Latin America & Caribbean

Colombia's Alta Guajira region struggles with drought

Two women walk alongside a donkey carrying water in La Guajira province
Image caption Locals often have to walk a long way to fetch water in La Guajira

Water is as vital as it is scarce in the Alta Guajira region of north-eastern Colombia.

It has been three years since its 200,000 inhabitants, most of them members of the Wayuu indigenous group, have seen rain fall.

Rain used to fall seasonally here, but repeated El Nino weather systems have triggered a severe and long-lasting drought.

The earth where the Porshina reservoir used to be is cracked and dry.

Image caption The Porshina reservoir has run dry

It used to provide water for 300 to 400 Wayuu families and their animals.

Livestock misery

Beniverto Fernandez, who lives near the reservoir with his family, says he has lost 80 sheep and 30 goats to the drought.

"There is nothing for the animals to eat," he explains. The story is the same in every household in Alta Guajira.

Animals are key to the Wayuu people. Their loss has a deep impact as they are used as bride tokens and to pay debts and settle scores.

Image caption Livestock is key to the culture and life of the Wayuu people
Image caption While the drought lasts there is little point planting seeds, so they hang from bags from the roof
Image caption Beniverto Fernandez is worried about his livestock and feeding his family

But no rain means no crops.

And with little to harvest, the Wayuu are increasingly turning to their livestock into a food source.

"Sometimes we get bored of eating rice and we eat the animals," says Mr Fernandez.

In the shed where Mr Fernandez's water tanks are kept, cloth bags full of seeds await a more propitious time for planting.

The tanks are filled with water from a 1950s-built wind pump some 2km (1.2 miles) away.

Image caption Mr Fernandez gets his water from a well operated by a wind pump

For a long time, the wind pump had not been working, forcing locals to pump the water by hand.

Earlier this year, the British NGO Oxfam helped the local community fix it along with a number of other pumps and wells in the region.

Malnutrition

But the situation remains serious.

Over a year ago, the provincial authorities declared a public calamity which has yet to be lifted.

Between January and August this year, there have been 11 cases of children under the age of five whose death was attributed to malnutrition.

And it is not a new problem.

America Gonzalez lost three of her children to malnutrition some five years ago.

Her two youngest recovered but are now at renewed risk.

Image caption America Gonzalez's baby is at risk from malnutrition as food gets increasingly scarce
Image caption Her second youngest recovered from malnutrition but his three older siblings died

"At night I sit down to think what I will do with my kids," she told the BBC.

Naindris Gonzalez teaches in a school which is little more than a roof made of branches held up by four wooden sticks.

"Sometimes the pupils fall asleep during the classes, I don't know if it is because they are anaemic or hungry," she says.

'Not enough'

Drought and poor harvests are not the only factors contributing to the lack of food in the area.

Image caption Teacher Alexander Fernandez says there is not enough rice to feed the pupils

Corruption, poor management and neglect are making an already bad situation worse.

Recently a local official was arrested for misappropriation of public funds.

Earlier this month, the ombudsman's office denounced irregularities in the school food programme of La Guajira province, revealing that in many cases the food provided was not sufficient.

Local teacher Alexander Fernandez says his school receives only three bags of rice a month, barely enough to last 18 days.

But Mr Fernandez would not just like to see more food sent to the local schools.

His school has a football pitch and a basketball court but no balls.

Direct line

Wayuu leader Gustavo Valbuena thinks that too many of the government's resources are getting lost or diverted.

He wants them to go directly to the Wayuu, so they no longer have to rely on the local authorities to pass them on.

"A year ago we spoke to President Juan Manuel Santos and the cabinet to establish an autonomous region," he told the BBC.

Todd Howland of the United Nations office in Colombia thinks the move could be a first step towards solving the Wayuu's problems,

"The indigenous authorities themselves need to be given the resources and made responsible for overcoming the actual problems that exist," he told the BBC.

But this is unlikely to happen soon.

And with the strongest El Nino weather phenomenon in decades causing more hot and dry weather weather, prospects for this region look anything but promising.

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