SEMANA, August 30, 2021
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
World Water Week was celebrated in August. It’s a date to be aware of, as many people don’t have the precious liquid to drink. SEMANA traveled to Uribía in La Guajira Province, where we found that, among so many communities with water shortages, there is one in particular in which nearly 10,000 inhabitants, most of them children ages 0 to 11 years old, don’t know what it is to have water in their homes.
“I’m thirsty,” says Leidy, a five-year-old Wayúu girl who is walking in the middle of the desert, carrying her two-year-old sister on her back. Her lips are parched; you can see on them traces of the sand that they pick up at every step. It contrasts with her browned skin. In her hand, she’s carrying a 50-peso coin (less than 2 cents US). She will use it to buy some plantains. Her mother will give them to the girls and their three brothers to eat. They will be fried. It’s easier to get oil than to get water in La Invasión La Esperanza, located in the old airport in Uribía, La Guajira.
Humberto, the owner of the store, feels sorry for the little girl, and he gives her a pouch of water containing 300 milliliters (a little more than half a pint) and she smiles at him as she anticipates the taste of it. He’s surprised at what she does next; she opens the pouch and instead of drinking, first she wets the baby’s lips and then takes a sip and saves the rest so her brothers waiting at home can also have a chance to taste the vital liquid.
This is the reality for the 1,712 homes that occupy this settlement that has an area of 104 arid hectares. In all, 9,304 people live here, and 36.61% of them are children like Leidy, between zero and 11 years of age. They are the majority of the population, and they don’t know what it is to turn on a faucet, or take a shower; if they are lucky, they might bathe a few times a week with the water that fits in a dried bottle gourd container.
Here 13.65% of the population consists of minors between the ages of 12 and 17. The adults between the ages of 18 and 30 are the ones who have informal work in Uribía. The majority of them earn enough money to be able to buy bottles of water. They have to pay 12,000 pesos (roughly USD $3.17) and the bottle of water can last for two days. They arrive in tank cars once in a while and there isn’t enough for everybody.
“I stand in line for more than hour, and when I finally get to the tank car, they tell me there isn’t any more water, there wasn’t enough, and who knows how much they’re taking back,” says Jaisiño Morales, a little angry, but also resigned. Right away he got on his bicycle, carrying two empty gallon containers, one tied in front and the other in back. He pedaled 40 minutes to get to the closest pond, where there’s a well with water that people can take away. But when he got there, it was late already and there was no water left. Once again he had to turn around with his two empty containers. He can’t go home without it, because there isn’t any water for cooking at his house, so he changed his plan and went to the hose—that’s what they call the place where they get water out of the ocean with a motor pump–. Yes, it’s salt water. The kind that does damage to your stomach, but it’s the only option there is to feed his family and his pets, wash the clothes, and wash the dishes.
The first ones to see him, with pleasure, are Carmen, La Chica, La Negrita, and La Mochita, four little dogs that are thirsty too. Morales shares a little bit of water with Ignacio and his wife, two older adults that live next door. Only 3.64% of the people are older than 60, but they are the ones who in their wisdom have shown the community how to take the most advantage of the water. “When you take a bath, catch the water in a basin so you don’t waste it; you can use it in the toilet or to soap the laundry,” say the elders.
With outlooks like this one, World Water Week is being celebrated every year in Stockholm, Sweden, and this year 2021, because of the pandemic, it’s going forward virtually with a clear focus: “Building resilience more rapidly”.
There were experts, professionals, decision-makers, innovating governments and business owners, all trying to help mitigate the effects. Even the Latin American Development Bank placed special attention on the search for strategies to confront and reduce the risks that climate change is bringing, with droughts and floods that directly affect water resources.
Recent international studies warn that in 2050, large cities could face shortages of potable water in urban areas because of population growth and climate change, among them: Delhi (India), Shanghái (China), Mexico City (México), Sao Paulo (Brazil), Mumbai (India), Cairo (Egypt), Beijing (China), New York (United States), Dhaka (Bangladesh), Karachi (Pakistán) Istanbul (Turkey), Manila (Philippines), Los Angeles (United States), Moscow (Russia), Lima (Perú), among others.
The Mayor of Uribía, Bonifacio Henríquez Palmar, says that it’s not necessary to wait so long or travel so far to know what these shortages will be like. He has experienced at first hand the need that his people are feeling; this is a municipality that has lived with hunger and thirst throughout its history. “I am Wayuú and I grew up in the shantytowns, I know how cruel and inhuman it was to see a child thirsty and have nothing to give him,” the political leader told SEMANA. He said that they are using royalty payments to build two pipelines in Alta Guajira and that he thinks they will be able to fill sixty tank cars every day and thus furnish water to some families, but he’s aware that that won’t be enough. Besides, right now migrants are arriving, as well as indigenous people from Venezuela, like those that live in La Invación La Esperanza. That’s where Leidy, Jaisiño, Ignacio, and the others live.
In that community, 94.69% of the inhabitants are characterized as indigenous, most of them Wayuú. But there are also Yukpas, Barí, Añu, and Japreria who have migrated to Colombia from northern Venezuela. They came to set up their own shantytowns. They have rooms made of wood covered with plastic or recycled shingles, and as many as eight people live in about a two by three meter space. They have hammocks instead of beds. In front of their shacks they have plants that, instead of fruit, are covered with plastic bags that are tangled up in the branches.
Henríquez says that no matter how he has tried to furnish decent conditions to the nearly 10,000 people there, he has not been able to; he has asked the national government for help, but never got an actual answer. However, an international agency came to the La Esperanza settlement; it’s the Response to Emergencies in Colombia Program (ERIC) from USAID and ACDI/VOCA. They are the only agencies that have taken on the job of going house to house to identify the people’s basic needs. They bring filters for water to take out impurities, so people can drink it.
Since the agencies have been present, they have distributed 18 tank cars of water, benefiting 1,921 people in 530 homes, with an average of 339.62 liters per residence. But in reality that is not sufficient, because they are also teaching the communities how to raise their own food, and fatten the chicks that can serve as protein in the future and support a balanced diet.
The pilot program has worked; Morales is now raising his first chard, radishes, and watermelons, but to make the project work in a stable manner it’s necessary to build some water pumps. There needs to be a constant flow to change the life style of these communities. The investment in a well is rather expensive, but ACDI/VOCA is willing to take that on. However, they have found some “buts” in the permit to construct it.
The land that had been abandoned belongs to the Defense Ministry and even though, according to the Mayor, they are willing to donate it to the Municipality so it can get started, because of bureaucratic issues, that has not been possible. The problem is that, the more time it takes for the Defense Ministry to accomplish its support, the harder it is for Leidy and her young neighbors to understand the popular saying: “We would never deny anyone a glass of water.”
 ACDI/VOCA is a nonprofit international development agency, based in Washington, DC.