Water Replenishment in Santa Marta: The River That Is Stolen Daily

In 1998, the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta was declared a wetland. Two years later, UNESCO gave it the title of a biosphere reserve. Currently this is the largest and most productive coastal lagoon in the country, depending directly on the freshwater exchange from the Magdalena River and the rivers that descend from the Sierra Nevada, in addition to saltwater it takes from the Caribbean Sea.

According to Manuel Pinto, an agricultural engineer, the task of providing fresh water does not depend exclusively on the Magdalena River. However, the Ciénaga goes through a problem that it shares with the hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of the Magdalena: The uncontrollable theft of water.

The five rivers that provide better quality water to the Ciénaga, in addition to presenting difficulties in the face of drought, the water is illegally captured, and its channels are diverted. Among a variety of comments from affected and connoisseurs, it points to the same culprits: the banana farms that use it for crop irrigation.

For environmental authorities, farms with banana and African palm plantations are mainly responsible for illegal water extraction from rivers.

Community leader Juan Velazco points out that in Zona Bananera, one of the largest banana and African palm producing municipalities in the Magdalena, there is a conflict between local farmers and the owners of large farms that divert water from the Seville and Cold rivers, to store it in their reservoirs and use it for private purposes. “In the flows, there are several irrigation districts that distribute water among banana and palm producers, but here farmers always denounce the larger farms of putting people armed with machetes to take care of illegal diversions so that the water does not reach the lower part of the municipality,” he adds.

The Magdalena Regional Autonomous Corporation, Corpamag, an entity responsible for managing the environment and advocating for the sustainable development of the Magdalena, has opened sanctioning processes against the owners of the estates that have repeatedly been discovered making illegal catches, but so far none have concluded.

In the same vein, in 2018, the police captured four workers from the El Jayo estate, located in the corregimiento de Palos Prietos in the jurisdiction of Pueblo Viejo. The men were surprised with material that allowed the realization of the deception, such as motor pumps, backhoe, mixers, and equipment to make dams.

On several occasions Juan Velazco, community leader of Zona Bananera, has intermediated between local farmers and owners of farms for the equitable distribution of water.

The former mayor of Pueblo Viejo, Wilfrido Ayala, a native of the Corregimiento of Bocas de Aracataca, since taking over the Mayor’s Office in 2016, has reported seven estates to Corpamag, the Ministry of Environment, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Comptroller General of the Republic, the Attorney General’s Office and the Presidency. The allegations were based on the illegal diversion of the Aracataca and Tucurinca rivers to private premises, leaving water supplies to Bocas de Aracataca and the Ciénaga Grande.

According to Corpamag, in their officials’ visits to areas where the water level drops to critical levels, they have witnessed the use of heavy machinery and community men to divert water to private premises. Rivers are also victims of theft by private companies that process water stoed in wells.

Unsatisfied, water raiders directly extract the liquid from the municipal aqueduct. In the edition of Sunday, November 3, 2019, Roger Urieles notified in the Caribbean edition of El Tiempo, the capture of two people and the dismounting of an entire infrastructure with which water was extracted illegally,” Minister Malagón said, adding that fighting these organizations can be collected at many liters per second.

According to the engineers of Esmmar, the Mamatoco plant, where the different rivers that go down from the Sierra reach, has a deficit of 50% of the liters per second that it receives. Although in Latin America technical losses of water from damage or leakage average between 20% and 35%, in Columbia, a registration amount to 70%. The Magdalene welcomes this percentage, the approximately 800 liters per second that are stolen would serve a better service to Samarians.

The Mamatoco plan together with the El Roble treatment plant, which supplies the south, hotel sec, tor, and tourist corridor, should generate 2500 LP for the District aqueduct. However, fewer than 700 LPs are being made. The remaining part, which was once planned to compensate with the start-up of 46 deep wells, only increases the amount of liquid to 1000 LP. In other words, there is a deficit of more than half of the water needed for full coverage of the city.

Today the Magdalene river is without water. More significant efforts are being put in the Administration to combat criminal “enterprises” engaged in water theft. What is most worrying about it today is that the exploitation of renewable resources will wobble between corruption and criminality, directly affecting human rights. If we keep ignoring it, the current will likely lead us.


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