How Some Colombians Survive on Less Than One Liter of Water a Day

Ecuador 2015

By Jennifer Dunn

October 31, 2015

Also published on Jennifer Dunn Radio

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. 

"We need our well pump repaired. The government installed our well in the 1950s, but no one ever comes to maintain it. Most days the water doesn't flow. We have no water today" - Abram, 53. Dividivi Village

"We would like to have a meal today; beans, rice, meat, noodles, maybe some coffee. None of us have eaten today. What food would we eat? Our crops died years ago in the drought." - Resident of Mapashira Village

"I want to finish my education. I had to leave University after 1 semester, because all our crops died in the drought. My family was struggling to eat. There was no money for tuition. Now I'm back to the same routine working with my parents, and waking up every day at 4 am to care for the goats. The worst part is that I'll never even inherit these goats; my cousins will. This is the Wayuu law of inheritance. I'm frustrated and worried about my own future." -Deiber, 22. La Completa Village.

"We need a new school. Paramilitaries burned our school to the ground. They killed 42 of our men. We want our land to be declared a protected indigenous reserve, so we can live in peace. But the court didn’t answer our petition. We don’t have money to fight our case in Bogota, to fight the rich enemies who want to push us from our land. This is our home. We live in fear of violence, in fear of being forced to leave.”

"We need more Wayuu doctors and nurses. I am Wayuu, and even I find it so challenging to work (as a nurse) in Wayuu communities. Many Wayuu people don't trust modern medicine. It took me years and years to convince mothers to vaccinate their kids. Thankfully, most of them agree now. When I retire, who will replace me? They will bring in a rotating staff from outside, doctors who don't understand our culture or speak our language. Locals will not trust them." -Olga, 64. Nurse. Ranchería Mayapo

"I am the only nurse who lives here. People come to me all day and night with medical problems. I help them. Where else can they go? But I am getting old. I've worked 30 years and I want to retire." -Olga, 64. Nurse. Mayapo

"We need honest physicians, who don't manipulate medical records to protect the image of El Cerrejon coal mine. El Cerrejon pressures doctors, with money and threats, to misdiagnose health problems caused by mining operations. I know one doctor who was brave enough to refuse their orders. He was demoted." -Luis Soccarrass

"We want to live in peace, without the threat of violence. The mine increased violent conflicts here between the military, paramilitaries, and guerilla rebels. We can't walk our own land freely anymore. El Cerrejon has changed Wayuu life 100% for the worst. -Luis, 45. Wayuu Activist. La Completa Village.

"My dream is to attend university and study sociology or anthropology. I want to develop professional skills to really help my community with all the challenges we are facing now." -Keydi, 18. La Completa Village.

“We need to educate transnationals about how to interact with Wayuu, about how they can cooperate with us and about which kinds of social or medical programs they should sponsor. How can we expect them to understand our culture if we don’t teach them? We are organizing and advocating for ourselves, and our efforts do have impact. El Cerrejón is opening their eyes. They no longer dismiss us as ignorant natives. They are listening and responding.” –Ernesto, 57. Wayuu Rights Association

El Cerrejón: The largest coal mine in the world.

"We don't need the international community to send us clothes or shoes. We need the world to know: the coal they import from Guajira is full of the blood and souls of 4,770 dead Wayuu children" - Javier Rojas, Shipia Wayuu activist

"I came to the clinic today because my daughter has diarrhea again. She suffers this problem often. I hope they can give her medicine to make her better." -Mother at pediatric clinic day in Mayapo

"Please look at these bracelets we made. Will you buy any? They cost 2 mil pesos ($0.60) each." -Wayuu children in Mayapo Village

"We need help purchasing string to weave our handcrafts. If we sell our bags and bracelets, we can buy food". Juana, 19. Mapashira Village

"Chevron installed this well last year. But they only dug it 30 meters deep, and the water is too salty. We are close to the beach; the salt content rises and falls with the tide. We have to wake up and collect water at 1 am when the tide is out. But even then it is still salty. I need money for bus fare to travel to Riohacha, to go to the Chevron office there and explain they made our well too shallow, explain they should return and dig it deeper." Camilo, 61. Mapashira Village Leader

Mapashira Village Well. Installed by Chevron in 2014.

“I want to go to journalism school. I have been teaching myself some media skills. I want the education and tools to document our battles with El Cerrejón coal mine. To speak out to the world about what is happening to our land and to our people.” –Monica, 21. (Monica borrowed my camera to take some shots around her house. This is one of her photos)

“We want people to visit us. The government accused us of supporting guerilla rebels and declared this a ‘red zone’. Aid workers and journalists never come here, because they are afraid. They avoid red zones, so we are excluded from food and water relief programs. We were victims of violent paramilitary attacks, but we are not violent people. We want peace and security. Can you please tell people that you met us? Tell them about us, the people of Seguana." -Palabreros

"We need large water storage tanks. We have to travel back and forth, back and forth to gather water in small containers. If we had bigger tanks we could get water delivered in trucks, like other communities do. That would free up hours every day for other work, time we now spend just collecting water” -Virgilio, 65. Seguana Village leader

"We need rain, so our Jaguey (village pond) will fill. The Jaguey has always been our most important source of water. It was the place where people visited while they bathed or did their washing. Our community is not the same without our Jaguey" -Virgilio, 65. Seguana Village Leader

A girl from Seguana helps her family collect water.

"We need jobs. When there are construction projects here, they always bring in lower-cost labor from Venezuela. They can pay those laborers less, according to the law. We want these jobs, we need these jobs. Construction jobs in our community should be jobs for the people of our community." -Franklin

"El Cerrejón coal mine must not proceed with their plans to divert our last source of fresh running water, El Bruno stream. Our streams and rivers are the veins of La Guajira. We will die without them" -Jasmin.

"I wish Wayuu people were not treated differently by society, just because we are indigenous. I have relatives in the city; they denied that we are family. I heard them telling others that we aren't related. They feel ashamed by my Wayuu blood." -Aurora, 46. La Completa

"I need water for my crops. It's barely rained in 4 years, and our well pump doesn't work. Our crops are dead. Our goats are dying. We have no food, no income." Abram, 57. Dividivi Village

Nelsi, Keydi, Miguelina march in protest of El Cerrejón plans to excavate coal under El Bruno Stream.

"I want to study to become a civil engineer. I attend the Wayuu High School. I think it is a good school. It would be better if we had more clean water to drink. The motor for the school water filter broke, and they never fixed it. We usually have to drink salty water. I am used to it already. It is harder on the younger students; they often get stomach aches and diarrhea." -Student, Mayapo

"I got so tired of all the pitiful portrayals of Wayuu in the media. When you look for photos of Wayuu or Guajira, what do you see? Animals rotting in the desert. Shocking images sick and dying children. Yes, we are struggling with too much malnutrition. That problem must be visible. But our Wayuu children have strong and hopeful spirits. Where are the images showing their strength and their joy? -Dr. Illiana Cruz, Wayuu Pediatrician

Jennifer Dunn reported from Colombia on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project (IRP).