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Colombia: Water security and COVID-19

Colombia collaboratory webinar series

31 July 2020

COVID-19 has resulted in lockdowns across the globe, hindering face-to-face communication and in-person engagement. In response, the Colombia collaboratory designed a series of interactive webinars, to share information and experiences of COVID-19 in relation to water security, and to test virtual conferencing technology as an adaptive strategy to maintain stakeholder communications throughout quarantine.

COVID-19: pandemic or syndemic, and what about territory?

Here, Rachael Maysels, Project Manager at Universidad del Cauca, reflects on the first of these webinars, attended by 196 participants across 21 organisations.


COVID-19 and the climate crisis

Our first speaker, Prof Maristella Svampa (CONICET, Argentina) emphasised that the climate crisis and the pandemic are inextricably linked and that as long as climate change continues, we will likely see new pandemics in the future. Maristella considered two main responses to this pandemic:

  • The demand for the world’s systems to go back to "business as usual";
  • The demand for solidarity and transformations of inequalities among the world’s systems.

Instead of returning to the norms that contributed to climate change, aggravated economic crises (such as extractivism), and exacerbated inequalities, what if society were to focus on social, environmental, and racial justice in order to better prepare for future pandemics and disasters?

COVID-19 and social-ecological injustice

Prof Fabián Méndez (Universidad del Valle, Colombia) connected the impact of the pandemic to social and environmental injustices at a community level. Fabián emphasized that the pandemic is not nature’s revenge but a result of social-ecological factors (access to healthcare and health services, socioeconomic status, gender, race) and the interaction between them. The economic downturn is not unique to Covid-19: rather it is a cyclical process of neoliberal capitalism, e.g. the tension between privatized hospitals and healthcare. Moreover, there is a syndemic between social conditions and disease: Covid-19 is more severe for someone who also faces domestic violence and food insecurity. Not only is this virus more dangerous for those who have fewer resources, but they face graver consequences socially and economically during the pandemic and subsequent financial crisis.

COVID-19 and water vulnerability

Sigifredo Toro (FECOSER, Valle del Cauca, Colombia) highlighted how community aqueducts – already under strain due to environmental degradation caused by deforestation, pollution, and extractivism – face increased vulnerability because of the pandemic. Community aqueducts receive less attention, resources, and technology than city aqueducts, yet they incur more danger and pollution, which impacts negatively on water quality. For this reason, FECOSER are working with local organisations to aggregate community aqueducts and mitigate these negative impacts. AQUACOL, which focuses on water and sanitation services among rural communities, is one such orgnaisation. AQUACOL’s Jorge Amaya spoke about the difficulties the rural communities in El Valle (department) have been facing since the pandemic. Water security and food security are their main concerns.

Yulli Padilla and other members of ASOCAMPO recorded a video that we then edited and presented during the webinar due to lack of internet connection in the Las Piedras basin in Cauca. She spoke of the difficulty the communities in Las Piedras are facing from COVID-19 due to the lack of support from the government or NGOs. Members of the community have been voluntarily controlling those who enter the basin including full desanitizations, checking id’s, and handing out protective gear to those that need it. Aside from health and protection, their priority is strengthening their food sovereignty and conservation, since their basin is responsible for 70% of the city of Popayán’s water.

Water governance in the Upper Cauca River Basin, Colombia

The second Colombian collaboratory webinar was led by three speakers from vastly different backgrounds: a grassroots representative, an academic, and a spokesperson from the biggest environmental authority in the Colombian government. These speakers shared their views about the current state of water governance in the Upper Cauca River Basin (UCRB), describing the existing situation and the challenges impeding better management of this precious resource.

Here, Alejandro Figueroa Benitez, a doctoral candidate at Universidad del Cauca, reflects on the discussion.


Actions and challenges towards the Cauca River sustainability

Fabián Mauricio Caicedo, Director of Integral Management of Water Resources at Colombia’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, spoke about the environmental governance of the territories, the meaning of territory, and the strategies for sustainability that have emerged from central government.

According to Fabián, the government has been working towards the implementation of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) in Colombia since 2010 when the first National Policy for IWRM was passed. Over the last ten years, the government has adopted different strategies towards strengthening the many stakeholders contributing to this IWRM goal, adapting and adopting the concerns of the many communities and institutions that are involved or directly affected by water policy in the country, as well as emphasising the socioecological characteristics of water in Colombia. Fabián then explained that these strategies have allowed the government to mitigate risks and close the socioeconomic gaps that exist in relation to water in the Colombian territory.

Ancestral guardians of the Cauca river, afro legacy in the south of “Valle del Cauca” and north of “Cauca” departments

Carlos Alberto Gonzales, Director of FUNECOROBLES (a grassroots, environmental, afro-descendent, non-profit NGO), and member of the directive board of ACUASUR, highlighted that culture is the key element to transforming the environment. Change within traditional communities is guided by the conservation and harmonious interaction of people and ecosystems – “to preserve the ecosystem is to conserve the cultural legacy of communities” – hence, these communities are the ancestral guardians of the river. Carlos emphasised that as a product of the lack of articulation between rural and urban areas in the territory, there is a lack of representation of traditional and rural communities in the planning process that the government is implementing. Carlos suggested that planning must be combined with the conscience, culture, and sense of belonging that these ancestral communities have upheld trough the passage of time.

The political character of politics and water management

Prof José Esteban Castro (CONICET, Argentina; Emeritus Professor at Newcastle University; and coordinator of the WATERLAT-GOBACIT Network) argued that governance, as a concept, is deeply troubled and reductionist in nature. Consequently, the term eliminates politics from the discussion around water and reduces them (politics) to management.

Esteban suggested that governance is multidimensional in nature, integrating diverse aspects such as: the natural-physical, the technical, the intellectual knowledge, and the bureaucratic. He argued that governance has more to do with the ends that a society decides to pursue, and with the values and material interests that a society decides to defend.

In 2019, the Superior Court of Medellín recognised the River Cauca, its basin, and its tributaries as a subject of rights. In this context, Esteban questioned what “governance” means in a basin that has its own rights – and, within the framework of the Hub, who’s water security?

Esteban posited that, in reality, governance and water management are not democratic concepts: they are in fact deeply antidemocratic. Corporate pressure and delays in implementation – two of many problems – demonstrates that there is a lack of substantive democracy  within the governing bodies, as well as in the management of the water resource.

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