Colombia Runs Dry

By bogotapost July 30, 2014

By Greg Haugan

THERE IS growing alarm as large portions of Colombia continue to experience severe drought, including the northern departments of Magdalena, Casanare, and Cesar, as well as La Guajira, where 15 children have died since the beginning of the year from thirst, malnutrition and disease from drinking contaminated water.

This puts La Guajira on pace to surpass 2013, when 23 children died from similar causes.

While the droughts are economically damaging in all of these departments, especially for the agricultural sector, the department of La Guajira faces extreme climatic conditions which have converted the drought into a fatality risk.

In the department’s rural areas, houses may be several kilometers apart, making it difficult and costly to create the infrastructure needed to connect homes to an aqueduct providing them with running water.

Some parts of the department haven’t seen rain in almost two years

Yet while these homes are left to rely on nearby, naturally occurring water sources like rivers and ponds, families in La Guajira face a problem that plagues few others in the rest of Colombia — a country mostly abundant with freshwater — with or without extreme drought.

La Guajira is mostly comprised of desert, and naturally occurring water sources dry up quickly when it doesn’t rain. Some parts of the department haven’t seen rain in almost two years. The combination of these factors leaves the population without running water extremely vulnerable.

More alarming, this may be just the beginning of the problem, as the El Niño weather phenomenon is expected to officially hit the country in October. El Niño brings uneven weather effects throughout Colombia, often resulting in more rainfall overall throughout the country, but less rainfall in specific regions, like La Guajira.

Addressing the country’s preparations for El Niño, President Juan Manuel Santos said last week that the national government had set aside $50 billion pesos (approx. US$27 million) for relief efforts in the north of Colombia, including special efforts to distribute water to families via trucks and the drilling of water wells.

Government set aside $50bn for relief efforts

Many in rural La Guajira, a department with a large indigenous population largely under served by the national and local governments, remain skeptical.

The troubled region has a long history of corrupt local officials skimming their own take off programme funds, while several of the children who have died so far this year are presumed to have caught disease from water wells — like the ones the government plans to drill more of — which can become contaminated as they dry up in the face of drought.