Follow the mosquito: a collaborative research at the intersection between water, health and gender

In this collective blogpost, Clara Roa (Fundación Evaristo García, Cali), Tatiana Acevedo-Guerrero (Utrecht University, The Netherlands), Cecilia Roa-García (CIDER Universidad de los Andes Bogotá), Alejandro Camargo (Universidad del Norte, Barranquilla), Claudia Romero-Vivas (Tropical Diseases Lab, Universidad del Norte, Barranquilla), Meliza Machado and Gabriela Monsalvo (Auto-ethnography coordinators) present the process and the findings of an interdisciplinary research on the link between intermittent water services, mosquito borne diseases, and social inequalities in two Colombian cities.

Water storage labour, Buenaventura 2020 (Credits Sindy Vanessa Caicedo)

This research project was born with the purpose of analyzing the biophysical and socio-economic factors that surround the routines of intermittent water service, rain harvesting and water storage in Colombian cities. We aimed to understand the context in which the Aedes aegypti mosquito reproduces, and to study the vulnerability of some communities to diseases transmitted by these mosquitoes in neighborhoods of Barranquilla and Buenaventura, the main port cities of the country. In both cities, we chose a group of neighborhoods where water services are intermittent and precarious, and where there have been outbreaks of Dengue, Zika, and Chikungunya. That is, a group of neighborhoods in which water cuts have historically influenced the well-being of the communities. Especially, they have influenced the lives of women who are generally in charge of storing and treating water for tasks such as washing clothes, cleaning the house, preparing food and caring for children, the elderly and the ill.

Aedes aegypti, the primary vector for dengue, chikungunya and zika, breeds mainly in stored/stagnant water and thrives in contexts of rapid urbanization in tropical countries. Some have warned that climate change, in conjunction with urbanization, could drive the proliferation of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. In Colombia dengue has been endemic since the 1990s and the country had the highest number of cases of zika virus in the world after Brazil. In this research we found that domestic stored water contributes to high percentages of the total Aedes aegypti pupal population in Colombian cities. In particular, neighborhoods where water service provision is intermittent are vulnerable to mosquito- borne diseases as water is stored inside households.

Ethnography in pandemic times

The plan that we initially developed had to be adapted to the context of the public health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to adjusting the times of the research and including a first phase of archival work, we came up with two ways of gathering information. Initially, when little was known about the realities of the virus, we implemented a first phase based on auto-ethnographic exercises. Later, during the months of low infection rates and once biosafety protocols for visiting the neighborhoods were established, we embarked on a second phase focused on entomological work.

Water Diaries were prepared by residents of the selected neighborhoods in Buenaventura and Barranquilla. Hand in hand with social and academic organizations, we made a call to select 24 women who worked as ethnographers and researchers. These women were offered a formal job during the course of the investigation. Water diaries are auto-ethnographic texts in which women document, describe, draw, record, and photograph in detail their every-day experiences with water service outages, rain harvesting, and water storage. Likewise, they describe their experiences with diseases transmitted by mosquitoes and their experiences and imaginaries about the Covid-19 epidemic in the midst of water cuts and quarantines.

These daily journal entries were complemented by the life histories of women from the neighborhood, in which older women spoke about the (self)construction of the neighborhoods and the struggle to gain access to public services and other rights. It is important to mention that to write these water diaries, the ethnographers did not have to leave their homes. The same thing happened with the life histories, which were collected between people from the same family, through telephone conversations or via WhatsApp. This was of vital importance during the pandemic as we were able to record routines and habits around water storage in a safe way that did not entail health risks for the team.

In order to prepare for these activities, we developed an online course with three modules. The first module on the auto-ethnographic method, the second one on gender, care and water policies, and the third one on the life history interviewing. This online course, developed by the researchers, was taken by the 24 ethnographers. It was also in this course that we talked about ethical considerations and informed consent in the framework of ethnographies. All ethnographers were previously provided with a smartphone, equipped with unlimited internet access, to record and/or write the diaries. They also received a textbook with chapters and exercises to complement the virtual modules. Textbooks along with a smartphone, were delivered to the each ethnographer’s home before the course began.

The ethnographers from each city who completed the course received a diploma from the Evaristo García Foundation. The course will be soon available in open access to be used by researchers in Spanish-speaking Latin America.  

