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A Severe Lack of Clean Water Is Killing Indigenous Children in Colombia

A weak government and a lack of public oversight have hampered efforts to help the Wayuu people in La Guajira deal with an ongoing water shortage that has turned into a full-on crisis
A woman stands on the drought-stricken ground of the La Guajira department in Colombia. All photos by the author

Ana Maria Uriayu turns her head away and refuses to speak. Her neighbor talks for her, reciting a tale of loss shared with countless mothers in Colombia's northernmost department of La Guajira: Between the two women, four sons have died in under a year. They blame the dirty water shared by the small community.

Just two and a half miles from the capital of La Guajira, home to Colombia's largest indigenous population, the daily struggle against thirst is written across the bodies of the Wayuu people, an ethnic group of over 400,000 who live in communities scattered throughout the desert peninsula. Several times a day, women wind through cactus forests between their ranches and the muddy catchments where they collect contaminated water, and their children follow on emaciated legs. The trip can take five hours, sometimes more, and must be repeated endlessly. Even the smallest child is enlisted to carry a bucket.


According to National Institute of Health director Fernando de la Hoz, "More people die of drought and dirty water in Colombia than from the armed conflict. And the risk of dying from illnesses related to water is four or five times higher in La Guajira than anywhere else in the country." La Guajira's child mortality rate has reached levels comparable to Rwanda, and not far behind Ethiopia: 50 children die for every 1,000 live births, according to a report by the United Nations. De la Hoz believes the actual death toll to be much higher than official numbers indicate, owing to scarce medical services and a Wayuu tradition of burying one's children on one's own land.

And while the well-publicized crisis has drawn a steady flow of aid and investment to the region over the past decade—including a $90 million World Bank project and a $270 million dam—there is still no water fit for human consumption in La Guajira.

But why have efforts to help residents failed?

A close look at La Guajira's water projects suggests that a lack of public oversight has played a large role in the crisis, along with government policies favoring business interests over human rights.

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Record drought hit the region last year, triggering a viral outbreak as people began hoarding water in open containers that are breeding grounds for malaria, dengue, and chikungunya. But local aid workers say El Niño isn't to blame for the current health crisis.


"We can't say that the problem in La Guajira is due to drought—that is false," said Robert Mendez of La Guajira's Office of Disaster and Risk Management. The problem of water in La Guajira goes back many years, and it is due to the bad governance of this department."

La Guajira is infamous for its corruption and mafia politics; the last five governors have been investigated for misappropriating funds meant for public works such as water, sanitation, and health services. The most recent of these, Juan Francisco "Kiko" Gomez, was arrested in 2013 on charges of murder and arms trafficking, only to be replaced by a friend and political ally. But while residents are critical of local politicians, they are even more bitter toward the national government they say has forgotten them.

In 2007, the World Bank approved a $90 million loan for the stated purpose of providing water and sanitation service to people in La Guajira. It was given two extensions, with a new completion date of October this year.

"The [World Bank] project was never executed, there was never any money given to the communities, not even in the urban areas," said Matilde Arpushana, an indigenous leader and human rights worker representing over 200 communities near the state capital. "The water problem persists and it is very bad. Women have to walk five hours, sometimes more in order to get water. There is no water for human consumption in all of La Guajira."


According to Carlos Uribe, the project's water and sanitation specialist, the operation was frustrated from the beginning due lack of cooperation from the local government, employee performance issues, and confusion over a new water policy.

But to Nathanial Meyer, senior water organizer for Corporate Accountability International, the project's continued failure even to provide basic services to the main hospital is just further evidence that the World Bank's private investment model doesn't work. The World Bank, which holds equity shares in private water companies itself, evaluates the La Guajira project's success by the number of contracts that have been signed, rather than actual access to water. Citing failed projects in the Philippines and India, Meyer pointed out that signing a private contract does not guarantee that infrastructure will be extended.

"There is no water for human consumption in all of La Guajira." –Matilde Arpushana

In January, the government signed a decree pushing the expansion of public-private partnerships throughout the country as a solution in poorer areas, even as private companies fail to provide service up and down the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. When asked how private water contracts can ensure service to impoverished regions such as La Guajira, the World Bank refers to existing Colombian laws that guarantee subsidies for public services; significantly, these subsidies only reach up to 70 percent of the tariff for potable water.


"In addition indigenous reservations can apply for subsidies from a different source within their national transfers, which could eventually be used to pay for water supply," said a spokesperson for the World Bank, referring to the General Royalties System.

Both of these entitlements remain largely theoretical in a region with such weak government institutions. When water policy management was delegated to local municipalities during the administration of the World Bank loan, requiring each local government to submit a plan in order to be included, only three out of 15 participated, Uribe said.

