12-year-old Celia walks four hours a day to get water
By Oxfam Denmark
Climate change with long droughts has hit La Guajira in Colombia, where clean drinking water has become a luxury. Children like Celia Urianas every day have to walk for hours to get water for themselves and their families. Oxfam Denmark therefore supports 4,000 schoolchildren and their teachers, parents and local authorities to learn about environmental and natural resource management in line with the Wayuu population's traditional worldview (also called cosmos vision). The goal is for local communities to draw up and initiate action plans to help protect their local areas against climate change, while at the same time increasing pressure on the area's natural resources.
Ever since Celia Urianas was very young, her everyday life has revolved around family drinking water. Together with her mother, father and three brothers, she lives in Colombia's desert region of La Guajira and is part of the Wayuu people. She is 12 years old and responsible for collecting and transporting water every morning to her family, to the animals, and so that she can quench her thirst herself. It takes two hours to walk to the nearest water reservoir and back home – a walk she goes for every morning and afternoon. Four hours in total. However, Covid-19 has made it less demanding for her to make time for it. The pandemic has closed the school.
"Now I'm less tired because I don't have to go to school. But the teachers say we should start again next year. That is, I have to get up much earlier, go for water and get ready and go to school. And in the afternoon, I have to go for water again," Celia says, describing the situation as physically exhausting.
However, she hopes that one day it will be different.
Celia must not fail
Every morning she gets up and washes her face with a bit of the water left over from the day before. Then she goes into the kitchen, where her mother gives her a cup of coffee and - if she is lucky - also a piece of bread. Then she takes her bag and the clay pots, saddles the donkey and sets out on the dangerous and long journey from her house to the nearest water reservoir.
"When I start walking, you can't even see the sun behind the bushes far away. But, when I'm about to arrive, I have to bow my head, because then the sun bites my skin and irritates my eyes, because it burns very strongly," says the 12-year-old about the hard ride.
While Danish children and their families only have to open the tap to take a glass of water, it affects the whole family if Celia 'fails' her responsibilities just one day. Each has a responsibility to ensure that the family's everyday life is coherent. Her father cultivates the land and looks after the animals. Her mother weaves, cooks and looks after her little brother, under a year old. Her 13-year-old brother herds the goats, and her other brother, eight, often goes with her. Celia's efforts allow them to get water so they can cook, wash clothes, water the chickens and turkeys, and ensure that they can get water to drink and bathe in.
Clean drinking water must be ensured
Although La Guajira is a semi-desert, the region offers several strategies to ensure access to clean drinking water, such as wells with photovoltaic systems or wind turbines and desalination plants in coastal areas.
Although there is no immediate indication that there will be major changes in Celia's life, she knows what could give her a new and better everyday life.
"Once I went with my mother to a funeral and I saw that the girls were not going through the same thing as me. In their community there is a mill, a pool and a very large water tank the size of the buildings in Riohacha [big city in the region]. As long as there is wind, there is water, and from the water tank there are pipes that reach all the way to the kitchens. There, the girls only open the tap and help their mother cook," she says with wide open eyes, as if to say that she wishes it could happen in her home.
It is therefore also necessary to strengthen local leaderships to hold local authorities to account for ensuring that local people have access to clean drinking water. In this way, the girls in the local area should not continue to live like Celia, where clean drinking water is a luxury.
"Water is in short supply in La Guajira, which means that there are students who do not go to school because, like Celia, they have to provide for their families. However, it also means that schools cannot reopen. Because if they can't live up to the authorities' sanitary requirements that students must be able to wash their hands and sanitize, then they cannot open," says Grethe Markussen, education advisor at Oxfam Denmark.
"Not all schools are open after the pandemic, and some are teaching according to a limited schedule. Students do not have electricity, internet or access to a computer. This effectively means that a student who started in 1 grade last year is now at the end of 2nd grade without actually having received classroom instruction. It is a huge challenge for teachers, families and society, and generations of young people will lag behind in the education system and will be at greater risk of dropping out of school earlier than usual."
- Only 4% of Wayuu population in Colombia is estimated to have access to clean drinking water
- Global climate change is not the only reason why water is disappearing: An international mining company has diverted several of the area's rivers, and the remaining are now so polluted that they are effectively undrinkable. Armed conflict, criminal smuggling gangs and large refugee flows from neighbouring Venezuela are also destabilising the area
- The majority of the Wayuu population lives on subsistence farms, and the increasing drought in the area in recent years has made many families dependent on food aid. It is estimated that up to 60% of families live in poverty, and the number of children under the age of five who are severely malnourished is six times higher than in the rest of Colombia
- Colombia has been hit hard by COVID-19. About five million people have been infected, and over 127,000 people have lost their lives to the virus
- Schools in La Gujira have been closed for long periods and many rural pupils have lost almost two years of schooling