Women Advocates for Harvesting Rainwater in Salinity-Affected Coastal Bangladesh

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Humanitarian Emergencies

Lalita Roy now has access to clean water and also provides a service to her community by working as a pani apa (water sister), looking after the community's rainwater harvesting plants. Credit: Rafiqul Islam/IPS

Lalita Roy now has access to clean water and also provides a service to her community by working as a pani apa (water sister), looking after the community’s rainwater harvesting plants. Credit: Rafiqul Islam/IPS

KHULNA, Bangladesh, Sep 23 2022 (IPS) – Like many other women in Bangladesh’s salinity-prone coastal region, Lalita Roy had to travel a long distance every day to collect drinking water as there was no fresh water source nearby her locality.

“In the past, there was a scarcity of drinking water. I had to travel one to two kilometers distance each day to bring water,” Roy, a resident of Bajua Union under Dakope Upazila in Khulna, told IPS.

She had to collect water standing in a queue; one water pitcher was not enough to meet her daily household demand.

“We require two pitchers of drinking water per day. I had to spend two hours each day collecting water. So, there were various problems. I had health complications, and I was unable to do household work for lack of time,” she said.

After getting a rainwater harvesting plant from the Gender-response Climate Adaptation (GCA) Project, which is being implemented by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Roy is now collecting drinking water using the rainwater harvesting plant, which makes her life easier.

“I am getting the facilities, and now I can give two more hours to my family… that’s why I benefited,” she added.

Shymoli Boiragi, another beneficiary of Shaheber Abad village under Dakope Upazila, said women in her locality suffered a lot in collecting drinking water in the past because they had to walk one to three kilometers every day to collect water.

“We lost both time and household work. After getting rainwater harvesting plants, we benefited. Now we need not go a long distance to collect water so that we can do more household work,” Boiragi said.

Shymoli revealed that coastal people suffered from various health problems caused by consuming saline water and spent money on collecting the water too.

“But now we are conserving rainwater during the ongoing monsoon and will drink it for the rest of the year,” she added.


With support from the project, rainwater harvesting plants were installed at about 13,300 households under 39 union parishads in Khunla and Satkhira. One pani apa (water sister) has been deployed in every union from the beneficiaries.

Roy, now deployed as a pani apa, said the GCA project conducted a survey on the households needing water plants and selected her as a pani apa for two wards.

“As a pani apa, I have been given various tools. I go to every household two times per month. I clean up their water tanks (rainwater plants) and repair those, if necessary,” he added.

Roy said she provides services for 80 households having rainwater harvesting plants, and if they have any problem with their water tanks, she goes to their houses to repair plants.

“I go to 67 households, which have water plants, one to two times per month to provide maintenance services. If they call me over the cellphone, I also go to their houses,” said Ullashini Roy, another pani apa from Shaheber Abad village.

She said a household gives her Taka 20 per month for her maintenance services while she gets Taka 1,340 (US$ 15) from 67 households, which helps her with family expenses.

Ahoke Kumar Adhikary, regional project manager of the Gender-Response Climate Adaptation Project, said it supported installing rainwater harvesting plants at 13,300 households. Each plant will store 2,000 liters of rainwater in each tank for the dry season.

The water plants need maintenance, which is why the project has employed pani apas for each union parishad (ward or council). They work at a community level on maintenance.

“They provide some services, and we call them pani apas. The work of pani apas is to go to every household and provide the services,” Adhikary said.

He said the pani apas get Taka 20 from every household per month for providing their services, and if they need to replace taps or filters of the water plants, they replace those.

The pani apas charge for the replacements of equipment of the water plants, he added.


The coastal belt of Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable areas to climate change as it is hit hard by cyclones, floods, and storm surges every year, destroying its freshwater sources. The freshwater aquifer is also being affected by salinity due to rising sea levels.

Ullashini Roy said freshwater was unavailable in the coastal region, and people drinking water was scarce.

“The water you are looking at is saline. The underground water is also salty. The people of the region cannot use saline water for drinking and household purposes,” Adhikary said.

Ahmmed Zulfiqar Rahaman, hydrologist and climate change expert at Dhaka-based think-tank Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS), said if the sea level rises by 50 centimeters by 2050, the surface salinity will reach Gopalganj and Jhalokati districts – 50 km inside the mainland from the coastal belt, accelerating drinking water crisis there.


