Over the weekend on team retreat, a few of us visited the second highest waterfall in Colombia, led by Alex, a local guide. As we grew closer to the sound of rushing water, we chatted about life: what we were doing in Colombia, what our favourite tv shows were (Alex loves Friends), our thoughts on the World Cup, and plans for the future. After a steep final climb, we reached the falls, a spectacular rush of water whose mist can be seen from kilometres away.
It was strange to be so close to so much water after hearing from other team members about the drought taking place on the Caribbean coast. It seemed impossible that farmers in small communities on the coast have already left their dead crops behind to seek work in the larger urban centres. Last week, the citizens of Santa Marta celebrated their anniversary by marching to demand water; many neighbourhoods have lacked sufficient water for weeks. There are reports of an approaching humanitarian crisis.
Life without easy access to water is hard. I remember Mampuján and the rush to place buckets under eavestrough to catch every last drop during a rainfall. During the day, countless hours were spent going to the two or three community wells to gather enough water for bathing and washing clothes, as rainwater was strictly for drinking. Many communities are located near creeks; those, like Mampujan, that have been displaced, lose access to this valuable resource. Do I wash the dishes or myself? I know the feeling of panic after the well dried up and the rain stopped-and I even had money to buy drinking water and no crops to worry about.
After the hike, Alex invited us to visit his house. While waiting for coffee, he introduced us to his beautiful ten month old baby, Emily, and proudly pointed out the plants in the back yard that had produced the coffee we were about to drink. Yet for Alex, even surrounded by water, the future is uncertain. Like many Colombian young men, he does not have steady formal employment and has changed regiones several times in his life in the search for work. Currently, he works nights as a security guard and guides visitors to the falls during the day. When asked about his plans for the future, he shrugged his shoulders. If he needs to move away again for work, he will. After all, he said, he now has a family to help support.
There are many reasons for migration in Colombia. Armed conflict, displacement, a desire to travel, a search for economic improvement, reintegration after demobilization, and better educational opportunities are all part of constant movement across the country.
Environmental change is one more reason people leave home. These changes are partly due to human activities, such as mega-projects and large scale cattle farms that block creeks, and normal weather patterns, like the expected arrival of the EL Niño this fall. They can also be attributed to impacts of climate change: the normal rainfall on the Coast during June and July never arrived. This change, combined with extreme poverty, leaves many with no choice but to leave home.
Even though Alex, and many young men like him, are not directly impacted by the drought on the coast-it is not their crops that are dying- they still face related challenges. More people move to urban areas and threaten the already limited job market. They face higher risks of involvement with armed groups and micro trafficking, for example, because of a lack of other options.
In her “Elegy for a Country’s Seasons“, Zadie Smith notes the need to not only talk about climate changes in terms of scientific language, but also in acknowledgment of the everyday changes that have taken place. We need to mourn these differences and to recognize our emotional connections that cause us to often deny these changes. It still easy in places, where we have the technology and resources at hand, to allow ourselves the luxury of not acknowledging reality or our role in what is taking place in our environment.
When I first moved to Bogota, I experienced a miracle every time I opened the tap. Clean, potable water was an unimaginable luxury after the community. As time went on, however, it simply became normal to take a glass from the cupboard, fill it with water, drink and repeat. For those living in rural Colombia, a changing climate is real, whether I can turn on a tap or not. And it impacts everyone, even those living under a waterfall.
The question is: what are we going to do about it?