A ray of hope for Colombia’s water-deprived communities

(Photo: Alianza Anspe)

Colombian academics and scientists have been teaming up with small communities to carry out successful potable water projects, in stark contrast to past and current state failures to improve the country’s water infrastructure.

Colciencias, the government agency focused on science, technology, and innovation, has for the last two years been working directly with the National Agency for Overcoming Extreme Poverty (ANSPE) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Colombian communities to solve water issues in the resource-rich country.

The initiative is called “Ideas for Change,” and it has attempted to fuse academic research with social projects to create sustainable solutions in three Colombian regions: the drought-stricken Guajira region in the north, the central Risaralda state, and Putumayo in the south.

An essential component of the program, according to Ricardo Triana, the coordinator of Colciencias’ Ideas for Change initiative, is the need to use scientific advances to better the lives of under-served communities, not just a privileged minority with access to new technological innovations.

“Scientific knowledge can effectively contribute to solutions of real problems. This knowledge should not remain simply in the hands of an elite, where only few can access it,” Triana told Colombia Reports in an email.

Another central aspect of the projects, according to Triana, is that they made sure to involve the affected communities in their planning and realization.

“The main component that makes these projects different is that here the communities have been involved from the beginning of the process,” Triana said. “Together with the communities, the solutions were chosen. We established agreements with them to achieve their active participation in the implementation of the technological solutions and the community members gained the skills to sustain them.”

Other aspects of the projects emphasized by Triana include the use of renewable energy like solar and wind, and completing the project requirements on time.

“In these social contexts, many times solutions are promised, but many of them are never fulfilled. In this process each solution has been implemented within a reasonable time frame,” Triana said.

To date, the initiative has benefited some 1,000 in La Guajra alone.

Severe water problems

With the Ideas for Change initiative, more than 166 communities responded to calls for to express their needs. Some 59 solutions were proposed by communities, and 10 were able to be implemented.

“What is evident from the arrival of 166 needs from the communities is that in our country, there is a high percentage of the population that lacks access to suitable water for human consumption. This exacerbates their conditions of poverty and vulnerability,” Triana said.

Despite the positive impact of these projects, the severity of the drought in Colombia’s northern region of La Guajira – exacerbating a long-existing water problem – continues to leave hundreds of thousands of Colombians without reliable access to potable water.

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. According to the World Food Program, more than half the population is impoverished.

In the last census, the population of Uribia, the northernmost municipality in La Guajira, counted 280,000 rural inhabitants living in arid desert land where accessing water is difficult.

At least 65% of the population of Manuare is located in rural zones where there are not clean water sources, Colombia’s Ombudsman reported earlier this year.

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.

In Uribia, 350 wells were built, but only one one had water as a result of a complete lack of rainfall over recent months, the Ombudsman reported.

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 lack of clean drinking water leading to issues such as diarrhea and vomiting can quickly become deadly in malnourished children. According to Colombia’s official statistics agency, DANE, more than 3,000 children have died in La Guajira since 2008 due to hunger.

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.

Government corruption hindering progress

According to Colombian lawmaker Angela Robledo (Green Alliance), some $3 billion has been lost in La Guajira due to corruption in the last 12 years.

Speaking in the Senate, Robledo said that the money “has been squandered on the road between the nation, the [State], the municipalities and some organizations and associations, co-opted by politicians with ties to paramilitarism and gasoline mafias.”

One specific instance of the type of corruption preventing the successful completion of water projects was reported recently in the district of Magdalena on the Atlantic coast. VICE News obtained documents from the Ombudsman showing that some $13 million had been allocated to the local government to improve water infrastructure.

Less than half of it was used, most of it being unaccounted for.

In 2007, the World Bank approved a $90 million loan for water infrastructure projects in La Guajira. The loan had to be extended in 2011, as the projects had not been implemented.

“We had to restructure the whole departmental water plan that we didn’t lose the bank loan, and we managed to extend it until 2015 because the total execution of the loan was supposed to have been finished in 2011,” Miguel Murgas, head of region’s water plan, told La Silla Vacia website.

Only two of 36 projects tied to the World Bank loan have been completed in the last seven years. Twenty have been started, thirteen of which have been suspended, according to La Silla Vacia.

On top of the World Bank loan, authorities also have had more than $200 million in Colombian government funds allocated for water projects.


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