According to a 2019 study, people consuming saline water suffer from various physical problems, including acidity, stomach problems, skin diseases, psychological problems, and hypertension.

It is even being blamed for early marriages because salinity gradually changes girls’ skin color from light to gray.

“There is no sweet water around us. After drinking saline water, we suffered from various waterborne diseases like diarrhea and cholera,” Ullashini said.

Hypertension and high blood pressure are common among coastal people. The study also showed people feel psychological stress caused by having to constantly collect fresh water.

Shymoli said when the stored drinking water runs out in any family; the family members get worried because it’s not easy to collect in the coastal region.


Rahaman said river water flows rapidly decline in Bangladesh during the dry season, but a solution needs to be found for the coastal area.

The hydrologist suggested a possible solution is building more freshwater reservoirs in the coastal region through proper management of ponds at a community level.

Rahaman said low-cost rainwater harvesting technology should be transferred to the community level so that coastal people can reserve rainwater during the monsoon and use this during the dry season.

He added that the government should provide subsidies for desalinization plants since desalinizing salt water is costly.

IPS UN Bureau Report


Monster Monsoon: “Pakistan and Its People Are Paying the Costs of What They Are Not Responsible For.”

Aid, Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Climate Action, Climate Change, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Environment, Headlines, Inequality, TerraViva United Nations


Credit: Pakistan Development Alliance

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Sep 1 2022 (IPS) – Pakistan has been going through the worst time of its recent history due to unprecedented colossal monsoon rains and devastating floods. The current floods would have been expected less than once a century, but climate experts claim that what we are seeing today is just a trailer of what’s in store for us if we don’t pay heed to climate change. More than 112 districts are currently afffected and around 30 million people; their property and land are totally devastated. Across the country, where hundreds of thousands of cattle died due to the Lumpy Skin Disease, now more than 727,000 have perished due to floods and rains. The number is increasing rapidly.

We were in the countryside conducting a study on the rights of women farm workers, when the Monster monsoon hit the country. We had to cut our field mission short and we are now relatively “safe” here in Islamabad, busy organising emergency relief and rescue operations.

Pakistan and its people are paying the costs of what they are not responsible for. For the past 20 years, Pakistan has consistently ranked among the top 10 most vulnerable countries on the Climate Risk Index. We are facing such climate change aggression and devastation while contributing only 0.8% of greenhouse carbon emissions to global warming. We are squeezed, geographically situtated between titans China and India, who are the top two emitters of greenhouse gases. This impacts the glaciers of the Himalaya. In Pakistan, our 7253 glaciers – more glaciers than almost anywhere on Earth – are melting faster than ice-cream in the sun due to climate change. Since the whole country is situated in the downstream of the Hamalaya, heavy floods have become the norm. To this scenario, you need to add flawed developement interventions, absence of rule of law and the lack of policy priorities towards the management of “everyday” disasters. This results in risks being left undone instead of being treated as full-fledged national security emergencies.

Today, the horrific scale of the floods are not in doubt, but the catastrophe is still unfolding. Rehabilitation and reconstruction activities need to be initiated immediately. Pakistan is already facing food insecurity due to this manmade disaster. In the long run, this crisis will increase poverty, inequality and economic instability in the country if we – supported by the world at large – fail to respond quickly.

Being part of a civil society network I see with my own eyes how civil society is vehementally engaged in rescue, relief and emergency activities through local resources and philanthropic initiatives. The international community and INGOs have not yet initiated their field operations. Although the government has officially appealed for the support of the international community and has levereged restrictions, the intensive regulatory frameworks are still working against rights based NGOs.

I have a message for the international community. Please support flood affected communities as early as possible. Local civil society needs to be strengthened and financed as well, as they are on the frontlines, they are the first reaching affected communities. In the future, there needs to be serious investments on addressing the impacts of climate change, particularly in vulnerable countries such as Pakistan, where climate change adaptation mechanism and infrastructure support should be mainstreamed. Now they are at the periphery, and it shows.

IPS UN Bureau


Colombia’s New President May Need U.S. Blessing to Realize his Domestic Agenda

Armed Conflicts, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, TerraViva United Nations


The writer is a Geneva-based researcher for the Third World Network

A woman paints a mural for Peace and Reconciliation in Colombia. Credit: UNMVC/Jennifer Moreno

GENEVA, Aug 9 2022 (IPS) – For the first time in its contemporary history, Colombia has a left-wing government. The presidency of Gustavo Petro, who took the reins August 8, marks a significant break from the political status quo. He also represents a stiff test for U.S. influence in Latin America.

