ education through distance place-based lessons designed around home gardening. As of July 2021, the Institute has still not returned to in-person classes [update: as of January 2022, a hybrid model is in operation] and have continued to develop their curriculum around recuperating food and water sovereignty. 

Colombian researchers also collaborated with women of the Andean indigenous reservation of Kisgó to organise a mass event known as “sowing water”, in which 22,000 native trees were planted to increase water production in the territory. The concept of “sowing water” is an Andean rural community-based epistemology and is a process in which native trees are planted to improve ecological and hydrological health in degraded areas. The project combined drone technology and GIS software with indigenous and local knowledge of the territory to create a planting and monitoring system that will achieve maximum hydrological and other benefits from the ecological restoration as well as cultural preservation through the digital documentation and training.

Strengthening community water management organisations

In rural areas and urban peripheries, drinking water services are mostly provided by community water supply organisations (CWSO). Our researchers worked with organisations such as ASOCAMPO to co-create virtual forums, reaching over 100 people, to address the challenges they faced because of the pandemic. The women leaders of ASOCAMPO shared a video showing the difficulties of accessing biosafety materials that the rural communities of the Las Piedras basin were facing. As a result of this forum, ASOCAMPO received a donation that allowed them to distribute biosafety products to hundreds of community members.

COVID-19 exposed failures in the existing regulatory frameworks of CWSOs such as the inability to collect payments (due to mobility restrictions) and the challenges of ensuring equitable water supply due to increased water demand (caused by more rigorous hygiene practices and migration from city to rural areas). Our researchers have worked with CWSOs to analyse these factors and develop policy guidelines for community organisations that manage water and sanitation in rural and peri-urban areas. CWSOs are taking these guidelines to the Community Water Management Working Group, a forum for engaging with the Vice Ministry of Water and Sanitation of Colombia and been invited to develop a comprehensive action plan for the basin that guarantees the human right to water.

Supporting municipalities' monitoring COVID-19 cases

Our researchers have been geo-coding the spatial distribution of COVID-19 cases and deaths in three Colombian departments (Nariño, Cauca, and Valle) to create a health vulnerability index. They are working directly with, and supported by, the National Institute of Health (INS) of Colombia to analyse their raw data to produce more than 23,000 digitised and georeferenced cases for the INS’s use in their own analysis of COVID-19 dispersion at a national level.

During the analysis, the researchers created a tool to filter cases occurring in the Upper Cauca River Basin to evaluate social and health inequalities and map different social variables by spatial distribution. This has enabled researchers to provide advice on COVID-19 transmission dynamics to the municipality of Cali and the department of Valle, which has enabled agile decision making, to target water security (supply and sanitation) and other interventions, based on the identification of hot spots.

Two risk scenarios were used in developing the vulnerability index in the Upper Cauca River Basin (CARC) covering 82 municipalities in the departments of Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Quindío, Risaralda and Caldas. In scenario 1, the variables of informal work, critical overcrowding, and highest school level achieved were assessed to identify vulnerability in terms of social inequalities. In scenario 2, the variables of informal work, critical overcrowding and population over 60 years of age were used to identify vulnerability in terms of social inequalities and the demographic composition of the population at greater risk of severe disease in the event of COVID-19 infection.

A view from above of people of the Kisgó reservation and Hub colleagues working together to co-create maps of their territory
A view from above of people of the Kisgó reservation and Hub colleagues working together to co-create maps of their territory

A social cartography workshop with the Kisgó indigenous reservation

Next steps

These impacts build on existing Hub research on the inequitable relationship between access to water and public health. As a result of this COVID-19/water research, Minciencias (the national Administrative Department of Science, Technology and Innovation) approved two research proposals from Universidad del Cauca (with Newcastle University as research collaborators) that will develop existing work on COVID-19, water security, and food sovereignty. This funding enables the continuation of bi-directional research with indigenous and peasant communities, building capacity through the process of recuperating water and land sovereignty.

The next steps in our work supporting municipalities in the Upper Cauca will be characterizing the relationship between vulnerability associated with a lack of water security and the occurrence of COVID-19, as well as other exposures related to contamination of water sources and disease incidence. This further development will be based on the information collected during the pandemic and additional data that will help model the burden of water-related disease.

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