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Community-managed water supply during the twentieth century in Colombia

Community Water Supply El Destino, located in the rural area of Bogotá.
Community Water Supply El Destino, located in the rural area of Bogotá. (C) Edisson Aguilar Torres

In rural and peri-urban areas of Colombia, community organisations have supplied

water to the population since at least the 1940s, when pioneer organisations began building water infrastructure autonomously or with help from private organisations such as the National Federation of Coffee Growers. Ownership in such water supply systems is neither public nor private but common. However, from the 1960s, state institutions began funding and providing technical assistance for the construction of water infrastructure during the period known as the National Front, within the framework of a series of policies to pacify the Colombian countryside after a long civil war. That period saw the emergence of Community Action Boards, local organisations authorised by the state to build infrastructure (sanitation, schools, roads), an idea that originated both in academia and projects sponsored by international agents.

‘Community action’, the Colombian version of community development, was both a local phenomenon and part of a global trend, sponsored by the US government, through the CIA and other agencies, initially in Asia and then in Latin America, within the Cold War efforts to prevent villagers becoming radicalised. Existing literature on community development situates its decline in the 1960s because it is focused on the particular experience of India and the Philippines. Through a Latin American case such as Colombia, I will show a differentiated pattern of development and the persistence in time of ‘community action’ as a strategy to build and manage, among others, water infrastructure at a local level, way before the adoption of community-managed water supply by the World Bank and other multilateral agencies between the 1990s and the 2000s. Furthermore, community action was a contested field despite the United States’ influence. The claim to ‘community’ was made by several actors from the entire ideological spectrum, and community action took a life of its own, which is evident in the construction and maintenance of rural and peri-urban water supply. I will also add to the existing historiography on water infrastructure in the Global South, where large-scale technology (dams and irrigation systems) has been dominant, and the process of state formation has been explained through concepts like ‘high modernism’ and the ‘hydraulic mission’ of the state. By reconstructing the history of community water supply from the 1940s to the present day, I will shed light on the historical role of small-scale water infrastructure and community development, often invisible in state formation in Latin America.

My research is based on both archival research and oral history. Community water supply operates in a large portion of the countryside, and several of its founders and leaders are still alive. In the memory of these leaders lies a history unrecorded in written documents and crucial for understanding the water supply in Colombia and Latin America. I have received SLAS funding to interview leaders in 45 community water supply systems from nine different provinces of Colombia: Cundinamarca, Boyacá, Meta, Antioquia, Valle del Cauca, Cauca, Nariño, Santander y Bolívar. I plan to use the material gathered as input for creating a ‘Community Water Supply Archive’ that local organisations and scholars can use for further research and social mobilisation.

Edisson Aguilar Torres, KCL

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