Wayuu Communities Struggle to Survive Water Shortages in Colombia

Fellows 2015

By Jennifer Dunn

October 06, 2015

“Look at these puddles! This is fantastic!" my driver cheered, every time he slowed to navigate a tricky patch of mud. “We might even have to stop the car early, and walk!”

I’d never seen a driver take so much delight in poor road conditions. But for Marcos Nuñez, every clumpy wet trench in our way was a sign: his friend Abram must be having a good day.

We were headed out to Ranchería Dividivi, an indigenous Wayuu village about 12 km west of Rioacha, where 53-year-old Abram Pimienta lives with his two wives and five children. A brief burst of rain fell two days before my arrival; the first rainfall in two years, according to Nuñez.  

Dividivi is an indigenous Wayuu community, 12 km west of La Guajira’s capital city, Riohacha.

Abram wandered over to greet us at the gates of his family compound. We sat together on a wooden bench under a thatched bamboo shade, and chatted about the weather. Abram didn’t share Marcos’ joy.

“Yes, it finally rained," he nodded.

But not enough, and not in time.

Abram guided us past his adobe sleeping quarters to a chicken coop on the back edge of his property. He pushed the lid off a 1000-liter blue plastic tank, placed here to catch rain, and invited me to peer inside. A filmy inch of water pooled at the bottom. His crops of beans, corn and watermelon--the family´s primary source of income in the past--wilted two years ago. Dozens of village goats died of thirst over the last several months. Others were slaughtered far before their prime, just to save them from the same fate.

53-year-old Abram Jose shows me the empty tank he uses to catch and store rain water. Dividivi has had barely any rain in two years.

Communities throughout this northeastern corner of Colombia are struggling to survive on rapidly diminishing supplies of clean water. There is debate about the primary culprits behind the region's water crisis: climate change and drought; recent intrusion of massive commercial rice and banana plantations that illegally siphon irrigation water from Guajira's streams; El Cerrejón, the world’s largest coal mine, that has diverted the region’s rivers to run operations. Universidad de los Andes reported that El Cerrejón uses more than 4 million gallons of water a day, just to dampen down their dusty roads.

While the Colombian government, local leaders, activists and the media argue about who bears the heaviest burden of blame for water scarcity in La Guajira, the evidence on who has been hit the hardest is clear: indigenous Wayuu communities, like Dividivi, scattered throughout Guajira’s vast desert landscape.

The Wayuu are Colombia's largest indigenous population. Most Wayuu continue to live traditional subsistence lifestyles centered around farming and goat herding. In the past, they relied on rain to water their crops, and on streams, rivers and wells for cooking, bathing, and basic household needs.

But for the past two years, Guajira’s wet seasons have brought little to no rain. Crops have long died off, and livestock are collapsing from thirst. Vital riverbeds and streambeds are dry. The little water people can still draw from wells is testing dangerously high in salinity, according to Simón Zimmer, program director of international aid organization Aguayuda. People are drinking whatever little water they can still access, and that water is making them sick.

Abram used to feed his family and generate income growing watermelon, corn and beans. His crops have all died in the drought.

In 2014, at least 43 Wayuu children in La Guajira died from illnesses associated with malnutrition, according to Dr. Iliana Curiel, a Wayuu pediatrician who provides outreach health care throughout the region. She treats scores of infants and children who suffer from malnourishment and chronic diarrhea caused by contaminated water supplies.

“43 deaths too many,” Dr. Curiel told me. “These were entirely preventable fatalities, directly resulting from lack of access to potable water. The rates of child mortality we are see here are a disgrace.”

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been asking almost everyone I meet in La Guajira to share their thoughts on what can and should be done to address the region’s water shortages. I’ve discovered that discussions about potential solutions to Guajira’s water crisis are nearly as contentious as the debates about its causes.

Abram and his wife stand next to a hose that runs from the village well. Abrams says the well pumps frequently stop working. No water flowed on this day.

President Juan Santos recently pledged the construction of 100 additional wells in La Guajira by 2018. Aguayuda’s Simón Zimmer pointed out that construction of new wells isn’t only a highly cost-intensive approach, but also an undesirable one, so long as ground water salinity content continues to elevate. He and Aguayuda Colombia executive director Bill Weaver hope for increased investment in desalinization plants--technology the El Cerrejón mine is already pursuing, but to date only in service of their own operational and employee needs.

Luis Socarras, a local Wayuu activist, says his approach to fixing Guajira’s water problem is clear: El Cerrejón should cease operations, pull out of the region, and restore the land and rivers to Guajira’s native populations.

“This is our demand. But it will not likely happen,” he conceded. Not as long as El Cerrejón’s biggest clients (including Europe and the United States) maintain their appetite for coal.

Dividivi village has lost dozens of goats to thirst over the last couple of years.

Local physicians I’ve spoken with are advocating for massive reforms in the medical system, at least to increase their capacity to pull their most severely dehydrated and malnourished patients through the worst of the water crisis.

It may be some combination of these solutions that ultimately help Wayuu communities survive water shortages. But most people I’ve spoken with agree on two major barriers impeding implementation of any of them: corruption and lack of political will. It is election season in Riohacha, but no one I’ve talked to is optimistic that any of the mayoral candidates will deliver much beyond more empty promises.

A man from Dividivi waits patiently, in hopes that the well pump will start working. He says he often spends a couple of hours a day walking back and forth to the well, and waiting for slow trickles of water to flow.

Back in Dividivi, I ask Abram if he’d like me to test his household water with one of the FirstAlert kits I purchased on Amazon. He eagerly agrees, and takes the tiny testing vial over to a basin on the ground by the kitchen. He picks up the black rubber hose that runs from the village well, and gives it a vigorous shake. A couple of drops splatter to the ground.

“That’s it. There’s no more water today,” he says, dropping the hose back to the dust. “That’s how it is lately. The well pumps don’t work most of the time. The water doesn’t flow. No one comes to fix anything. No one cares. The Wayuu people have been abandoned.

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