The role of the City in Infrastructural Extension
An interesting aspect of the Medellín story in the last post is not just the enormous success of EPM, but also the role of the City.
Among key challenges with respect to the provision of municipal utility services today (in my opinion) is the strong current in the academic, practitioner, and donor agency literature that local government’s role in the provision of utility services is essentially to stay out of the way. The utility is to be as independent from municipal government as possible, and the municipal government should not interfere. I see a couple of problems with this: (1) ensuring access to and the consumption of services like water involves social action that is beyond the scope of utilities; and (2) the success of utilities cannot be made sustainable in municipalities that are not themselves stable, i.e. the health of municipalities has a direct baring of the health of local utilities. I will deal with point (1) below and point (2) in the next post on Canada.
In the case of Medellín, despite the fact that they have 100% coverage (or very close) in water, sewer, and electricity throughout the urban region, they have a significant problem with access to consumption. Due to high levels of poverty and displacement within and to the city, there are also high levels of disconnection from utility services. Several programs at the state, municipal, and utility level try to help to improve the economic access of poor households (as physical access already exists). On the state level, these include nation-wide cross-subsidy requirement from wealthy to poor neighborhoods and price regulation. On the municipal level, programs include a monthly water allowance of 2.5m3 per person per month for poor households (the “minimo vital”) that is paid for by the City, as well as a version of Contratación Social in which the city pays for the infrastructure extension done by EPM instead of the community taking on a loan from the company.
In addition, a probably more interestingly, the City has implemented a range of programs to help raise the standard of living in marginalized barrios. In a presentation on the “minimo vital” at last week’s Interamerican Dialogue on Water, Mauricio Valencia Correa, a municipal representative, discussed the relevance and potential impact of the “minimo vital” as one tool among a series aimed at improving the quality of life and reducing inequality in the City. The “minimo vital” was of no relevance without a host of other programs including, the construction of quality day cares, libraries and colleges in poor neighborhoods, programs to improve mobility and livability (like stairs on the steep paths, paved walkways etc.) and transportation access like the Metrocable (metro by cable car) to the marginalized neighborhoods (see pictures).
I think that this makes a very important point. This is that access to water services is not strictly a technical problem to be solved by utilities. Rather, it speaks to broader social problems that must involve local government in their resolution. These include improvements to social cohesion, social equity and mobility, education, opportunities for women (day care), and quality of life. Without these, access to a “minimo vital” in water means very little. For utility services to be accessible in a meaningful and sustainable way, a holistic approach to the municipality must be taken rather than one that seeks to separate utilities from municipalities and focus on services while ignoring broader social problems.