The urbanization of water in Colombia

This project proposes a comprehensive history of urban water supply development “from the South”, through a study of Colombia from 1900 to 2014. Until now, historical analyses of urban infrastructure have focused almost exclusively on high-income cities in Europe and North America. These studies testify to broad trends that are widely taken as universal: nationalization (or municipalisation) around the beginning of the 20th century, followed by large-scale infrastructure developments and service extension leading to universal coverage mid-century, and the decentralization and neoliberalization of governance from the late 1970s onward (Tarr & Dupui, 1988; Melosi, 2000). Colombian water supply history destabilizes the accepted trends in a number of ways, beyond unachieved universalization. The research has already shown decentralization to be an iterative as opposed to linear process, and that policies like corporatization, metering and full cost recovery have their roots in the 1920s rather than with neoliberalization in the 1980s (Acevedo, Furlong, & Arias, 2015). Understanding the roots of contemporary water supply challenges and how these have evolved over the long-term can help to develop more appropriate policy. This project is being conducted in collaboration with our partners at the Universidad Potificia Bolivariana (UPB) led by Professor Denisse Roca Servat as well as Tatiana Acevedo of the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. Some of the data that we have collected is presented below.


Recent publication and database report:

Acevedo, T., Furlong, K., and J. Arias. (2016). Complicating neoliberalisation and decentralization: the non-linear experience of Colombian water supply 1909-2012. International Journal of Water Resources Development,  32 (2), 172-188.


Regulación del agua en el contexto del Sur: Colombia 1909 – 2013
Adobe Acrobat Document 2.0 MB

Corporations: The municipal shareholder

The project "The municipal shareholder" focuses on municipal corporations for the provision of drinking water or as multi-utilities. The term "municipal corporation" describes a service delivery model: (1) in which the entity retains all privileges and conditions of a business, but has a municipality as its sole shareholder, (2) whose importance is growing in the North and the global South, and (3) that is little studied and often misunderstood by attempts to fit it into the false public/private dichotomy. Indeed, a key misconception on the part of both promoters and detractors of the model is that it is a simple manifestation of neoliberal prescriptions and ideals. This approach is limited. A study of the municipal corporation demands that conceptual frameworks be opened up in ways that reflect calls by researchers like Gibson-Graham to ‘denaturalize’ the economy. Empirically, the project focuses on the experiences with municipal corporations in Colombia and the Netherlands. The model has been a central in the delivery of utility services across Colombia’s major municipalities since the early 20th century and since the 1970s in the Netherlands. As a result, both countries provide an opportunity to generate important data as well as conceptual tools for the management and regulation of municipal corporations. Moreover, the cases raise theoretical questions about the role of municipalities, governance, and the social construction of the economy. In Colombia, our research has focused on the multi-utility corporation EPM - or Empresas Públicas de Medellín. Some of the data collected in presented below.


Recent publications and database report:

Bonilla, C. and Furlong, K. (2017). La régionalisation des services en eau : une solution pour les petites villes au Sud ? étude de cas colombienne. Flux: Cahiers scientifiques internationaux Réseaux et territoires 107(1): 36-52.

Furlong, K. ed. (2016) The Public Shareholder: the commercialization and internationalization of publicly owned utility corporations. Utilities Policy, 40, 104-169.

Furlong, K. (2015) Water and the entrepreneurial city: The territorial expansion of public utility companies from Colombia and the Netherlands. Geoforum, 58,195-207.


Perfil histórico de las Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM): Presentación de la base de datos
Adobe Acrobat Document 9.7 MB
Perfil histórico de las Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM): Datos financieros
Microsoft Excel Table 827.0 KB
Perfil histórico de las Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM): Datos historicos
Microsoft Excel Table 736.0 KB

New perspectives on infrastructure

This project rethinks theories of infrastructure organization, development and change by engaging with experiences in southern cities. In general, infrastructure theory based in STS rarely does this. It thus misses opportunities to rethink infrastructure’s organization in ways that could also be productive for northern cities (Furlong, 2014). Development targets, for example, are often based on the realization of a single, universal, piped-water network. Crucially, however, this ideal is now being challenged in many northern cities in the face of environmental challenges (Rutherford, 2008), and neoliberal economic reforms (Graham & Marvin, 2001). Its pursuit in southern cities, moreover, has been found to lead to unexpected problems given conditions of poverty and exclusion (Botton & Gouvello, 2008). From a southern perspective, this focus on a single, uniform network can only ever provide a partial understanding of water supply in southern cities (Lawhon, Ernstson, & Silver, 2014). The goal of enabling a diversity of infrastructural modalities echoes the calls of contemporary southern researchers for new infrastructural models and analytics in relation to southern waterscapes (e.g. Pieterse, 2010). The project is being conducted in collaboration with Dr. Françoise Bichai, Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, members of the network Oeuvre Durable, as well as our partners at the IHE Deflt Institute for Water Education.


Recent publications:

Furlong, K. and M. Kooy (forthcoming) Worlding Water Supply: Thinking Beyond the Network in Jakarta. IJURR

Furlong, K. (2014) STS beyond the "modern infrastructure ideal": Extending theory by engaging with infrastructure challenges in the South. Technology in Society 39, 139-147.


Geographies of ethics in urban service provision

At the local scale, service providers are often torn between the ideologies of the state and international agencies, and the complex realities of the cities they inhabit. Under neoliberalization, service providers are confronted with demands for “performance” and “efficiency” that simplify the constantly shifting dynamics that must be negotiated in order to improve equity (Dorier-Apprill & Jaglin, 2002). In most analyses, the ways in which these tensions are negotiated is ignored; service providers are interpreted as simply purveying, reorienting or inhibiting neoliberal ideology (Parnell & Robinson, 2012). While not dismissing neoliberalism’s influence on urban services, southern urbanisms are increasingly concerned with nuancing its effects (e.g. Lawhon et al., 2014). In this way, geographical debates on ethics have an important, yet largely ignored, contribution to make to the study of urban services. They enable the theorization of how actors involved in service provision manage a complex array of normative issues through their long-term experience in a given place. Rather than each decision or action being understood as a manifestation of an underlying ideology or a particular political agenda, an ethical perspective necessarily contextualizes decision-making (Ghorra-Gobin, 2010), taking us beyond institutional exigencies to debates about care (Popke, 2006), capabilities (Olson & Sayer, 2009), habit (Bridge, 2005), and phronosis, i.e. the expertise derived from long-term experience and practice (Barnett, 2014). This projected in being conducted in collaboration with Tatiana Acevedo Guerrero and Mireia Tutusaus Luque of the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education.


Recent publication:

Furlong, K.; Carré, M.-N. and Acevedo G., T. (2017). Urban service provision: Insights from pragmatism and ethics. Environment and Planning A


Water governance in Canada

The research involves several projects focusing on municipal water supply reform, water quality, fluoridation, infrastructure management, and inter-territorial conflicts around damming.


Recent publications:

Furlong, K. 2016. Leaky Governance: Alternative Service Delivery and the Myth of Water Utility Independence. Vancouver: UBC Press.