Note: I originally published this post for the Global Water Alliance. I’m not sure if the organization still exists. I’ve tweaked the post a little bit to fit this website. The original post can be found here. Also, I’ve removed some images due to copyright concerns, so you may find an odd gap.
On the northern tip of Colombia, the La Guajira department (the Colombian equivalent of a state or province) is experiencing its third consecutive year of drought. This region of roughly 900,000 people—most of whom are indigenous minorities—has historically been very dry. But, the recent drought has brought to light deeply rooted institutional problems that have left the people of the region wholly unprepared for this crisis. GWA focuses on La Guajira first, to bring awareness to the problem, and second, in order to emphasize, yet again, that it is good governance that is the key to solving many water crises.
In the second year of the drought, in 2014, the Colombian Agriculture Institute estimated that 20,000 cattle had died in La Guajira as a result of water shortage. Official statistics report that over 400 children have died from malnutrition in the past three years, but the actual number is likely to be higher due to the Wayuu practice of burying ones own children. As a result of these hardships, the people of La Guajira have demanded a stronger government response to the drought. In 2014, there was a widespread strike and protest, and around 70% of businesses remained closed. It ended with riot police being dispatched and nine reported injuries.
According to one community leader, less than half of the population of La Guajira has access to running water. Another leader who represents over 200 families reported that many families (mostly the women of the families) must spend up to five hours searching for water in a day. While there is little to no data available on water access in La Guajira, it seems clear that there is a problem. People are without access to water even for drinking, let alone for farming.
This would lead one to assume that Colombia either has very little water or very few resources to invest in water infrastructure. In fact, neither of these is true.
According to World Bank data, Colombia had 2,270 billion cubic meters of water resources in 2013, yet only used 12 billion cubic meters. In 2012, urban areas in Colombia had 97% access to an improved water source (piped water, a protected well, etc.), while rural areas had 74% access. Clearly, if La Guajira really does have less than 50% access to running water, there is an extreme disparity in infrastructure.
In terms of financial resources, World Bank numbers place Colombia as a mid-sized economy, with a GDP of 377.7 billion USD in 2014. Even further, the World Bank pledged 90 million USD towards a water infrastructure project in 2007, which has now cost 158 million USD and has been pushed back to be completed in October of this year. Overall, Colombia is in the top ten recipients of aid from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (a branch of the World Bank), owing 7.9 billion USD to the lending agency and accounting for 7% of its total loans. Finally, the Colombian Institute of Rural Development contracted a 223 million dollar dam that was supposed to bring water to over 350,000 people in La Guajira.
Local revenue is not short, either. The southern portion of La Guajira is home to Latin America’s largest open-pit coal mine—El Cerrejón. This mine, which is owned and operated by Anglo American, Glencore, and BHP Billiton, brought the department of La Guajira over 258 million USD in 2013 alone.
Despite all of this money floating around and Colombia’s abundance of water resources, the people of La Guajira remain without ready access to clean water. Locals report that the World Bank’s project has simply not been built. Additionally, the 223 million dollar dam has not been connected to the aqueducts that were promised, and thus, brings no water to people.
Many people cite corruption in the government as the cause. La Guajira in particular is infamous for its scandals, as the last five governors have been investigated for stealing money meant for public infrastructure.
Still, others cite World Bank policy as a portion of the cause. After all, it was a lack of oversight from the lending agency that enabled corrupt officials to sap money from the projects in the first place. Furthermore, the World Bank’s model of bidding for private contractors rather than direct investment into public works makes profit the core incentive of the project. Thus, even if there is no corruption, these private developers do not necessarily place the interests of the local population as a priority.
It is somewhat perplexing that Colombia needs to take a World Bank loan in the first place to build this infrastructure. Colombia’s economy is quite large, and the central government surely has the resources to invest in a relatively small region of 900,000 people. The sheer amount of money received from El Cerrejón that is not used to build water infrastructure in La Guajira further suggests that it is not a lack of resources, but a lack of political will that is preventing water from reaching the people.
Unfortunately, it is not so easy for the people of La Guajira to leverage any political influence. Colombia accounts for 63.12% of reported murders of trade unionizers globally. The Human Rights Watch reports that, “Armed actors frequently threaten or attack human rights defenders, journalists, community leaders, trade unionists, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders” and several other groups. Additionally, the government’s own forces have frequently been linked to extrajudicial killings, and there are 3,500 such cases being investigated just from 2002 to 2008. In this context, it is easy to see how difficult it is to gain a stronger political voice.
The international community is not helping, either. In fact, the government of Colombia was the 8th largest recipient of US military aid in 2010. In total, Colombia has received over 5 billion USD in military aid. This suggests that the United States indirectly consents to the actions of the Colombian government, rather than pressures the government to provide much-needed water infrastructure.
The most obvious solution for the people of La Guajira is to attempt to work within the framework that already exists. This would entail somehow linking profits of privately contracted developers to outcomes in water accessibility. It is unclear how this might happen, and even if it could, this would not account for the problem of corruption.
Alternatively, the people of La Guajira can attempt to change the framework that exists through political activism. But, the last protest ended with riot police being deployed, and it seems there is little that can be done about Colombia’s entrenched violence towards activists.
Finally, the people of La Guajira can instead focus on smaller, community-led projects. The United Nations Development Program has already helped to start one such project, in which residents of La Guajira were trained to repair and maintain wells and windmills. In La Guajira, 70% of the 1,200 wells and windmills are not working simply due to a lack of maintenance. Training people at the local level in this way could help secure water at least for domestic use, which is much-needed relief in this crisis.
In closing, I emphasize the current water crisis in La Guajira in order to engage the community and raise awareness of issues like this. We can learn from cases like these that strong governance is required to bring water infrastructure, and, when that is not available, community-oriented projects can greatly help to alleviate suffering.