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Sancocho: Defending traditional water systems in Colombia

by Madeleine Bélanger Dumontier – October 27, 2014

Visita URCOLBO vereda San Andrés, Antioquia, Colombia
In the face of systematic dispossession, everything seems to prevent workers and communities from uniting in the global struggle for better public services: organizational culture, geographical distance, class politics.
Yet last month in Antioquia, Colombia we saw the most heterogeneous group come together as one to find practical solutions to preserve ‘public’, community ownership of water:
This is a tested traditional sancocho recipe: The best and most energizing soups require the most varied ingredients. That’s why it’s accompanied voluntary communal labour (so-called mingas or convites) for so long in Colombia; commitment and willpower fuel well on a good dose of broth, potatoes, yams, corn, plantain and meat.


In Colombia, water services in rural and peri-urban areas have traditionally been delivered by a rich variety of autonomous community-owned aqueducts (40% and 20% respectively). But Colombian neoliberal water policies today – under the ominous name ‘Water for Prosperity’ – are mounting pressure on these systems and forcing them to transform into financially oriented businesses or to sell out to the private sector.

Erecting safeguards for public water

As part of the Platform for Public-Community Partnerships (PAPC) formed in 2009,participants in the week-long exchange committed to protecting a pluralist approach in the country (and beyond). They built on solidarities created from the initiative’s first phase that had brought together defenders of community water from three countries: Uruguay, Colombia and Bolivia.
During the second exchange, they shared experiences in resistance and technical knowledge of water systems with aqueducts from the three municipalities of La Unión, Támesis and Girardota in particular. As such, they began to erect operational and legal safeguards for community water at the same time as they were learning about these specific communities’ strategies of engagement with local authorities via direct democracy.
Many participants did so despite significant differences with their own public enterprise or organizational model, recognizing the importance of the community-owned water systems as functioning and culturally appropriate alternatives to privatization. This experience has broken down barriers, built collective identities and created solidarity across borders and across civil society sectors.

Action-research to promote alternatives

The exchange ended with a forum event looking at a past Colombian experience of building coalitions between public employees from the trade unions SINTRACUAVALLE and SINTRAMBIENTE and members of the community aqueduct in La Sirena, as documented by the MSP in our most recent paper.
Along with representatives from those three organizations, we told the story of how the labour-community alliance was formed. Concretely, we showed how workers collaborated to repair leaks and improve the aqueduct’s metering techniques, tariff structure and billing methods, putting it on the path to greater social and financial sustainability. The community aqueduct president noted that the service network had expanded since that time, and there had been no more water rationing. He also stressed how they learned to monitor the watersheds and reached out to neighbouring aqueducts to protect the resource.
We analyzed the solidarities built in the process as well as challenges, and drew lessons that can be applied in the development of labour-community alliances for ‘public’ services elsewhere in the country and in the world.

Uniting across sectors

The participation in the forum of union reps from the energy distribution public enterprise ISA and from the generation arm ISAGEN, as well as the water and sanitation multilatina Public Enterprises of Medellín (EPM), signalled interest in replicating the experience of labour-community alliances, although unionists expressed fear of reprisal from their enterprise if they were to share technical information with “competing” organizations such as community aqueducts. Speaking for the Mesa interbarrial de desconectados, which unites people who have experienced service cutoffs across the city of Medellín, two participants explained how the ongoing armed conflict was further complicating matters in their neighbourhoods and holding community aqueducts hostage.

Finally, members of the newly formed Mesa Pública de Medellín also took part. This initiative was launched by local elected officials, trade unions and community groups who are joining forces across the various service sectors to defend public ownership. They recognized the unique contribution of such partnerships with communities to achieve concrete results.
Madeleine Bélanger Dumontier is project manager for the Municipal Services Project, coordinating communications, research within the network, publications and events. She led the research and fieldwork on community aqueducts in Colombia in 2013, and recently released “The work of the ants: Labour and community reinventing public water in Colombia”. Madeleine holds an MA in political science from Université de Montréal, Canada.