Contested Urban Waterscapes

Conflicts over access to water in Medellín


This research was motivated by the necessity to comprehend why water has become a contested terrain in a city that claims 99% water coverage and is located in an area of privilege hydrological conditions.

Medellín, Colombia second largest city, owns one of the most successful public utility companies in Latin America, Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM). The company enjoys a ‘natural’ monopoly condition. It not only supplies water, but also electricity, natural gas, telecommunication services and solid waste collection to over 4 million people in the metropolitan area.

Paradoxically, while EPM successfully inserts into the international market by expanding its activities to other Latin American countries and registers a significant increment in its total revenues, almost 81,000 households (near 13% of the total) in Medellín are disconnected for non-payment of bills or because their illegal land tenure status.

Dominant narratives tend to interpret disconnection as a technical or economic problem. Low-income households are disconnected because they are too poor to pay for the bills while others are not connected to the formal water network because of technical difficulties arising from the topographic conditions of the city’s periphery.

This research seeks to disrupt these narratives by illustrating how the water company has implemented different discursive, technical and institutional strategies to secure the flow of commodified water. Additionally, it explores everyday practices deployed by disconnected households to decommodified the water flows in order to secure that this essential resource flows as a right.

Prepaid water meters

Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM) has been a pioneer company in the implementation of prepaid technologies not only in Colombia, but also in Latin America. Prepaid water systems were implemented in Medellín in 2015 in areas with a low-payment capacity and that are associated with non-payment, debts and disconnection.

The prepaid system consists on loading a token (digital card) from licensed vendors. These cards permit accurate monitoring of water consumption, detection of illegal connections and manipulation of meters. Another technical advantage is that the meter immediately blocks when it is manipulated. This feature is especially important to detect and control illegal connections to the formal system.

My research has shown that because of fear of debts and high levels of anxiety and culpability for being categorized as “bad” or “undesirable” citizens, desconectados for non-payment have been supportive of prepaid water meters without questioning the implications in water consumption and citizenship rights.

Although prepaid meters have been presented as an “innovative” and “progressive” solution to reduce social inequalities as it adjust to the capacity to pay of the customer, still many questions remain unanswered:

  • How do people appropriate and contest prepaid water systems?
  • What are the differential impacts on men and women, and the implication on their water consumption habits and ordering of domestic space?
  • How do prepaid water systems re-shape people’s daily practices and to what extend this technology undermines the commitments to provide universal and affordable access?