Colombians forced to tighten their belts as El Niño ravages country

Colombia issues red alert as drought caused by El Niño hits water levels across country, threatening reservoirs and potentially leaving Colombians facing restrictions on water and energy use.

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Colombia has issued a red alert across key parts of the country after water levels in two major rivers continued to fall in the midst of a severe drought. The government of President Juan Manuel Santos has urged Colombians to reduce their use of water and energy, as resources for consumption and hydroelectric generation fall to critical levels. It has even suggested that sanctions may be necessary for those who still waste and over-consume water and electricity for as long as the drought continues to place the country under increased water stress.

According to the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (Ideam), the lack of rainfall and persistent high temperatures led to a precipitation deficit of around 70% throughout December in the country’s Caribbean and Andean regions, meaning that Colombia’s rivers, reservoirs and snowpacks have been increasingly unable to keep up with the demand of the country’s 48 million citizens.

The drought, widely accepted to have been caused or at least aggravated by the El Niño phenomenon, has been a feature of many parts of Colombia’s landscape over the past couple of years and is predicted to intensify even more between now and March, coinciding with the expected peak of El Niño during this period. The phenomenon has made its presence felt across Latin America (and beyond), with heavy flooding in and around Paraguay, and further drought in Bolivia and Central America, among the most notable impacts in recent months.

Hydroelectricity accounts for almost 70% of Colombia’s electricity, and so any fall in productivity among the country’s dams could have a major impact on the availability of electricity for households and businesses. Droughts have caused blackouts in the past, and in order to avoid a repeat of this the government has admitted it may have to introduce energy rationing across the country, in addition to a tightening of sanctions against those who waste water and energy. The situation has been further complicated by the cutting-off of gas supplies from neighbouring Venezuela, which is also suffering from drought and says it needs to ensure its own electricity supply as its hydroelectric reservoirs run low due to the lack of rainfall.

President Santos appealed, through a series of announcements on Twitter using the hashtag #ContraElDerroche (Against Waste), for Colombians to save water and energy while the country remains in the grip of drought and El Niño. The Environment Minister, Gabriel Vallejo, agreed saying that “it is essential that we save water for use in emergencies”.

Shortly afterwards, the Minister for Mines and Energy, Tomás González, stated that the government would continue to impose sanctions on those whose energy consumption goes over a given limit, in line with regulations that have been in place since the middle of the last decade. González suggested that any money raised by these fines would go towards subsidising the provision of energy and water for those who have suffered shortages in recent months, most notably those living in rural parts of the country’s north-east.

Since it began earlier in 2015 (and as far back as the summer of 2013-2014 in some areas), Colombia’s drought has also done serious damage to the agricultural sector, mainly through the impact of higher temperatures and lower rainfall on crops and herds of cattle. The conditions have also provoked thousands of forest fires affecting over 100,000 hectares across 500 municipalities.

If Colombians are forced to watch their water and energy consumption, it will come at a time when they are already under increasing pressure from the rising cost of living, mostly as a result of the difficult economic situation that Colombia, like many of its Latin American neighbours, finds itself in. Over the last year, food prices have risen by 10%, with even bigger increases among staples such as rice (14%) and vegetables (42%). The leading cause of this is linked to the fall in global commodity prices, which has affected the amount of foreign currency earned from Colombian exports and raised the cost of importing other goods. According to a recent report from Colombia Reports, many Colombians can only afford two meals a day, and are also faced with the prospect of a hike in the sales tax rate and an insufficient increase in the minimum wage.