Voices From a Desert’s Drought

Perspectives diverge on the cause and solutions to La Guajira’s prolonged drought, but with almost 5,000 children dying from malnutrition in the last 3 years alone, all voices deserved to be heard.

Fellows 2015

By Jennifer Dunn

April 04, 2016

Also published by Broken Toilets

Forty-five-year-old Luis Socarras leads me in the oppressive heat, along a sandy path towards La Completa’s village well. We weave through barren shrubs and cacti, and step into a clearing. Scrawny goats slurp thick, green water from a shallow pond.

Luis tells me, “People think there isn’t life in Guajira’s desert, but they are wrong. The Wayúu people have thrived on this land for thousands of years. We have always been self-sufficient producers, since long before the first aliwana (outsiders) arrived. But we can’t survive without water. Most of our goats died. We can’t farm anymore, so we can’t feed our families. Our people – especially young children – suffer many illnesses from drinking contaminated water.”

I have no 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 or income. We need our well pump repaired. The government installed our well in the 1950s, but no one ever comes to maintain it and we don’t know how. On most days no water flows. There isn’t any water today. —— Abram Pimienta, 53. Dividivi Village

El Cerrejón coal mine stole our rivers to run their operations. We don’t have enough clean water to drink, let alone farm. Our crops and animals died. We can’t feed ourselves from the land anymore. We used to be self-sufficient producers. Now we are consumers, without the means to survive. —— Luis Socarras, 46. La Completa Village

People of Guajira, a desert region in northern Colombia, are struggling through the most severe water crisis in the nation’s recorded history. Relentless drought, combined with the recent expansion of transnational mining and agricultural operations, have depleted this desert territory’s scarce water sources. Guajira’s indigenous Wayúu communities, most of which still rely on goat herding and subsistence farming to survive, have been hit the hardest. They have watched their crops and livestock perish throughout four years without rain. Vital stream and riverbeds are dry. Groundwater tables are sinking. Well water is dwindling and testing dangerously high in salinity.

Not surprisingly, Guajira has seen a surge in health problems and increased mortality due to the water crisis. At least 4,770 Wayúu children have died from chronic malnutrition within the past three years alone, according to Shipia Wayúu activist Javier Rojas.

We need a shift in public and media discourse on La Guajira’s water crisis. The role of mining and commercial agriculture can’t be ignored. Transnationals 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 Wayúu are facing extermination. A cultural genocide. —— Javier Rojas Curiana, 40. Activist, Shipia Wayúu

We need to educate transnationals about how to interact with Wayúu, 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 Jusayu, 57. President, Association of Indiginous Wayúu Authorities

In 2014, President Santos declared a state of emergency in Guajira. Since then millions of government dollars have been put into aid and relief efforts. These funds are supplemented by the royalties received from the region’s profitable natural resource extraction. Guajira is host to El Cerrejon, the largest coalmine in the world, and Chevron-operated gas fields along the territory’s Caribbean shore.

Despite the increased attention, large-scale relief efforts so far have been disappointing. Colombian news outlets echo the public’s growing outrage in their nearly daily reports of more Wayúu infant and child mortalities. So who is to blame? Why, in one of the most resource-rich regions of the country, do so many children continue to die completely avoidable deaths due to malnutrition?

It is essential we compile accurate data on infant and child mortailities caused by Guajira’s water crisis. Government reports are far too low. Our organization, Shipia Wayúu, counts fatalities by traveling village to village, door to door, talking with families and visiting Wayúu burial grounds. We have verified the deaths of at least 4,770 Wayuu children in the past 3 years alone, resulting from chronic malnutrition. The reality of this problem must be acknowledged. —— Javier Rojas Curiana, 40. Activist, Shipia Wayúu

My littlest daughter died last year. She had diarrhea again and again, she’d get better for a short time and sick again. She was 2 years old when she died. —— Nuri Uriana, 43. Mapasira 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 1am when the tide is out. But even then it is still salty. I need to tell the Chevron people that the well is too shallow. They should come back and dig it deeper. They haven’t come back yet, so I should go find them. Can you give me money for the bus fare? —— Camilo, 61. Mapasira Village Leader

The answer, as well as the solution to the region’s recovery, depends on whom you ask. I spent six weeks traveling throughout Guajira with the support of the International Reporting Project. I met with indigenous leaders, physicians, activists, educators, students, and community members. I asked people to tell me how water shortages were impacting their lives, to describe their most urgent needs, and to share their perspectives on current relief efforts.

I was surprised by the diverse, and often conflicting, nature of their responses. In each Rancheria (Wayúu village) I visited, people offered different accounts of the crisis, and different assessments of the problems with aid. I also saw local solutions emerging from necessity, ingenuity, and a deep concern for the health and livelihoods of the Wayúu people.

According to Socarras, the water crisis will not ease until powerful transnationals are pressured to either leave or live up to their corporate mottos of environmental and social responsibility. Prominent Wayúu leader Ernesto Hernández Wasayu disagrees with Luis. He says transnationals are well-positioned and willing to help the Wayúu through the crisis, but need more guidance from local communities. Ernesto explained how the region’s history of armed conflict leaves many communities excluded from relief efforts. In the small community of Mayapo, conversations centered on how poor oversight has caused many promising aid projects to fail. In the capital of Riohacha, Wayúu pediatricians and their colleagues cautioned me to avoid the endless debates on who should bear blame for relief effort failures. They said this should be a time of action and urged more media attention to both the community’s needs and the progress that locals themselves defined.