Entomology in pandemic times

As part of the interdisciplinary project, a research on the biophysical contexts in which mosquitoes reproduce was included. Professor Claudia Romero-Vivas and her research team at the Laboratory of Tropical Diseases at the Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla have been using pupal productivity surveys since 2002 to identify the places where Aedes aegypti mosquitos reproduce more successfully. This methodology, which consists of a simple sweep within the stored water with a small net, was selected to accurately estimate the total number of pupae in water storage containers.

Pupal sampling activities, Buenaventura 2020 (Credits: the project).

In Barranquilla, technicians from the municipal health department were hired to carry out the survey. In Buenaventura, where the municipal health department has fewer employees and institutional capacity, a group of ethnographers was hired and trained online so that they could carry out the survey in their own neighborhoods, under the supervision of the local health authorities. The Laboratory’s team set out to design the online training. It is important to mention that, unlike the water diaries that were carried out in the initial months of the pandemic, the entomological survey was carried out towards the end of 2020 when all the biosafety protocols for home visits had been established. After obtaining written consent from adults in each household in each neighborhood, the number, material, and uses of all water containers were recorded. The entire contents of small water storage containers were transferred to white containers, using pipettes, before counting the pupae. Larvae and pupae in larger containers, such as tanks and drums used for water storage, were collected in multiple sweeps with fine-mesh nets and transferred to white containers for counting. All researchers were trained to be able to identify the pupae of Aedes aegypti observing its morphology. Some samples were sent to the laboratory in Barranquilla for corroboration.

National workshop: reflecting and thinking together

After almost two years of auto-ethnographic work and pupal surveys, principal researchers, ethnographers, students, community associations, government officials, and all other collaborators gathered in the city of Buenaventura. Our purpose was to collectively reflect, interpret, and analyze the preliminary results of our research.

Specific discussions were organized around two topics. First, we reflected on the process of collaboration between people with diverse knowledges and experiences. This discussion led to the analysis and integration of different types of information (water diaries, life histories, and master’s theses). We also reflected on how this collaborative research could help changing water realities. Second, workshop participants focused on the interaction between everyday water storage and mosquitoes. We discussed the interrelationship between stored water, intermittency and the Aedes aegypti mosquito cycle. The participants gave feedback on preliminary results and we discussed a path for disseminating research at municipal and national levels. Participants’ responses will also be key for two academic papers that are in progress. Below you will find videos from these sessions.

Buenaventura Science Fair: disseminating the results of the project

To close the project, and with the purpose of socializing our research, we gathered the whole team and carried out an all-day public science fair in the central square of Bueventura. In this fair, we aimed to cover topics related to the ecology of the Aedes aegypti, the political ecology of household water storage, and the history of urban water governance. We collaborated with FORMA/Makondo and PERCOMOTORA, two local collectives of musicians, designers and a theater performers. We relied on music and performance to transmit two of our key messages. Firstly, that water intermittence leads to water storage and, in turn, this stored water becomes the place where mosquitoes reproduce the most. Secondly, that communities can use lids on water containers inside the household to prevent its reproduction.

Besides music and performances, fair attendees learned through interactive scientific presentations. Five students who wrote their bachelor and master theses within the context of the project, designed visual posters, accompanied with a QR code that people could scan on their cell phones to expand the information. The posters were used as teasers instead of summaries of research findings. These students explored the history of urban infrastructure and explained how intermittent service is the result of policies at different state levels, which have privileged investments in certain places (of the country and the city) and neglected others. Finally, the fair aimed to emotionally interpellate community members by inviting them to write down the emotions they felt vis-a-vis water intermittence, environmental injustice, and lack of access to sanitation. We also had a space designed for children, with coloring booklets explaining the life cycle of the mosquito. Below you will find some images from the fair, as well as testimonies from the participants.

Concluding remarks: depoliticizing vector-borne diseases

In this collaborative research we have drawn on water diaries, life histories, interviews, and entomological surveys to reflect on the ways in which rapid urbanization in the context of armed conflict, infrastructural inequality, the absence of formal jobs, and specific water laws and regulations produce water and Aedes aegypti in Barranquilla and Buenaventura. In this way we want to highlight that the diseases transmitted by Aedes aegypti are not only a public health issue, which can be resolved with fumigation protocols or with the prohibition of water storage and monitoring of the affected urban inhabitants. On the contrary, both the infestation of these mosquitoes and the transmission of these diseases respond to problems of water governance. Specifically, they respond to processes in which water is distributed in a highly unequal ways as a consequence of asymmetric power relations.

This research project has been supported by DUPC2, IHE Delft Partnership Programme for Water and Development, funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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