April 07, 2016

One El Niño impact is a drought in Colombia that has diminished water supply levels and severely reduced agricultural production, causing food prices to rise. Amid these issues, the government has proposed new tax increases and budget cuts, which, in addition to growing inflation, are straining personal finances.

Various trade unions and social activist groups organized a nationwide strike on March 17, calling on President Juan Manuel Santos to ameliorate the rough economic conditions. Civil unrest is likely to emerge in the coming months, as the el nino impact of the drought continues to impact access to water and raise food prices. Moreover, travelers to Colombia are likely to see an increase in protest-induced disruptions, most often affecting taxi service and public transportation.

The drought, which is also affecting other Latin American countries, has led to water shortages and rationing in various departments across Colombia, as flows in several main rivers are at historically low levels. Nearly 70 percent of the country’s population lives on the Magdalena River or within its watershed. Colombia depends on this watercourse to transport agricultural and petroleum products, but low river levels have closed many passages.

Government-led water rationing has already begun in Cali and Medellín, and Santander and Boyacá departments are experiencing severe shortages. Colombia’s rainy season typically occurs from October to December; however, in 2015, there was scarce rainfall before January’s dry season began, and high temperatures intensified the drought’s impact.

Due to low water levels, hydroelectric dams, which produce 70 percent of Colombia’s power needs, are only able to generate minimal amounts of electricity, increasing the likelihood of new energy rationing measures. Although the government reopened a previously closed hydroelectric dam to relieve some of the strain, the overall hydroelectric system is only running at 61 percent capacity.

Extremely low water levels will likely continue to impact reservoirs, which will in turn generate more stress on the electrical grid nationwide. While water rationing could help alleviate power generation issues, the lack of rainfall during the rainy season, followed by the elevated temperatures of the country’s dry summer months, will probably counteract any relief gained by water-use restrictions.

Crops have also not escaped El Niño impact, as the drought has reduced agricultural output and caused food prices to increase in nearly every region of the country. In Nariño Department, almost 85 percent of bean and pea crops were lost, and in Boyacá Department, onion and potato production have fallen by 90 and 80 percent, respectively.

The effects of the drought have caused prices for most agricultural products to increase 10-80 percent. Vulnerable populations, such as isolated communities and those living in extreme poverty, are the most affected by the price increases. Several indigenous children from the Guajira Peninsula in northeastern Colombia have died in recent weeks due to starvation.

The multifaceted effects of the El Niño-induced drought are negatively impacting Colombians and are likely to worsen. In January 2016, workers’ unions protested proposed economic measures to increase taxes and minimally readjust salaries in the face of rising inflation. As the drought’s effects linger, Colombians could face water shortages, electricity rationing, and rising food prices.

The March 17 strike demonstrated growing distress with the economy, and additional protests are likely to occur over the next 90 days as the drought’s aftermath leaves families in economic despair across the country. Disruptions from strikes and protests could affect travelers to the region, especially if taxis and public transportation workers participate.


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