Thousands of people are struggling to survive on less than a liter of water a day in La Guajira, Colombia. Guajira is home to the Wayuu people, Colombia’s largest indigenous population. But severe water scarcity is devestating Wayuu subsistence practices. Crops and livestock perished in a four-year drought. Jaguays (community water pods) evaporated, and dwindling well water supplies are testing dangerously high in salinity. People are drinking whatever water they can find, and that water is making them sick. Local activists report more than 4,000 Wayuu children have died from contaminated water and chronic malnutrition. in the past three years alone.
La Guajira’s abundant natural resources have attracted transnational corporate giants like Chevron and BHP Bilton. Bilton operates El Cerrejón, the largest coalmine in the world. Transnationals greeted Wayuu communities with promises to help improve local living conditions, but critics say they have only made things worse. Residents near Chevron’s LNG facility say they haven’t received promised royalties for natural gas extraction along their shore. People who live near El Cerrejón say coal mining operations have polluted their air and land, depleted their scarce water sources, and directly caused severe health problems in their communities.
Recent media reports on the startling rates of preventable deaths among Wayuu children enraged the nation and captured the attention of Colombia’s top officials. President Juan Manuel Santos declared La Guajira’s water crisis a state of emergency in 2014, and pledged more than 30 million dollars to infrastructure development, and water and food relief programs. But relief efforts are often thwarted by corruption, poor organization, and lack of political will. Millions in aid dollars have vanished. Many life-saving resources never reach target communities. Wells were installed, but not maintained. The precise reasons and people behind these failures are rarely identified.
Guajira’s water crisis is a massive and complex problem. There are no simple solutions. I spent six weeks (Sept/Oct 2015) travelling through La Guajira as with support from the International Reporting Project. I interviewed Wayuu leaders, physicians, activists, and community members. I asked them to tell me how water scarcity was impacting their lives, which curent aid programs were and were not working, and what kinds of assistance they believed would be of value. Here is a selection of what they told me.