Colombia’s looming water crisis

A pool where salt is harvested in Galerazamba, in northern Colombia, in May 2020. (Keystone/EPA/Ricardo Maldonado Rozo)

Colombia is one of the richest countries in freshwater, yet it is grappling with a water crisis. Climate change and decades of industrial oil extraction, mining and farming are threatening water security for a large part of its population.

Some 300 km North of Bogotá, Puerto Wilches sits on the riverbanks of the Magdalena River. Despite being next to one of Colombia’s main arteries, the rural town of 30,000 inhabitants has no access to clean water.

This town is also where the government is planning to kick off the first of four pilot projects to begin explorations for fracking, a method through which a mixture of water and chemicals is injected into a rock to fracture it and extract gas and oil from reservoirs which would otherwise be inaccessible. After Argentina, Colombia would become the second Latin-American nation to use fracking.

Environmentalists and local communities are actively opposing the practice, warning that it will bring disastrous consequences for the already threatened ecosystems.

Héctor Suárez, from the Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights (CREDHOS) and part of the Colombia Free of Fracking Alliance, a group of some 150 organisations calling for the practice to be banned in the country, is one of them.

“Experiences in other countries have shown that the gas and chemicals used can leak and can pollute underground water bodies,” he told Geneva Solutions. “Puerto Wilches depends on underground water for drinking.”

Two UN experts, the special rapporteur on toxic waste and the special rapporteur on the environment, recently issued letters urging the government to halt the projects.

In the US, where the method is widespread, opponents have called for it to be outlawed. Several countries, including France, Germany, Switzerland and Ireland, have introduced bans or restrictions.

The waters and soils of the valley of Magdalena Medio, where Puerto Wilches is located, are already heavily polluted. One of the most important oil enclaves of the country, the region has been home to intensive mining and oil extraction for over a century.

“Magdalena Medio’s ecosystems are extremely fragile,” Suarez notes. It is home to hundreds of species, including endangered ones like the Caribbean manatee, or “sea cow”. Conservation efforts exist and are financially supported by some of the companies exploiting resources in the region, such as state-owned Ecopetrol, which has been granted the Puerto Wilches fracking project.

Authorities say that fracking will bring new job opportunities to a region struck by poverty and high levels of unemployment. Suárez disagrees: “Oil companies always say this and then they bring workers from outside. This is one of the issues we’ve been fighting constantly.”

The Colombia Free of Fracking Alliance has been rallying up support from communities. The State Council temporarily suspended the rules that allow fracking practice in 2018 and will give a final ruling on 11 March. But the government has said that if the rules are overturned, it will issue new ones, Suárez explains.

However, he hopes that the Council’s ruling and the communities’ opposition will exert enough pressure to get the government to back down.

A country under water stress. Water problems are not unique to this region. Colombia has the sixth highest volume of renewable freshwater in the world, yet, according to the charity WaterAid, 1.4 million people lack access to clean water.

While rural communities bear the biggest brunt, urban areas are also heavily affected. According to a report by the World Bank, one third of its population is living under water stress, meaning that they might experience water shortages at some point.

Many water bodies are polluted by households, industries and agriculture, and water distribution systems and wastewater treatment can barely keep up.

Climate change is expected to only worsen the situation as rising temperatures bring more frequent and severe droughts and floods each year.

However, the main source of organic discharges in the country’s water bodies is its industrial sector, according to the report. Rural communities that live near these sites often find themselves at odds with these companies.

Fighting for water access. In Montes de María, in the Caribbean region of the country, communities have been fighting for decades for water access that they lost to massive land buying schemes in the 1990s. Oleoflores, one of Colombia’s first palm oil producers, currently controls the main water irrigation district, which communities increasingly depend on for drinking.

Communities have historically used rain water for consumption, but the dry tropical zone is experiencing longer and more intense dry periods, making it harder to rely on this system.

Fertilisers used in the palm oil plantations are also polluting the water, causing significant skin and other health problems for those exposed.

“The issue here is that water, a public good, is under the control of a private company,” says Gabriel Urbano from the Corporation of Solidary Development (CDS), a local NGO that has been accompanying the local farmers in their plights.

He adds: “The communities say that the district was designed for the farmers and so the water should be equally shared.” The district was originally built in the 60s by the government to ensure water access for local farmers and their crops. It was later abandoned and recovered by the private sector.

Discussions with the company up until now have been fruitless, Urbano says, adding that the state has failed to provide water distribution systems despite their promise to do so.

A perilous battle. Standing up for environmental rights is dangerous in Colombia. In 2020, over 300 social leaders were killed, according to the Colombian peacebuilding organisation Indepaz.

Anti-fracking activists in Magdalena Medio have been subject to threats and intimidation. An activist from Puerto Wilches was held at gunpoint by men on a motorcycle, who threatened to kill her if she didn’t stop protesting, Suárez says. CREDHOS has also been targeted for its involvement in the campaign.

However, it is difficult to know where the threats come from, he notes. The region is plagued by guerrilla, paramilitary and drug trafficking groups. Since the signing of the Peace Accords in 2016, officially ending over 50 years of bloody conflict, violence levels in the country have rebounded.

With the disbanding of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), territories that were historically under their control were suddenly up for grabs, attracting other armed groups that are now caught up in a power struggle.

Montes de María, one of the areas most heavily affected by the conflict, is also seeing a rise in violence and threats since these groups have moved into the area. “It is very easy to recreate the climate of terror from before and paralyse the movement demanding these rights, just by spreading flyers or threats,” Urbano explains.

A land issue. To understand why a country that is so rich in water resources is having so much trouble with water access, looking at the country’s conflict history is key.

“The armed conflict in Colombia is linked to the control of land by landowners, cattle ranchers and agroindustrial companies that have been granted exploitation rights by the state. The emergence of paramilitary and guerrilla groups also has to do with fighting for control of that land,” explains Ramón Muñoz, director of the International Network of Human Rights, a Geneva-based NGO specialised in the situation in Latin America.

“There is unequal land distribution and this implies a difficulty in access to water,” he adds. According to figures cited by Oxfam, 80 per cent of Colombia’s land is in the hands of 14 per cent of landowners.

The current government policy, he says, is worsening the situation: “The government's strategy is to invest in these regions through these private companies by making land concessions, but this means that the farmers are increasingly left without access to water services.”

At the same time, critics say that the current right-wing government has slowed down the implementation of the peace deal and has slashed funding, particularly in these areas.

“Within the peace agreement, certain actions were agreed upon in the zones that had been abandoned by the FARC. Part of those have to do with the installation of drinking water distribution systems. The lack of real investment in the implementation of the peace agreement is affecting these communities,” Muñoz explains.

Montes de María is one of those areas. “The state has to fulfil its obligations. People are returning to live in the villages and hamlets. We have to think of a territory that is viable for everyone,” Urbano says.

“If we could make a real transformation that allows us to have a strong and organised civil society and a state that guarantees compliance with the agreements, one could think of having better scenarios of local democracy and territorial sustainability,” he adds.

“That if something is being done wrong, communities can call it out without getting killed.”