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Colombia: Putumayo and Córdoba communities celebrate arrival of water

16-04-2013 Feature

As if the armed conflict weren't enough, many communities in Colombia face a lack of basic services, such as water and sanitation. The ICRC is working with the Colombian Red Cross to ease the situation. In 2012 alone, some 7,000 people benefited from water and sanitation projects.

The stories of two communities, one in the north of Colombia and one in the south, for whom access to the liquid gold has made all the difference.

Las Perlas: "We hardly have anything, but we do have the most important thing: water"

Paradoxically, many communities in Colombian Amazonia are short of water. This was the case in the hamlet of Las Perlas, which lies in Putumayo, on the banks of the River Mandur. That all changed in January 2012, when the ICRC finished building a community water main.

The limited presence of the State, clashes between parties to the conflict and threats directed at the community had left this 490-person community devoid of hope. Hot summers and mining along the river had caused water quality to deteriorate. There was an old pipeline leading to Las Perlas, but it no longer brought water.

"The situation was critical," recalls Anselmo Cuaram, who chairs the community's water committee. "We were drawing water from the river and collecting rainwater in oil drums. We all bathed in the river, and that was very dangerous, partly because of the animals and partly because of broken glass."

Using the water for cooking or drinking brought even more risk. "A lot of people had diarrhoea, respiratory infections, dermatitis or otitis, all from drinking river water," explained health educator Aura Guaitarilla.

The ICRC renovated the existing pipeline and installed a pump. The organization also provided taps, valves and distribution units for homes, explains ICRC engineer Mauricio Méndez.

The water brought more than just health and well-being. The pipeline restored community confidence in Las Perlas and gave the people there a focus. They set up a water committee, with the job of managing the pipeline, collecting payments and carrying out maintenance.

"We may not have light in Las Perlas, or anything else, but we're proud, because we do have the most important thing: clean, healthy water. We have had to fight for our water. So we're really careful to make sure we pay the water bill promptly," says Fénix Calderón. She runs a boarding house, and lately she has been receiving compliments for the delicious soups she produces with the good drinking water.

Tierralta: "We learned to use the tools we have"

9 de Agosto Estate, Tierralta, Córdoba, northern Colombia. To collect water, you have two walk almost two kilometres. And then pay. The other options are to join the long queues at a free community well, or draw water from family wells, which may be contaminated. 9,500 people live in this huge area, home to a fifth of the city's population. The town is a place of refuge for people displaced by conflict and violence in the countryside.

This area is named 9 de Agosto because, on 9 August 2010, impoverished displaced families invaded a 54-hectare patch of land. Riot police arrived to take it back, and amid the fighting, a child was killed.

This traumatic beginning was followed by many years of hardship. "These people are living under very difficult conditions. Their houses are made of wood, canvas or plastic, with straw roofs and earth floors. There is a lack of basic public services, such as water, sanitation, education and health," explained ICRC water and sanitation engineer Valentín Palacios, who has spent 18 months walking the unmade roads of the settlement.

Since 2012, the ICRC has trained 110 community workers, most of them women, in such areas as drinking water, vermin control and the management and disposal of sewage and solid residues. Work is underway on two 85-metre wells, which will draw water from subterranean sources.

"This programme has shown us that we can't go on living so close together, with several families in the same home," says Nelly Giraldo. "We have to improve things, and we must use the tools we have." Ms Giraldo is a single mother, who takes time off from her business selling cornmeal rolls to act as a voluntary community worker.

The Córdoba Branch of the Colombian Red Cross is helping the ICRC to run community visits and organize recreational and educational activities. Organizations like the local health authority, the local cleaning company and the Colombian family welfare institute have all started to establish a presence in the community.


Photos

Some 400 people living along the River Mandur depend on its water. But the water quality is poor. Now, the ICRC pipeline has transformed the heart of this community. 

Las Perlas, Putumayo, Colombia.
Some 400 people living along the River Mandur depend on its water. But the water quality is poor. Now, the ICRC pipeline has transformed the heart of this community.
© ICRC / S. Giraldo

In winter, the people of Las Perlas could easily collect enough rainwater. But in summer, the only water source was the river. And in a drought the river water became undrinkable. 

Las Perlas, Putumayo, Colombia.
In winter, the people of Las Perlas could easily collect enough rainwater. But in summer, the only water source was the river. And in a drought the river water became undrinkable. ICRC engineer Mauricio Méndez explained that mining had caused water quality to deteriorate still further.
© ICRC / S. Giraldo

According to community leader Alejandrino Díaz, the ICRC pipeline has improved life in Las Perlas.  

Las Perlas, Putumayo, Colombia.
According to community leader Alejandrino Díaz, the ICRC pipeline has improved life in Las Perlas. "The water's cleaner. No more diarrhoea or rashes!"
© ICRC / S. Giraldo

The community is managing the pipeline itself. As a result, people value it even more. 

Las Perlas, Putumayo, Colombia.
The community is managing the pipeline itself. As a result, people value it even more. Boarding-house owner Fénix Calderón explains: "We don't allow anyone to waste water. Somebody somewhere else may not have enough."
© ICRC / S. Giraldo

In addition to the 400 permanent residents of Las Perlas, the 90 pupils and teachers of the local school suffered because of water shortages. 

Las Perlas, Putumayo, Colombia.
In addition to the 400 permanent residents of Las Perlas, the 90 pupils and teachers of the local school suffered because of water shortages.
© ICRC / S. Giraldo