This Sunday, August 10, the Colombian government will establish a new water rationing system in various departments throughout the country. The goal is to conserve water, as a drought caused by the El Niño phenomenon is affecting Colombia’s Caribbean, and parts of its Andean region.
With a growing population and harsh weather conditions, it is critical that Bogota has effective plans ready to be carried out whenever natural resources become scarce, which will likely occur in the near future.
Latin America, and the world in general, is experiencing a new version of El Niño, a natural phenomenon that encompasses fluctuating ocean temperatures in the Pacific Ocean’s equatorial area.
A key fact aboutEl Niñois that it affects regions differently. The British daily, The Guardian, discusses the 2014 version of this phenomenon, explaining that “India is expected to be the first to suffer, with weaker monsoon rains undermining the nation’s fragile food supply […] and collapsing fisheries off South America. But some regions could benefit, in particular the United States, where [El Niño …] could break the searing drought in the west.”
Colombia’s Institute of Meteorology has reported that there has been a significant decrease in the amount of rainfall in the Caribbean and Andean regions. Some Colombian departments that have been impacted include Magdalena, Atlantico, Bolivar, La Guajira, Valle del Cauca, among others.
The drought has been especially bad in La Guajira, located in the Caribbean coast. A July 24 article in the Colombian daily,El Tiempo, highlights how 15 childrenhave recently died due to illnesses provoked by the lack of water and food.
Government and Civic Response
Given the ongoing drought, the Colombian Ministry of Housing and the Commission for Water Regulation have come to what will surely be an unpopular decision. In order to encourage water rationing, individuals who utilize more water than what the government has established as permissible will be penalized, and will have to pay more accordingly. This measure will come into force on August 10.
In declarations to the press, Minister of Housing Luis Felipe Henao highlighted that the major consumers of water in the country are the agricultural and industrial sector. “They also have to resort to rational uses [of water] and we hope that the Ministries of Agriculture and of the Environment will take whatever actions are needed to apply sanctions to those whowaste water,” he declared.
Indeed, it will be important to monitor the government in the upcoming months, and whether it punishes industries that utilize water indiscriminately. These sectors are major job providers and are the reasons why the country’s economy has boomed in the past years. Hence, it will be interesting to see how far President Juan Manuel Santos’ government is willing to sanction them.
President Santoshas also addressed the drought. In late July, he visited the drought-stricken Bolivar department, where he remarked that “between October to March  we will have difficult moments.”
The head of state also supported water rationing, expressing that “we waste too much water […] With minimal effort we could save up to 7%.”
Finally, it is worth stressing that the ongoing drought has brought Colombian society together. For example, during the weekend of August 2-3, the inhabitants of Bogota donated water that will in turn be donated to the inhabitants of La Guajira.
More People, More Problems
The upcoming plan to ration water in parts of Colombia is not without its critics. Case in point is the city of Barranquilla in the Atlantico department. Critics of the new measure argue that Barranquilla is currently suffering a heat wave: temperatures are reaching 35-37 degrees Celsius (95-98 degrees Fahrenheit); hence, people must utilize more water tostay hydrated and avoid heat stroke.
The government has also been accused of “improvising” environmental measures instead of having long-term plans. Even Bogota’s aforementioned support for La Guajira has been regarded as slightly hypocritical. An August 1 op-ed in El Tiempo highlights how “La Guajira is one of those departments that Colombians have regarded with indifference, like it was another country.”
Colombia’s population was just over 47 million by the end of 2013, this is an increase of around 500 thousand people compared to 2012. At this rate, the South America nation’s population will cross the 50 million milestone in a couple of years.
More people in Colombia, and elsewhere, naturally means that demand for basic necessities like food and water will grow in the near future. While we are all focused on Bogota’snegotiations with FARC insurgents, President Santos’ real challenge for his second term will be dealing with the effects of the drought and overall proper management of the country’s natural resources.