"The problem is the in order to do the work, we need to have the project designs, and they needed to be sub-ministered by the municipalities," he told me. "And unfortunately, the institutional capacity of La Guajira is very small, and there were no projects. And in the last four years, there has been very little movement due to governance problems."

In other words, the solution lies in the theoretical application of policies that have so far failed to benefit the population.

Ana Maria Urariyu and Teresa Apushaina on their ranch in Monte Verde, La Guajira

La Guajira's other major infrastructure project, a $270 million dam, was built in 2010 with the objective of providing water service to roughly 400,000 people. It holds 93 million cubic meters of water with a discharge rate of 7,760 liters per second. But aqueducts remain dry as the government waits on a study to "confirm which option for the execution of the project (public or private) will generate more money for the government of Colombia."


The dam is a public asset that communities cannot access, according to Wayuu authorities that have issued a legal request for help from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH), an autonomous body of the Organization of American States. Indigenous authorities claim the dam has drained the river which residents have depended on for hundreds of years while pumping water to large estates in the south ofthe department and to El Cerrejon, a coal mine stretching the length of the peninsula.

Since the dam's completion, 4,151 child deaths have been reported in La Guajira, according to Colombia's family welfare agency, Instituto Colombiano de Beinestar Familiar.

Children in La Guajira

The government says it does not have the money to connect the $270 million dam to aqueducts, according to the finance agency researching the viability of public-private partnerships.

But a look at the resources flowing into the region shows over $250 million in annual royalties from El Cerrejon, Latin America's biggest open-pit coal mine. According to the government's new national "royalty map," close to $300 million has been invested in La Guajira since 2012.

Unless there is enough political will, no amount of resources will help communities in Colombia's second-poorest department, and the leniency given to corporate giants in the region suggests that the welfare of Wayuu people is rather low on the list of national priorities.


According to the five Wayuu authorities appealing to the CIDH, Colombian law dictates that humans must, without exception, be the first recipients of water, and only after their needs are met can the surplus can be used for agricultural, industrial, and other purposes. Even in the midst of drought and widespread disease caused by water scarcity, the El Cerrejon uses 7.1 million gallons of water a day in its 24-hour operations, according to Carlos Franco, the mine's director of International Relations. In fact, El Cerrejon has a license from the national government to use much more. "We are only using about 17 percent of our water capture permit," Franco told me. "We're allowed to use much more water."

In response to questions about the lack of water for La Guajira's population, Franco told me, "For us, its an embarrassment. It is very painful that there is no potable water in La Guajira, and there is no excuse." However, he said that El Cerrejon has recently invited the government to work with them toward a solution to La Guajira's water crisis.

Related: VICE takes a look at the water crises in America.

Over the past 40 years, the multinational giant has not only depleted and polluted water resources, but has also violently displaced indigenous and afro-Colombian communities. According to the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyer's Collective, a group representing the legal interests of Wayuu communities affected by mining, the multinationals that own El Cerrejon (Angloamerican, Glencore, and BHP Billiton) have never been penalized for human rights abuses against the communities.


"It is very complicated to litigate against the company, because all of the legislation favors business interests," explained Petra Langheinrich, spokesperson for the Collective. "And here's the serious problem: You have to imagine that in Colombia, and in La Guajria particularly, the state and environmental regulatory institutions are almost nonexistent."

Last year, the Wayuu community in lower Guajira held a tribunal to judge El Cerrejon's environmental and human rights abuses, citing the absence of a judicial system in the area.

If the state is so weak against multinationals like the Cerrejon, how can it ensure that private water companies will extend service to those who can't pay?

"You have to imagine that in Colombia, and in La Guajria particularly, the state and environmental regulatory institutions are almost nonexistent." –Petra Langheinrich

In January, La Guajira's Secretary of Health called for coordination with "forces that guarantee the availability of water for human consumption" due to the intensifying viral epidemic. The department has been on official red alert and declared a "public calamity" several times in the last year for drought, malnutrition, and viral epidemics. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) also singled the department out as being in need of "immediate intervention" in 2014.

When Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos won reelection last year on a platform of peace and social equality, the rest of the world grew hopeful for an end to the 50-year armed conflict between the Colombian government and Marxist guerillas. But who will hold the national government accountable for equitable services in a post-conflict nation, in the face of such failures as La Guajira? Does an international focus on the conflict prevent a true evaluation of aid, the majority of which now pours into peacekeeping operations and narcotics control?

Most important, how will things change for the 900,000 residents of La Guajira who cannot afford another lost decade?

Victoria Mckenzie is a human rights and global health reporter based in Medellin and NYC.