Casanare drought raises Colombia climate fears

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Media caption,

Colombian cattleman Daniel Cuadra: "I don't know what the future holds, but anyway, we need to prepare ourselves because next year could be worse."

The rotting corpses of dead cows and wild capybaras line the road that leads from Paz de Ariporo to Hato Las Taparas in the Colombian province of Casanare.

At least 20,000 animals, including wild pigs, deer, small crocodiles and tortoises have died of thirst during a catastrophic dry season in this central region.

And many fear this year's drought is only heralding a future of increasingly harsh summers and even more severe water shortages in Colombia's plains.

Dry as bone

"Here we have two very distinct seasons: a dry season and a rainy season," explains Angely Rodriguez who overseas agricultural and environmental affairs in Paz de Ariporo.

"In a couple of months, it will be raining so much, all this will be like a mirror, completely flooded."

But that will be of little consolation to farmers whose livestock has been decimated.

Ms Rodriguez says dry spells - which usually last from December to April - are nothing new for the inhabitants of Casanare, but "never before during the dry season did we have such a lack of water".

As we drive across the yellow plains, all we seem to come across are tanker lorries.

Some are carrying water to replenish ponds, marshes and other natural drinking sources as part of efforts by the authorities to alleviate the suffering of wildlife and cattle.

Image source, UNGRD
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Water is being delivered to some of the worst hit areas to replenish ponds, but many of the lorries carry oil

But the large majority carry oil extracted from under the soil of these plains.

Ms Rodriguez thinks the recent boom in oil exploration and extraction in the area is to blame for the water scarcity in the summer months. "We've seen water sources that used to last all summer run completely dry," she tells the BBC.

"We're aware global climate change is part of the problem. But we also need to look into the consequences of seismic exploration and how much water the oil industry is extracting," she says, as we drive past a flock of vultures feasting on another dead cow.

'Too simplistic'

Like Ms Rodriguez, many worry about the consequences of seismic reflection - an exploration method that uses small controlled explosions to create an image similar to a sonogram to help locate new oil deposits.

Many in Colombia fear that this method affects water sources, and dismiss oil industry studies which suggest the contrary.

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Many Colombians think oil exploration is to blame for the drought

Adriana Hernandez of Casanare's risk management unit is one of those who believes that "it can't be a coincidence that the worst-hit localities are those where the oil industry is most active".

"The oil boom will leave us with a desert," she says.

But most experts warn that blaming the oil industry is too simplistic, and may even hamper efforts to prevent another drought.

Martha Plazas, who leads the regional environmental agency Corporinoquia, says Casanare's water sources are affected by many factors, including the oil industry, cattle herding, and rice farming.

Image source, Daniel Reina
Image caption,
Tortoises are among the many animals struggling to find enough water in the harsh dry season
Image source, Daniel Reina
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Thousands of capybaras, the world's largest rodent, have died this season of lack of water
Image source, Daniel Reina
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Crocodiles can be spotted easily in ponds which have largely dried out

"But we don't know yet how much responsibility each of them bears" for the drought, she says.

Rivers run dry

Juan Antonio Nieto, the director of the Agustin Codazzi Geographical Institute, thinks part of the problem could actually lie elsewhere, in the Cocuy highlands - the source of most of the rivers which feed this now dry grassland.

He says the highlands are increasingly being deforested to make way for cattle herds and potato and onion fields.

Image caption,
Signs reading "Casanare: natural paradise, now petroleum hell" have appeared in towns in the area to protest against oil exploration

And, of course, there is also the broader issue of changing global climate patterns.

"What we're currently seeing in Casanare, the death of all those animals, is mostly the result of a shift in precipitation patterns," says Gerardo Montoya, who chairs the meteorology study group at Colombia's National University.

'All talk, no action'

Mr Montoya believes that more extreme weather conditions are one of the consequences of global warming, and that measures need to be put in place to adapt to these new realities and mitigate their effects.

But according to Ms Plazas, Colombia has done very little to prepare for this challenge.

"Everybody talks about climate change and we have drafted plans and strategies. But implementing them has been a little difficult because of the lack of resources."

Back on the plains, cattle herder Daniel Cuadras agrees that better preparation is key.

"There are lot of hypothesis [about who is to blame], everyone has their own: some say it's a sign from God, others blame the oil companies, this or that," he tells the BBC.

"I don't know, but I worry about next year, we have to be ready. Because if this year was this harsh, who knows how next year will be like?"