In 2016, I went to La Guajira in Colombia with WaterAid to document the situation for local people and the organisation’s projects in the region.
Situated at the northern tip of Colombia, La Guajira department is a dry stretch of land with Venezuela to the east and the Caribbean Sea to the north. About 50 per cent of its population comprises indigenous groups – mainly Wayuu – and it has very high levels of poverty. In recent years the region has seen a prolonged drought, which has exacerbated levels of undernutrition.
According to one community leader less than half of La Guajira’s population has access to running water and many families spend up to five hours searching for water each day. There is little water readily available for drinking let alone for farming. The water shortage is having a dramatic effect on the most vulnerable, such as pregnant woman and young children, and it can seriously affect brain development. The Guardian reported that an estimated 400 children died of malnutrition in the years 2013-15, and 2014, the second year of drought, saw an estimated 20,000 cattle die as a result of water shortage.
On top of that, the lack of access to water is linked to corruption and the mismanagement of resources, locals have said. A dam was built to mitigate the effects of cyclical droughts, but Wayuu leaders claim its water is mainly used by the Cerrejón coal mine, the largest open-pit coal mine in Latin America. By the time the river reaches Wayuu land it is barely a trickle. Wayuu leaders have taken their case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, requesting precautionary measures with the aim of forcing government bodies at both local and national levels to assure their access to water.