ALBANIA, Colombia – A “water train” travels regularly along the railway between La Mina and Puerto Bolivar, bringing the precious liquid to dozens of towns to help alleviate the drought besetting the residents of Colombia’s Caribbean zone of Alta Guajira.
An initiative of mining company Cerrejon, which operates the largest open-pit coal mine in the world at La Mina, the train includes two tanker cars that can carry 89,000 liters (23,500 gallons) of potable water, which is distributed to residents of the desert zones through which it passes.
“In the past two years, we’ve had the worst El Niño ... the biggest drought we’ve had in 30 years,” said Cerrejon president Roberto Junguito Pombo, adding that the train was first put into operation in 2014 as the drought was worsening.
Local residents say that between 2014 and May 2016, practically no rain fell in the far northern province of La Guajira, a situation that aggravated the already chronic drought, during which many local children have died from malnutrition and many of the crops that grow in the region have been destroyed.
The water train is part of an emergency plan created by Cerrejon to supply water to local residents on the railway between the town of Albania and Puerto Bolivar.
The train stops at two stations at Km 110 and 129 along the track every two weeks to unload a total of 513,000 liters (135,500 gallons) of water that is distributed among 179 small communities, most of them populated by the nomadic Wayuu Indians, who move between Colombia and Venezuela.
The water comes from a desalinization plant and the aquifers of the Rancheria River and – given the program’s popularity – Cerrejon and the La Guajira government have agreed to build big water tanks along the rail line to act as reservoirs so that the communities may access that water on a permanent basis, Juguito said.
Cerrejon, which annually produces more than 33 million tons of coal at La Mina, has also repaired 68 windmills that pump 2.9 million liters (766,000 gallons) of water for 57 rural communities.