Colombia is Washington’s most enduring ally in the region, and in recent years their relationship has been built around combatting the nation’s drug cartels. But despite major efforts to curb supply, Colombia remains a top source of cocaine for the United States.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recently estimated that Colombia’s cocaine harvest hit a record high in 2020. On the back of new coca varieties (the base ingredient for cocaine) and better cultivation techniques, Colombia’s potential output reached 1,228 tonnes in 2020. This was triple the 2010 level and four times greater than in the early 1990s, when Pablo Escobar was at the height of his infamy.

Since launching its controversial ‘war on drugs’ in 1971, successive Republican and Democratic administrations have supplied more than $13 billion in military and economic aid to Colombia. To little avail.

According to a 2021 United States’ Drug Enforcement Agency report, over 90 percent of the cocaine seized in the U.S. originates from Colombia. The U.S. remains the biggest consumer market for Colombian cocaine.

Petro is among those who have denounced the U.S.’s counter-narcotics strategy as counterproductive. In particular, he’s taken aim at US-backed aerial fumigation campaigns to destroy coca fields.

He favours expanding crop substitution programs that provide credit, training and enhanced land rights to rural farmers. For Petro, tackling Colombia’s violent drug trade is bound up with the county’s historic land ownership inequality.

He has also been an ardent critic of Colombia’s free-trade agreement (FTA) with the U.S. for pushing farmers into coca production and for exacerbating Colombia’s over-reliance on fossil fuel and coffee exports.

At the same time, imports from America’s highly subsidized agricultural sector have displaced whole segments of Colombia’s agrarian economy, forcing thousands of farmers into coca production.

Petro’s election campaign called for “smart tariffs” to protect Colombia’s rural farmers from U.S. imports and, by extension, criminal activity. “The free trade agreement signed with the United States handed rural Colombia to the drug traffickers,” he told the Financial Times in May. What’s more, he noted that “agricultural production cannot be increased if we do not renegotiate the FTA.”

An ex-member of the M-19 guerrilla group, Colombia’s new president has vowed to tackle asymmetric trade relations in line with land reform and the drug trade. But he will likely face severe opposition from the armed forces, who themselves fought leftist guerrilla movements during Colombia’s 52-year civil conflict.

Further, the military have a longstanding role in the U.S.-led war on drugs. For his part, Petro has accused Colombia’s top brass of corruption and human rights abuses, even since the Government-Farc peace treaty of 2016.

Elsewhere, the President faces a divided congress and deep hostility from landowning elites. It will require skilful manoeuvring to unite a fractured country around his domestic policies. And even if Petro can generate sufficient national support around his policy aims, he would still need to convince the Biden administration to back-track on the U.S.’s ideological commitment to free trade.

So, what cards can Petro play?

His opening gambit is likely to be a financial argument. While cocaine overdoses claim far fewer lives than opioids, the fiscal costs associated with interceding cocaine into the U.S. are staggering.

Navy and Coast Guard seizures alone cost American taxpayers US$56 billion in 2020, to say nothing of land border expenditures. State funds are also used for cocaine-linked policing, incarcerations and medical treatment.

The current geopolitical landscape may also provide Petro with an unlikely Trump card. Given President Joe Biden’s condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he will be careful avoid pushing Colombia (which he has described as a security “linchpin”) into a closer embrace with Cuba and Venezuela, who are diplomatically aligned with the Kremlin.

To isolate Russia even further, Biden will likely soften America’s stance in renegotiating its FTA with Colombia.

Last month, senior representatives from the Biden administration met with Petro to discuss, among other things, the FTA. While the U.S. has taken tentative steps towards renegotiating the deal, Petro should be wary of a favourable result.

Over the past twenty-five years, an intricate web of government and military bureaucracy has been constructed around U.S.-Colombian counter-narcotics operations. It will be difficult to disentangle.

