Education Without Water: The Guajiran Challenge

Columbia is a beautiful and diverse country which allows tourists to enjoy a variety of landscapes that vary between seasons and latitudes. However, many residents experience a sharply distinct reality: the conditions in which they live often prevent them from fundamental rights like access to water and education. When we talk about “education” in the country, we must recognize the enormous task where geography represents a significant challenge. Such is the case in the department of La Guajira, where children and adolescents are torn between the thirst created from overwhelming heat and the issues with makeshift classrooms.

In the last four years, La Guajira has had eight governors. This turnover has resulted in water, health, and education resources being run by the National Government from 2017 to the present day. In the department, more than half of the population does not have drinking water service, according to the 2018 Census. In this territory, where thirst is the central daily concern, there is an industry related to the buying and selling of water pipes.

Desalination plants and wells are among a list of proposed options to supply water. However, these options risk wear and corrosion of their structures due to the high salt content – in the environment. Today, these initiatives are little more than deteriorated or damaged technological skeletons.

In 2015, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) ordered Columbia to take precautionary measures to protect Upper Guajira from water scarcity. In 2017, the Columbian Supreme Court urged the authorities to comply with the commitments, but they have yet to obey the provisions of the international body. The court also determined that there is “a systematic violation of the rights of the population, particularly of children and pregnant mothers of the Wayuu community due to lack of water.” A year later, in 2018, the court itself reiterated the call, and in May last year, it issued a final ruling in which it again drew attention to the persistence of the problem of access to the service.

In the department, it is common to see the scene of donkey riders looking for water under the dimming sun.

In an interview with La Silla Vacía in April, the Deputy Minister of Water, José Luis Acero, stated that to ensure the supply of water, the government administration that manages the services intervened in Guajira plants to deliver 44 million liters of water. They have redirected part of the flow of the dam of the River Ranch and utilized wells in Manaure, Castilletes, Riohacha, and Maicao.

However, solutions cannot be limited to temperature spikes. Journalist Ever Mejía points out that the lack of electricity in the middle of the department aggravates the absence of the water supply. “Machines that pump water or desalination plants don’t work without light,” she says.

In Koloyosú, a settlement located close to Valledupar, only some homes have electric power thanks to solar panels rented at high prices. Fewer and fewer families maintain limited service because batteries that store energy only allow a light bulb to be turned on between 4 and 6 hours a day and do not meet their actual electrical power needs. During the day, community members delegate someone to travel to the nearest village, an hour and a half drive, to charge their cell phones.

Read also: Teacher and mother in rural Guajira.

Historically there has been a severe humanitarian crisis in La Guajira due to the lack of clean water. This is the department with the most rural poverty in Columbia; according to the Comptroller General, 96 percent of the rural population does not have enough access to water.

Without water, opportunities for indigenous children and adolescents in the way of education are limited.

In the community of Koloyosú, solar panels powering the public well broke down a little over a year ago.

Ana María Uriana, the teacher in Koloyosú, points out that, despite the adversity, the will to learn is more noticeable. However, many children walk a great distance to study at their campus.

A couple of years ago, she recounted, she had under her care two “little ones who came to school riding a donkey.” As a child, the parents tied the animal with a basket on each side, and there they placed the children, and the donkey followed the path to school. The children repeated the process on the return journey. Later, as the eldest approached the age of 10, she kept the ancient custom, leveling the weight of his brother, with water on the opposite side, which she filled every day for household chores.

This motivation to study is not unique to a part of the region; on the contrary, it is evident in each of the hamlets that have settled in the desert. For example, in Karapashen, two hours from Riohacha and an hour from Maicao, Jesus David comes to talk to us. He’s seven years old, but he’s confident when talking to strangers. “I want to be a lawyer,” he says with a laugh. Although there are no lawyers in his community, he has met some in Riohacha because they are friends of his father. We become curious. “To defend the good or to imprison the bad guys?” we ask. J es, us David laughs. “To defend the good,” he replies. Minutes later, we see him walking in the sun in search of water.

Juan David, members of Karapashen and a future lawyer.

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