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Human activity outpaces drought in contributing to Colombia’s water crisis


Published: 13:49, 20 April 2024

Human activity outpaces drought in contributing to Colombia’s water crisis

Photo: Collected

In the wake of the shocking nationwide water shortage in Colombia, a veteran environmental activist who has been fighting to protect the country's rivers for over 10 years explained to Sputnik why she believed that the ongoing crisis was primarily caused by human activities, as opposed to weather conditions such as drought.


Following months of drought caused by the weather phenomenon known as El Nino, water reservoirs across Colombia have reached critical levels. The main reservoirs that provide water to the capital city of Bogota fell to 15.3% of their total capacity this week, according to the mayor’s office in the city.

In response, local authorities in Bogota announced water rationing plans for various neighbourhoods in the city and introduced additional charges for households that used over 22 cubic meters of water per month.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro went so far as to encourage Bogota residents to leave the city on weekends as part of efforts to reduce water consumption.

As water reservoirs in the rest of the country were almost equally depleted, local residents in many regions faced similar water scarcity and had to wait in lines to receive water from trucks.

However, for Yuly Velasquez, an environmental activist who lives in the city of Barrancabermeja, located about 165 miles north of Bogota, the ongoing water crisis in Colombia is not simply a natural disaster resulting from the prolonged drought.

"The drought probably only contributed 20%. The main cause of the water crisis, about 80%, is human activities. A number of hydroelectric megaprojects have caused a great impact on different water sources, affecting the Sogamoso River, the Cano San Silvestre [river], the Cienaga Palotal [lake] and the Cienaga Del Llanito [lake]. Mud and sediments covered the water sources and made them look like a savanna. In addition to toxic waste being dumped into the water from various industries, the increase of breeding of livestock such as buffalo also contributed to the problem," Velasquez, 39, told Sputnik.

The activist shared a series of pictures and videos showing her team’s efforts in documenting the conditions of various rivers in the region, as well as their efforts in cleaning up the waterways.

Growing up in a fishing family living on the banks of the Magdalena River, Velasquez understood how important the river was to their livelihoods.

"The pollution of the rivers led to a huge drop in fishing, which hurt the livelihoods of the fishermen who are mostly in their 60s or 70s. The water also began to disappear slowly," she said.

Seeing how the polluted rivers could no longer support families that depended on fishing, Velasquez decided to take action to advocate for change.

After graduating in 2014, she founded a fishermen’s association called Guardians of the Water, Flora and Fauna. In 2017, by working with a number of other fishermen’s organizations, Velasquez founded the Federation of Artisanal, Environmental and Tourist Fishermen of the Department of Santander (FEDEPESAN), which became a leading environmental conservation organization in Colombia.


As members of Velasquez’s team are mostly former fishers, they had to learn how to use devices such as smartphones to mark the geolocation of pollution sites.

"We had to learn how to use the coordination applications to pinpoint the location, because authorities questioned our previous reports on the locations of the pollution. We learned how to use smartphones and how to take photos of the pollution," she said.

According to Velasquez, her team worked at least seven hours a day, driving along the rivers in boats to try to identify the worst polluted areas.

Through their close monitoring of various rivers in the region, Velasquez’s team identified a key source of the pollution.

"The oil refinery operated by Ecopetrol [the largest petroleum company in Colombia] has existed in Cano del Rosario for many years. It has been the largest source of toxic contamination that is discharged directly into the rivers," she said.

To try to hold those polluters responsible, Velasquez’s organization initiated a class-action case against both the municipal administration, which is the mayor’s office, in Barrancabermeja and the Regional Autonomous Corporation of Santander CAS, which is the government body responsible for monitoring pollution in Colombia.


Unfortunately, Velasquez’s conservation efforts appeared to have angered certain groups and she began to receive threats on a regular basis.

"I began to receive threats in 2019, after I reported the corruption of a contract that would allow the pollution to take place. Unknown contacts would send me pamphlets over WhatsApp, accusing my origination of being collaborators of the guerrillas in Colombia. Graffiti with hateful slogans was sprayed onto the walls of my house," she said.

During a monthly meeting of her organization in 2022, unknown gunmen even stormed in and opened fire.

"A bodyguard assigned to me by the national protection unit was injured during the shooting. The shot hit him in the face on the cheekbone. Fortunately, it went through and he survived," Velasquez said.

Two years after the shooting, the case was still under investigation and the perpetrator had not been found. Still, Velasquez said she would not let the threats deter her efforts to expose the serious pollution problems of Colombia's rivers.

"We’re in God’s hand and trying to do things very carefully. But we will continue to show the truth about the pollution," she concluded.