In La Guajira, Colombia, clean water shortages have fueled a surge of health complications among the region's indigenous Wayuu communities. Well water is testing dangerously high in salinity. Physicians are reporting outbreaks of adverse skin conditions resulting from bathing in stagnant, bacteria-infected ponds. Stream and river water is polluted with waste from nearby coalmine El Cerrejón. Contaminated water sources are causing severe and often fatal intestinal infections in infants and children.
In many regions of Guajira, two rainy seasons passed without a drop of rain. Crops have whithered and livestock are dying, adding the burden of food scarcity to families already strained by thirst. Wayuu activist Javier Rojas estimates that three to four Wayuu children under the age of 5 die every single week from chronic malnutrition.
In a recent interview, Javier described the public health data he and his organization, Shipia Wayuu, have compiled through exhaustive research in La Guajira's 'Rancherias', or Wayuu villages. The following quotes are excerpts from his interview.
(Note: There is significant debate about the primary causes of water shortages and high infant and child mortality rates in La Guajira. I am presenting Javier Rojas' perspectives in his own words here. I will present opposing views shared by other sources in future posts.)
Hunger in Wayuu Communities
"Life for Wayuu people in Guajira was entirely different 30 years ago. Before the transnationals arrived (El Cerrejón coalmine, large-scale commercial agriculture), we never had to worry about having enough to eat and drink. People call Guajira a desert, but there was life here, we had plenty to subsist. We are an agricultural and pastoral society. We were perfectly capable of feeding our families when we had water for our crops, our animals, and enough potable water to drink. That was before El Cerrejón coalmine came, diverted our rivers and left us without water. Our crops and our
"I can tell you that in this moment many people in Guajira haven't had a bite to eat all day; no breakfast, no lunch, no prospects for dinner. People are passing the whole day consuming nothing but a single cup of Chicha (corn porridge). Chicha is the only nutrient many children have. And that Chicha is brewed with contaminated water, because there isn't any other water available."
Wayuu Infant and Child Mortailities
"We have verified the deaths of at least 4,770 Wayuu children in the past 3 years alone, resulting from conditions associated with chronic malnutrition. The government acknowledges only 284 Wayuu infant & child deaths, over the past 8 years. Government reports are inaccurate. Our organization, Shipia Wayuu, counts fatalities by travelling village to village, home to home, talking with families and visiting Wayuu burial grounds. We work to compile accurate census reports and accurate data on mortalities linked to the water crisis in La Guajira. The reality of this problem must be visible, must be acknowledged. We see fatalitities every week from completely preventable causes, just because people don't have enough food or access to clean water. Three children under the age of 2 died just last week near the town of Manaure."
Cultural and Practical Barriers to Seeking Health Care
“There are not enough medical centers in La Guajira. It’s very difficult for mothers to seek care for their children. Many families live in remote regions, and don’t have access to decent transportation. They may have to travel for hours by foot or burro to get to a clinic. And most families have several children; if a mother brings one sick child on the long journey to a hospital, who will look after her other children back home while she is gone?"
"Even if a mother can overcome these challenges and get to a hospital, her malnourished child is typically given some dose of rehydration formula, and then sent home without anything to continue treatment. The mother has to take her child back home to the same conditions of food insecurity and water scarcity that caused the child’s illness. She must expend valuable resources to get to a medical center, where her child receives a temporary treatment and is sent back home to starve again. We have even seen cases where the sick child died during the journey back home."
"You also have to understand that Wayuu are not always treated with respect in the hospitals. There aren’t enough health care providers who speak Wayuu language, and some treat indigenous people like ignorant or second-class citizens. Some mothers make it all the way to a hospital, just to watch their child die on the hospital floor. This is an immense tragedy. People on the outside often blame the Wayuu for not caring enough for their children to seek life-saving care. This is a ridiculous accusation. You can see how these factors combine to make mothers, who value their children’s lives more than their own, reluctant to seek care in such inhospitable and unreliable settings.”
Accountability for Guajira's Water Crisis
"We need a shift in public and media discourse on La Guajira's water crisis. The government prefers to blame our water shortages on drought and climate change, because these are forces they cannot control, forces they can deny liability for. The avert attention from the roles multinationals have played in the problem. The damage mining and commercial agriculture has caused must be brought to the center of discussions about our water crisis and possible resolutions. The multinationals have stolen our river. They have sucked the water from the marrow of our earth. El Cerrejón, with the government's support, is depriving us of our own water. Add to that the government's neglect to make meaningful health care reforms...the results are catastropic. The Wayuu are facing extermination. A cultural genocide."
"But even the international media avoids focusing on multinationals' culpability for Wayuu deaths. I guess it is because these companies like El Cerrejón are so powerful. People fear repercussions for denouncing their actions. People who speak out against the mine are crushed. We know El Cerrejón is behind the assasinations of several of our Wayuu leaders who protested the mine, leaders who were advocating for Wayuu community rights."
"The world needs to know what his happening here. We don't need the international community to send us clothes, or packages of food or bottles of water. Such donations are no solution to our problems. We need the international community to know: the coal that generates their power, the coal that comes from El Cerrejón, this coal that leaves our territory is full of blood and the souls of 4,700 Wayuu children."
Javier Rojas Curiana is a legal representative with indigenous rights organization Shipia Wayuu.
I am reporting on water scarcity and health in Colombia with support from the International Reporting Project.