Some Wayúu activists have called for global boycotts on coal exports from El Cerrejon. Others have asked for legal support in securing resource rights disrupted by civil conflict. Some people said their most urgent need was a meal, a water storage tank, or clothes. Some said they hoped for better roads, assistance repairing well pumps, or help seeking medical attention for a gravely ill child. Most people said corruption was a massive barrier to relief progress. Everyone said they needed more water, and expressed a deep desire to protect their Wayúu culture and self-sufficient way of life.

Our school’s desalinization plant [installed by Chevron] has been broken for 6 months. I don’t know why they still haven’t fixed it. The Chevron people came once and said the turbine needed a raplacemnt part. When they finally sent the part, it wasn’t the right size. It didn’t work. They never came back after that. —— Student, 14. Mayapo Wayúu School

Sometimes we have water from water truck deliveries, but when that runs out the students just drink salty water. It doesn’t bother me too much. I am used to it already. But it is harder on the younger students; they get bad stomachaces and diarrhoea. —— Student, 14. Mayapo Wayúu School

Who determines how to prioritize these different needs? Who can decide the right and wrong ways to distribute aid in a region fractured by harsh topography, poor infrastructure, and armed conflict? How can relief efforts be effective, when the communities in most urgent need don’t share a language or a culture with the people making aid decisions on their behalf? How can well-intentioned NGOs overcome locals’ deep distrust of outsiders, distrust rooted in centuries of colonial aggression? How can the fatalities of the water crisis be curbed, when official Wayúu birth, medical, and death records are wildly inconsistent? How can a place and people recover from a natural disaster when that disaster won’t cease and is compounded by exploitation, neglect, and corruption?

There isn’t one answer to any of these questions. But locals aren’t waiting for one; they are taking initiatives to combat the consequences of the crisis with the information and resources they have to make steps towards lasting improvements in Wayúu lives.

Wayúu pediatrician Dr. Iliana Curiel is overcoming common barriers to healthcare access in La Guajira by ramping up health outreach efforts. She is leading other healthcare providers out to remote communities to treat patients who lack the resources to travel to urban clinics. She is also educating Wayúu mothers about how to recognize and respond to symptoms of severe malnourishment.

My guide through the desert, Socarras, leads peaceful protests against El Cerrejon coalmine expansion plans. Through his activism, he strives to keep Wayúu youth engaged in their culture and invested in protecting their land. He believes activism will help deter youth from the illegal industries (sex work, narco-trafficking) that have drawn other disillusioned Wayúu youth away from their communities.

Ernesto Jusayu, 57, President of the Association of Indigenous Wayúu Authorities, works tirelessly to improve communication and cooperation between Wayúu clans, outside aid agencies, and the powerful transnationals who control much of Guajira’s natural and financial resources.

Olga Rodriguez, a 64-year old Wayúu nurse, helps ensure financial and food supplements reach intended families by accompanying illiterate Wayúu women to the government offices charged with distributing those resources.

Countless people are speaking out against the corruption that swallows relief resources in La Guajira. Undeterred by the death threats or the actual attempts on their lives that follow them.

Many people are working to tell their own stories, in their own words, to a global audience. As Socarras told me, “If the international community does not pay attention to what is happening here, our people will be extinguished. The world will lose another culture.”

We are fortunate that various NGOs and other agencies are involved in relief efforts, but poor communication and coordination slow progress. Some communities may receive multiple aid visits within a week, while other villages are overlooked entirely. —— Dr. Iliana Curiel, 31. Pediatrician in Guajira

We need more Wayúu doctors and nurses. Many Wayúu people don’t trust modern medicine. I am Wayúu and it still took me years and years to convince local mothers to vaccinate their kids. 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

Government aid never reaches this place. They say this is a “red zone” because of the region’s history of violence. Journalists and aid programs don’t visit red zones. So Seguanga is excluded from government’s water relief programs. We should be included. —— Virgilio Uriana, 65. Seguanga Village Leader

There is another kind of formula, that is meant for sending home with patients. That doesn’t work here, because it requires potable water to mix it. Our sickest children don’t have clean water access at home, that is why they are sick. Even if they did, the mothers would have to read instructions for proper preparation. But more than 90% of our Wayúu are illieterate, and many don’t even speak Spanish. —— Dr. Iliana Curiel, 31. Pediatrician in Guajira

We [local doctors] made mistakes in the beginning of the crisis. We weren’t prepared to handle an epidemic of severe malnutrition. But we recognize our mistakes and we are working very hard to improve. Accountability is essential. All entities involved in Guajira’s crisis must look at their own work, identify their own mistakes, and make improvements where they can. —— Dr. Iliana Curiel, 31. Pediatrician in Guajira

Corruption is a huge problem. The government has devoted substantial resources to Guajira’s hunger crisis, but money disappears in the ranks of administration. Corruption must be addressed in order to improve this situation. —— Dr. Spencer Rivadeneira, 46. Pediatrician

We also ask you that wherever you will go, please tell people about us. We are here, and we are not violent people. Please tell them; Seguana exists. The people of Seguana exist. —— Ernesto Jusayu, 57. President, Association of Indiginous Wayúu Authorities