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Community Water Management at the rural-urban edge of Bogota
by Marcela Arrieta Narváez

Through the course of my dissertation, I strive to take into account the strategies on water management and knowledge production of the operators of community water supply systems and their adaptability to modern systems and technology at the southern rural urban edge of Bogotá. I want follow the strategies of negotiation of the community water supply systems (CWSS) with the city institutions to remain in this territory since 1970 till the present, trying to avoid the advance of the urbanisation and meeting the standards of drinking water for the local population. For this I will follow the relation between operators of the CWSS and the institutions in charge of the expansion of the city and the regulation of the water supply systems.

The work of the operators of the CWSS and their interactions with the water (to follow the social construction of water) and the habitants of the southern rural urban fringe will be central for the investigation. My research began with the premise that the management of community water systems is a way of building a city, and reaching beyond urban planning. With my dissertation, I review a history of water production that differs from the modern urban spatial order and its centralised water systems.I choose ethnography as a research method, because it allows me to historically locate and critically analyse discourses and institutional strategies. I question (desnaturalizo) the project of modernity, its eurocentric urbanism and its colonialist perspective. Through ethnography, it becomes possible to highlight alternatives to the modern discourse about water systems.


Questioning what we call City

I will work on the definition of ’city’, raising questions of the meaning of ’the center’ and especially of our understanding of ’periphery‘. Does living in the periphery of Bogotá mean a lack access to public services? Ethnography gives me the opportunity to question the meaning of unity (i.e. the coherent urban structure) and to understand the city as a project of socio-spatial order. I question the opposition of rural and urban contexts as well as the teleological approach that defines the rural as a precondition for the urban. In contrast to this dichotomous concept, in Bogota and many other Latin American cities, the rural and urban parts of the city are not opposites, but exist alongside one another. Usme, Ciudad Bolívar and Sumapaz (southern rural-urban edge) today form a huge rural area situated within Bogota. But what did it mean for this territory to become a part of Bogota? What were the reasons and circumstances surrounding this incorporation? Undoubtedly, life in the villages of the southern rural-urban edge of Bogotá does not correspond to a modern definition of an urban order. The residents of this area have no access to the infrastructure of the city, such as public transportation, aqueducts or sewers. Paths of life and alliances allow these people to move throw the urban and rural contexts.

Community Nuances

Works on urban anthropology emphasize the impossibility to find “consistent and pure semiotic communities” in the field (Ferguson:1999:208). This idea allows me to take the nuances of the different positions that people with unequal power relations have, into account. In my case, the knowledge and awareness of water administration of some workers and the users is not equal. As an interviewer, it is easy to get in touch with people that have knowledge and a prepared discourse. However, these people and their explanations are not always representative positions of the population involved with community water systems.

To Spin the Local and the Global

With an anthropological and historical perspective, I question the discourses on development and risks as part of modern and neoliberal strategies on urban expansion in cities of the global south. Megacities are conceived as being spaces where poverty, chaos and environmental threats are the result of uncontrolled growth. Residents of the rural-urban edge of Bogota have a proposition for the growth of the city and the development of their territory where the rural order is part of the city.    

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Marcela Arrieta Narváez is an urban anthropologist from the Andes University, Colombia, and holds a Masters in historical urban studies with a research focus on environmental history at the Center for Metropolitan Studies, TU Berlin. Her dissertation investigates the sustainable development of cities through an ethnographic examination of communal water supply systems, the discourses of the local habitants, their uses of water, and the input of local knowledge(s) towards city planning and resource management in Bogotá, Colombia. The relations between the local habitants and their territory, human beings and their environment, and culture and nature, have taken a central position in her research work.