In the northern Colombian region of La Guajira — where 83.7% of the population live without clean water and 9 out of 10 in poverty — aid measures are underway to alleviate civilians from a desperate situation.
Through NGO initiatives, corporate funding and government support, the impoverished communities are receiving aid in projects designed to provide, educate and change their quality of life for the long-term.
Extreme Poverty in La Guajira
The northern region of Colombia hosts one of the largest indigenous populations in the country, and also struggles with some of the most poverty-stricken communities in Colombia.
Half of the La Guajira’s population live in rural areas, and 9 out of 10 in poverty, according to NGO Aguayuda, who work to give remote communities access to potable water.
In La Guajira only 16.3% of the rural population have access to water and the remaining 83.7% are forced to use distant sources of contaminated water for human consumption, laundry and bathing.
The resultant severe illnesses such as diarrhoea, vomiting and skin rashes can very quickly become deadly in malnourished children.
4,151 children died between 2008 and 2013 in La Guajira, according to figures from Colombian statistics administration DANE. 278 died of starvation, 2,671 from preventable diseases and 1,202 died at birth.
Aguayuda is a Colombian organisation devoted to increasing access to water in La Guajira. They are currently engaged in project “Lazos de Agua,” organized by Millenium Water Alliance (MWA) and directly addressing the situation in La Guajira.
Funded by Coca-Cola Latin America and the FEMSA foundation, “Lazos de Agua” is helping 8,000 people in the impoverished region achieve a better quality of life.
Through the three-year-long project, an array of solutions has been implemented in La Guajira, including the installation of both household and community filters, a solar pump for a 150m well and a 40,000 litre Flexible water tank.
Program Director and Co-founder of Aguayuda Simon Zimmer told Colombia Reports that “it is crucial that the impact is lasting and that the solutions are sustainable for years to come.”
“Though there is still a lot of work to be done this year from installing water filters, providing WASH workshops, technical trainings, WASH committee trainings among other activities, at the end of this year we will improved the lives of over 8,000 people,” Zimmer said.
The project has already led over 70 WASH (water, sanitation, hygiene) workshops in rural communities, providing crucially lacking education in the avoidance of illness. Hand-washing alone can already reduce the risk of diarrheal diseases by up to 40%, according to the organization.
One uncontrollably challenging factor in La Guajira is the lack of rain.
“The drought is back this year and it has not rained since last November,” said Zimmer.
Last year’s drought saw an eight month period of no rainfall, which the NGO Program director said “affected many of our communities because it dried up many of their main water sources, which are retention ponds, wells and rivers.”
Another issue is the sheer scale of the help required to make concrete change for the people of La Guajira. It goes far beyond the reach of NGO-funded projects.
“Aguayuda and projects such as MWA – Lazos de Agua can only help a certain amount of communities; a more collaborative effort needs to occur from all sectors such as government, private, non-profits and indigenous organizations,” explained Zimmer.
In order to further address this situation, the “Lazos de Agua” project plans to implement a workshop in September this year where the key actors of La Guajira will be invited to participate in an exploration of options to improve the provision of water and sanitation to rural communities.
The key actors will be an array of government entities, non-profits, private companies and indigenous organizations to make sure all voices have a chance to be heard.
La Guajira’s devastating situation is ongoing despite the fact that the region receives royalties for the extraction of their natural resources; carbon and gas.
This is in addition to the money the department receives each year as part of the national budget.
However, most of this money is stolen by corrupted local public administration, according to Wayuu representatives Armando Valbuena y Javier Rojas Uriana.
The Colombian government has previously sent resources from Bogota to the Wayuu people and yet the indigenous remain in poverty.
For example, the Program of Food and Nutrition (PAN) — which directly aids La Guajira — received an annual investment of more than $15 million from the Colombian government. Yet this money remains trapped in a web of corruption, through which the money is illegally intercepted and used to collect votes in political campaigns, Uriana claimed earlier this year.
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 last year, 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.”
Interview with Simon Zimmer of Aguayuda
31 mil 400 litros de agua para la Alta Guajira (Vanguardia)
Por una Guajira con agua (Vanguardia)
Lazos de Agua Program in Colombia (Aguayuda)