In a country where water falls steadily upon rainforests and Andean wetlands, the Wayúu children in one of Colombia’s largest departments are shamefully dying of thirst. In a country which prides itself on having some of the richest biodiversity in the world, animals are starving because wells and streams have dried out in La Guajira.

The water crisis in the Northeastern region of the country is so acute that the indigenous Wayúu peoples, who inhabit the windswept deserts, have reached their “breaking point” as Javier Rojas, one of the senior leaders of the Association of Indian Authorities, told The City Paper.

Rojas, 39, was in Bogotá last month to request precautionary measures before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) petitioned on his behalf and in representation of 4,500 local assemblies across La Guajira. The Wayúu’s plight has been taken up by the legal team of the University Jorge Tadeo Lozano.

If accepted, the measure would oblige the Colombian Government to immediately open the floodgates of the El Cercado dam and release water back into the Ranchería river. It would also force the Cerrejón coal mine to close all entries of water, including surface river water and that which is collected in underground springs and wells.

The Commission’s decision is expected soon, as it is a matter of life and death, or as Javier Rojas states, “a matter of preventing systematic genocide.”

Wayuu La Guajira
Wayúu children in La Guajira bathe with buckets due to severe water shortages.

“The principle governing the petition is that human rights prevail over any economic gain and private interests,” explains Carolina Sáchica Moreno, the attorney representing the Wayúu.

The dossier presented on the 6th of February 2015 consists of 25 pages and the recently-released documentary by award-winning investigative journalist, Gonzalo Guillén, titled “El río que se robaron” (The River that was stolen).

Both documentary and dossier supply evidence of the Wayúu’s claims that they are facing an orchestrated genocide due to the Colombian Government’s indifference and abandonment when it comes to providing safe, clean, drinking water to households in this remote and hostile territory.

Corruption and a thirst for power

Denied their fundamental right to water, as guaranteed by the country’s Constitution, the Wayúu not only reside in the second most impoverished department in the country, but have been immersed in a cyclone of corruption for decades. Recently, the department’s former governor Juan Francisco ‘Kiko’ Gómez was arrested for complicity and direct ties to Marcos de Jesús Figueroa, the alleged leader of the region’s paramilitary.

For the Wayúu, this is the second time in less than five years that they have had to seek precautionary measures from the IACHR.

In 2010, Wayúu Assembly leaders presented the Inter-American Commission with evidence of massacres, extrajudicial killings of their community leaders, and constant intimidation as a result of their denouncing that one of the department’s most important ports, Bahía Portete, was being used as hub for drugs smuggling. The IACHR heard the evidence and offered the Wayúu their precautionary measures to prevent further “irreparable harm.”

According to Javier Rojas, 4,700 children have died from hunger as a result of lack of water during the last three years. He quotes official numbers, but warns that many more have fallen victims to hunger, doubling the official report.

Systemic starvation has also taken its toll on a generation of children who denied clean water and nutrients, are suffering from respiritory diseases, blindness, learning disabilities and mental retardation.

“The lack of water is going to result in the extermination of the Wayúu,” believes Rojas. “We predict that over the next decade our population will decrease by half.” According to this indigenous spokesperson, the Wayúu’s population should stand at 1 million, yet is currently close to 400,000 across the entire Colombian territory.

In a region of Colombia where rainfall is intermittent and streams have turned into dust bowls, there’s enough water for the entire department in one reservoir, which sits close to the entrance of the world’s largest open-pit coal mine, Cerrejón.

When the river runs dry

Filled everyday by the most important river flowing through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and which once emptied into the Caribbean near Riohacha, the Ranchería River’s 300 km journey was cut short in 2006 during the second administration of Alvaro Uribe’s government, when the Institute for Rural Development, INCODER and construction company Conalvias, began construction of the ‘El Cercado’ dam.

