UNDP on the frontline of the water crisis in La Guajira, Colombia


Photos: Catalina Ruge/PNUD Colombia

For the wayúu tribe, living in the desert peninsula of La Guajira in the northern most part of Colombia, dreams are a way of receiving insight and information from beyond. After experiencing a revealing dream, the traditional authority figure tells the community that he has seen where to find a source of water beneath the barren earth. Finding new sources of water is not a small thing, water is very scarce, and so the prospect of new sources is not to be taken lightly.

Water has always been scarce in La Guajira, a region characterized by arid landscapes. The wayúu, with a population of around 300,000, live in isolated rancherías (houses) scattered throughout 15.300 km of dessert. This has posed a challenge for the provision of clean water.  

In 2014 the gravity of the situation intensified, resulting in a humanitarian crisis for lack of water and food. Since then, UNDP Colombia, in partnership with the private sector, the national government and local governments, has been focusing on ways to help bring clean water to communities across the state such as the capital, Riohacha, Maicao, Manaure and Uribia, Puerto Vírgen and Caicemapa.

Photos: UNDP ColombiaPhotos: Catalina Ruge/PNUD Colombia

In March of this year, UNDP Colombia country director, Arnaud Peral, visited three of these initiatives and was able to observe the work being done. One such initiative trained 25 technicians in the maintenance and repair of wind mills and water wells thanks to a partnership between UNDP Colombia, the national agency for oil and gas (Agencia Nacional de Hidrocarburos-ANH), The Ministry of Mines and Energy, the Ministry of the Interior, the SENA Guajira (the national learning service), G-Emprende (the center for entrepreneurship and employability of the Guajira) and the wayúu foundation Jusonagua.

Even though there are 1,200 water wells and wind mills in the state, 70% of these are not in use due to lack of maintenance. For this reason, the training of the 25 technicians was deemed very important by the community. The graduation ceremony took place at the auditorium of the SENA in Riohacha, where Chelo and Juvenal Epiayu arrived on time after walking 10 kilometers in the desert heat to come to the graduation, “We had to come, we are happy and we didn´t want to miss the ceremony,” said Chelo Epiayu.

Photos: UNDP ColombiaPhotos: Catalina Ruge/PNUD Colombia

The new graduates, sporting new uniforms, received their diplomas from the Vice Minister of the Interior, Carlos Ferro, the advisor to the Security, Communities and Environment Department of the ANH, Carolina Gutierrez, the director of the SENA Guajira, the coordinator for poverty and sustainable development for UNDP Colombia, Fernando Herrera and UNDP country director, Peral.  

The new graduates will provide maintenance to water wells and windmills located in the communities of Riohacha, Maicao, Manaure and Uribia, a task that will benefit approximately 646 families.

Besides addressing the need for clean water in La Guajira, the training also improves the quality of life of the technicians and their families through personal and professional formation as stated by new trainee, Gerson Aguilar, during the ceremony.

This training is part of a demonstrative action within the framework of the Strategy for the Equitable and Sustainable Development of the oil and gas sector, an initiative of the national government for development, poverty reduction and peace building in communities where the industry is present.

In Puerto Vírgen, a six hour drive through the dessert north of Riohacha, in partnership with the wayúu community and the oil and gas company Repsol, with technical assistance from UNDP Colombia, two micro aqueducts and four jagueyes (pools for collecting rain water) were built.

Photos: UNDP ColombiaPhotos: Catalina Ruge/PNUD Colombia

This project is part of the Program for the Benefit of the Communities (PBC) which are mandatory social investments that oil and gas companies must make as part of their policy of social responsibility within the framework the legislation of the national government.

With an investment of 740 million Colombian pesos (approximately UD$300,000) in addition to providing access to water, the partnership also includes the strengthening of the organizational capacity of the community for the construction of partnerships that promote development.

The inaugural ceremony took place under a tent near the new water tank with attendance from Wayúu leaders, families from the community, representatives of the national government, representatives from Repsol and representatives from UNDP Colombia, director, Peral, and coordinator, Fernando Herrera.

After the ceremony, lunch was served. The menu included tomatoes from the vegetable garden that, thanks to access to water now grows corn, onions, watermelon and beans. The garden is tended by a wayúu woman who recently returned to the community because she now sees more opportunities for her and her children.

The children in the community also celebrated. The school, a short distance away from where the ceremony took place, now has two tanks filled with fresh water ready for use.

Photos: UNDP ColombiaPhotos: Catalina Ruge/PNUD Colombia

Before these constructions, women and children had to walk miles looking for water, uncertain they would even find any.  Now there are water tanks in strategic areas that get filled with water from the water tower. There are also jagueyes, where water is stored closer to the rancherías, making the walk shorter and the possibility of obtaining water high.

One of the practices that have made these projects successful and sustainable is the initiative and involvement of the community throughout the process. Bonds of friendship and commitment are being formed between all the partners.

Water is also essential for business income and development. The third initiative, “More water, More food, More income”, is being implemented in Caicemapa, in the center of the state, where the land is less arid and many of the families have running water in their houses.

The project, led by the UNDP Colombia in conjunction with the community, stems from strategies used for the quick recovery and improvement of conditions for people affected by climate variability.  Climate variability is the way climate fluctuates yearly above or below a long-term average value. This initiative is being implemented through demonstration models that improve access to clean water for human consumption, food security and income generation.

The project, in partnership with FedeCesar, a local group specializing in agriculture, has assisted the community in purchasing 52 sheep, building and tending to nine fish ponds, and cultivating five hectares of crops such as beans and rice with installed irrigation. This project is currently being replicated in two other Wayúu communities and it is expected to benefit more than 180 families in less than six months.

“We don´t want more bags with food, what we want is for you to help us build our own food supply. This is real peace, growing in these fields is the real peace,” said a local leader.

Photos: UNDP ColombiaPhotos: Catalina Ruge/PNUD Colombia

For Judith Gonzalez Pinayu, another local leader, the project has meant that her family is working together. “I am very proud of my son, he is leading the fish tanks, but when he is not here other family members, brothers, nieces, come to work. And other families too, this has united us as a community.”

UNDP Coordinator Herrera, said that “This can’t just be a short lived effort, we need to think of this as the beginning of a process of more harvest, that when we reap we can harvest again. We are planting seeds and we are happy because the seeds are flourishing. And we walk together for a while and then you will be empowered to walk alone. We want to congratulate you (the community) in this process that is giving fruit.”

For UNDP Colombia director Peral, the most important aspect is that the communities can see their daily lives reflected in the work they are doing, “to see a community with the capacity to dream, this is how peace is constructed. We are glad because we are building peace in the community and above all because this community will be empowered to do so on their own.”

Cooperation, friendship and a better future are the main similarities between the projects showcased, according to Peral.

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