Fifteen children from indigenous communities have died in the northern state of La Guajira this year due to extreme drought and unsanitary conditions, local media reported on Friday.
Colombia’s ombudsman reported on Friday after a humanitarian visit to the region that thousands of people suffer from lack of water, malnutrition and disease from using unsanitary water sources.
The Superintendent of Health estimates that the figure of 15 deaths may be under the actual total, owing to the fact that communities will often bury their children on their land without reporting the death.
Last year, 23 children died from causes associated with thirst and disease according to the ombudsman.
In April, local authorities in the region reported that 276 children in the last six years had died due to hunger and malnutrition.
The ombudsman is calling on the government to construct dams and water reservoirs to alleviate the catastrophic water situation, as well as strengthen the deliveries of food and nutritional supplements to the area.
High numbers of malnourished children
The state of La Guajira hosts one of the largest indigenous populations in the country, and also struggles with some of the most poverty-stricken communities in Colombia.
In the last census, the population of Uribia, the northermost municipality in La Guajira, counted 280,000 rural inhabitants living in arid desert land where accessing water is difficult. The number includes 17,000 children malnourished children, according to the ombudsman.
In other indigenous communities located Riohacha and Manaure, the ombudsman also reports shockingly large numbers of malnourished children: Manaure reported another 18,000, and at least 2,000 were counted in Riohacha.
At least 65% of the population of Manuare is located in rural zones where there are not clean water sources, the ombudsman reported.
Wells built, but little water
One of the major problems with the water shortage in the region is not only the shortage of sanitary water deposits, but also the fact that many of the wells are empty despite being fully functional, according to the ombudsman.
There has been no reports of rainfall in some of the communities in the region for 9 months up to two years, Bogota‘s Santa Fe Radio reported.
350 wells were built in Uribia, but only one one currently has water as a result of a complete lack of rainfall over the last three months, the ombudsman reports.
The wells that do contain water are often found to be unsanitary, and children have become sick drinking water that has not yet been treated by their families, the ombudsman reported. The lack of clean drinking water leading to issues such as diarrhea and vomiting can quickly become deadly in malnourished children.
While there is a system of trucks that carry water to the affected communities, the vehicles take between four and seven hours to reach the rural villages and inhabitants, and are not able to provide for all.
A reported 7,000 cattle have also died in the last three months due to lack of water, according to the ombudsman’s report.
Ombudsman reacts to “the plight of the people”
In response to the growing concern over the humanitarian crisis currently observed in the region, the ombudsman appealed directly to the government for a “humanitarian emergency intervention that would design and build a system of small dams and reservoirs of water.”
The ombudsman also requested that an existing dam in the area be set up to operate by building irrigation channels and aqueducts that could provide nine at-risk municipalities of La Guajira with improved access to water.