Inaugurated with the slogan “Desde aquí fluirá el agua que traerá futuro a la Guajira” (From here flows the water for the future of La Guajira), the dam has not lived up to its objective. Instead, it has drained the Wayúu’s aspirations of ever seeing a single drop of fresh water, as large tubes pump El Cercado’s mountain-based natural resource to the mining complex of Cerrejón.

Operated by a consortium of transnational mining giants, Britain’s Anglo American, Australia’s BHP Billiton and Switzerland’s Glencore Xstrata, in order for Cerrejón to produce its 30 million tonnes of coal every year and fuel the energy portfolios of nations around the world, it needs water. And lots of it.

According to Guillén’s documentary, Cerrejón’s daily water consumption amounts to some 34,000 cubic meters of water, the equivalent of clean water consumption for 325,000 families of the total 525,000 population in La Guajira.

While Cerrejón can spray its parched ramps within the pit and hose down hot coal deposits with El Cercado’s water, the salts flats of Manuare have not seen a drop of water in years because the territory was hit by a severe drought between 2013 and 2014.

According to Rojas, another major contentious issue with Cerrejón, and one which has angered the Wayúu, was a planned rerouting of the Bruno stream in 2002 some 700 meters from its original flow, in order to benefit the continuing expansion of the country’s most coveted mine.

“The community had no knowledge of their rights”

“The community had no knowledge of their rights,” claims Rojas. “Local politicians ‘in with Cerrejón’ gave handouts to get signatures for the advancement of the project.”

In 90% of the townships across La Guajira, there is no running water. The Wayúu often walk great distances across deserts to collect buckets of this vital earth resource, and one upon which all survival is based.

While the region should benefit from some of the largest royalties handed out by the government for use of ancestral land in industrial mining and intensive farming, the most vulnerable are going hungry, and falling sick. And infant mortality is becoming a daily reality in rancherías across the department.

“Many have tried to buy our conscience, but the struggle is all about the defense of our territory,” states Rojas. “The relationship between the Wayúu and the land is sacred.”

One month of rain in La Guajira puts food on the table for one year. But it hasn’t rained, and the rivers are evaporating, leaving murky puddles in their wake. Open-pit mining is also forcing the water table deeper into the earth, making traditional wells obsolete, and the search for water more critical.

“Before we had to go down five meters to find water. Now we dig to 30,” emphasizes the community activist.

While the water shortage affects the entire department, the Wayúu’s food basket has also come under threat from residual coal ash blowing-off from the Cerrejón coal trains which traverse La Guajira from the mine’s main pit to the port of Puerto Bolívar. According to Rojas, the ash contaminates cactus and tupelo groves, and has rendered soil for artisanal farming near the “safety zone” of the train’s tracks, useless.

According to the leader, the ash from the country’s largest coal port has also destroyed reefs, where fishermen ply their trade. “Even on a bad day, we would take home 50 kilos of fish. Now, two or three kilos is a lot.”

Not giving up

Feeling like they are facing a tidal wave of adversity, the Wayúu are addressing the international community, media outlets and NGOs.

While Cerrejón’s water administration is the most immediate source of contention for the Wayúu and led to the IACHR petition, the Assembly leaders have also levied criticism on the “bartering culture” which has become pervasive among tourists visiting La Guajira. “It’s no coincidence that we have children begging by the side of the road. They are hungry.”

As one of Colombia’s most publicized regions for eco and ethno tourism, a brightly-colored Wayúu mochila is an item many take home as a token of a region which enchants outsiders. Requiring time and effort to weave by Wayúu women, the mochila is a script on the go. As each one is unique, each one tells a story.

“If only the mochila could talk,” states Rojas. If only. For the story it would tell us, is not a traveler’s tale, but the final chapter of a peoples who claim to have “arrived at the brink.”

And warn, that the thirst they are suffering has even made them contemplate collective suicide if their precautionary measures are not met.

“It would be more dignified for all of us to die, than to have to keep burying our children,” states Rojas.

This article was co-authored with María Claudia Peña.