The Manmade Re-Routing of a Precious River: UNIGUAJIRA Highlights Potential Risks of New Extraction Plans. By Doris-Elin Salazar

On a June 2015 visit to Nuevo Espinal, a local woman, wearing a scarf to shield herself from the immense heat the region has experienced in the last few years, brought us to the deep red cave of a dried riverbed, sewn through with the roots of trees that when drinking from it also kept the soil in place and erosion at bay.

June 2015. Photo by Doris-Elin Salazar.
Amidst drying rivers, Cerrejón makes plans to reroute one of the few waterways that are left in order to continue excavating coal. Photo by Doris-Elin Salazar.

Those riverside trees have since then died, along with more than four hundred Wayuu children, brought on by the malnutrition and poor hygiene (such as non flushing toilets) the lack of water has created. Locals leaders estimate the death toll in the thousands, since many births go undocumented on their ancestral, pre-colonial land. This is a region of dry tropical rainforest which is suffering from exceptional drought over the past few years. In fact, only two rainfalls were sighted in all of 2014. According to Javier Rojas, leader of Wayuu Shipia, “I get weekly reports of the deaths of at least three children.” (4)

A new study by the University of La Guajira in Riohacha, Colombia, capital of the region, has been released citing the potentially unsustainable consequences of a duplicate river that could, according to the University, not function the way the present one, Arroyo Bruno, does.

Children in Nuevo Espinal returning from primary school. In this region, very few students successfully continue formal education beyond this level because classrooms are combined, so the course material is kept at the early level. Older students are to compensate by doing more homework while working on the basic material. Photo by Doris-Elin Salazar.

The reason for interfering with a natural, truly life-giving resource, in the desert? The mining company Cerrejón wishes to expand their extraction practices of carbon northward, and they cannot access the mineral that lies under the river unless they move it.

General scheme for the new river. The blue is the Arroyo Bruno’s natural path. In red, the projected redirection of the river.

They have been granted a contract to execute the reroute in the next fourteen months, and in their official documents have stated that they have the consultation backing of Ross Hardie and Australian firm Alluvium.

The University of La Guajira investigated the region for evidence of the plan’s potential to succeed or fail by studying the geology adjacent to the river. After comparing their April 2015 field findings with the documentation detailing the proposed methods to maintain the Arroyo Bruno’s river flow in a manmade sediment bank, the researchers published their conclusions.

They found that, while the mining corporation Cerrejón does establish a seemingly well-intended philosophy of creating a new river as close to exact to the existing one, there are three major flaws with the proposal that could effectively destroy the river and magnify the already dire situation in La Guajira.

The first problem the study cites is the false promise of designing the new riverbed in the shape of a natural one. Although the projected design includes a meandering, sinuous curvature, it is entirely dependent on two “jarillones” keeping it that shape. This is a term used by Colombian hydro-engineers which refers to inexpensive control mechanisms created to mitigate problems with river flow, which have been used, for example, when problems emerged with the rivers San Jorge and Sinú in the Cordoba region (5). The Arroyo Bruno does move and change its position over the earth’s surface, and the University found sedimentary evidence to prove that it has done so in the past. This would not be possible with the manmade boundaries holding the water flow in place.

The sedimentary vulnerability to erosion once the vegetation along a river dies.

The second problem is that the proposed channel dimensions for the water flow do not create the depth necessary to secure the water would not overflow, and if it did, the potential for collapse in these artificial banks would occur.

The third issue is that, in order to ensure the manmade jarillones stay put and that river not burden these constructed banks, a series of longitudinal structures would be put in place to control the speed of the water flow. This is problematic because the natural river is already in the process of slowing down, and redirecting and controlling the flow would make the problem worse; the existing issue would be exacerbated.

The Arroyo Bruno, June 2015. The water is shallow as it is, and moving the river to access more carbon endangers the fragile local community of La Guajira.
The Arroyo Bruno,  June 2015. The water is shallow as it is, and moving the river to access more coal endangers the fragile local communities of La Guajira who rely on it as a major water source. Photo by Doris-Elin Salazar.
The Arroyo Bruno,  June 2015. The slow river, which is sourced by underground aquifers,  is used to fill about forty tanks daily. Photo by Doris-Elin Salazar.
The Arroyo Bruno, June 2015. According to a local leader, three or so tanks will feed on the river in this particular area at any given time of the day. Photo by Doris-Elin Salazar.

Ultimately, the study states that the new structure is fundamentally poorly thought out because manmade structures are neither organic nor permanent. They also question whether the company would burden themselves with the upkeep of potential engineering failings, which would continue being at risk of occurring well after Cerrejón’s contract expires in 2033.

The area is surrounded by dry tropical forest, an endangered ecosystem according to the World Wildlife Fund. The trees that have grown along old banks of the river have died, and subsequently the earth has suffered erosion. Indeed, the long-established conservation group states this ecosystem is “highly sensitive to excessive burning and deforestation”.

The decision to relocate the river threatens the local environment and puts the vulnerable people who have lived on the land for centuries in risk of continued personal loss.

Esteffany Epieyu, 11, and her nephew Luis Miguel wash clothes in the dry riverbed. Photograph: Stephen Ferry for the Guardian.

Source Material:

(1) Analisis Arroyo Bruno

(2) Fieldwork. Witness for Peace. June 1 to June 9 2015.

(3) Introduction to University of La Guajira’s study (Spanish). 2015.

(4) Colombia’s Pipes To Nowhere: Brodzinsky’s article in the Guardian. June 2015.

(5) Villamil Rojas, Robinson.  Jarillones: Aspectos Generales Para el Control de Inundaciones De Los Rios San Jorge y Sinú , en el Departamento de Cordoba. 2013.

(6) World Wildlife Fund, 2015.


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