IPS UN Bureau


U.S.-Latin America Immigration Agreement Raises more Questions than Answers

Active Citizens, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Editors’ Choice, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees, Population, Poverty & SDGs, Regional Categories

Migration & Refugees

A hundred Central American migrants were rescued from an overcrowded trailer truck in the Mexican state of Tabasco. It has been impossible to stop people from making the hazardous journey of thousands of kilometers to the United States due to the lack of opportunities in their countries of origin. CREDIT: Mesoamerican Migrant Movement

A hundred Central American migrants were rescued from an overcrowded trailer truck in the Mexican state of Tabasco. It has been impossible to stop people from making the hazardous journey of thousands of kilometers to the United States due to the lack of opportunities in their countries of origin. CREDIT: Mesoamerican Migrant Movement

SAN SALVADOR, Jul 19 2022 (IPS) – The immigration agreement reached in Los Angeles, California at the end of the Summit of the Americas, hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden, raises more questions than answers and the likelihood that once again there will be more noise than actual benefits for migrants, especially Central Americans.

And immigration was once again the main issue discussed at the Jul. 12 bilateral meeting between Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Biden at the White House.

At the meeting, López Obrador asked Biden to facilitate the entry of “more skilled” Mexican and Central American workers into the U.S. “to support” the economy and help curb irregular migration.

Central American analysts told IPS that it is generally positive that immigration was addressed at the June summit and that concrete commitments were reached. But they also agreed that much remains to be done to tackle the question of undocumented migration.

That is especially true considering that the leaders of the three Central American nations generating a massive flow of poor people who risk their lives to reach the United States, largely without papers, were absent from the meeting.

Just as the Ninth Summit of the Americas was getting underway on Jun. 6 in Los Angeles, an undocumented 15-year-old Salvadoran migrant began her journey alone to the United States, with New York as her final destination.

She left her native San Juan Opico, in the department of La Libertad in central El Salvador.

“We communicate every day, she tells me that she is in Tamaulipas, Mexico, and that everything is going well according to plan. They give them food and they are not mistreating her, but they don’t let her leave the safe houses,” Omar Martinez, the Salvadoran uncle of the migrant girl, whose name he preferred not to mention, told IPS.

She was able to make the journey because her mother, who is waiting for her in New York, managed to save the 15,000-dollar cost of the trip, led as always by a guide or “coyote”, as they are known in Central America, who in turn form part of networks in Guatemala and Mexico that smuggle people across the border between Mexico and the United States.

The meeting of presidents in Los Angeles “was marked by the issue of temporary jobs, and the presidents of key Central American countries were absent, so there was a vacuum in that regard,” researcher Silvia Raquec Cum, of Guatemala’s Pop No’j Association, told IPS.

In fact, neither the presidents of Honduras, Xiomara Castro, of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, or El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, attended the conclave due to political friction with the United States, in a political snub that would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago.

Other Latin American presidents boycotted the Summit of the Americas as an act of protest, such as Mexico’s López Obrador, precisely because Washington did not invite the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, which it considers dictatorships.

 From rural communities like this one, the village of Huisisilapa in the municipality of San Pablo Tacachico in central El Salvador, where there are few possibilities of finding work, many people set out for the United States, often without documents, in search of the "American dream". CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

From rural communities like this one, the village of Huisisilapa in the municipality of San Pablo Tacachico in central El Salvador, where there are few possibilities of finding work, many people set out for the United States, often without documents, in search of the “American dream”. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

More temporary jobs

Promoting more temporary jobs is one of the commitments of the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection adopted at the Summit of the Americas and signed by some twenty heads of state on Jun. 10 in that U.S. city.

“Temporary jobs are an important issue, but let’s remember that economic questions are not the only way to address migration. Not all migration is driven by economic reasons, there are also situations of insecurity and other causes,” Raquec Cum emphasized.

Moreover, these temporary jobs do not allow the beneficiaries to stay and settle in the country; they have to return to their places of origin, where their lives could be at risk.

“It is good that they (the temporary jobs) are being created and are expanding, but we must be aware that the beneficiaries are only workers, they are not allowed to settle down, and there are people who for various reasons no longer want to return to their countries,” researcher Danilo Rivera, of the Central American Institute of Social and Development Studies, told IPS from the Guatemalan capital.

The Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection states that it “seeks to mobilize the entire region around bold actions that will transform our approach to managing migration in the Americas.”

The Declaration is based on four pillars: stability and assistance for communities; expansion of legal pathways; humane migration management; and coordinated emergency response.

The focus on expanding legal pathways includes Canada, which plans to receive more than 50,000 agricultural workers from Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean in 2022.

While Mexico will expand the Border Worker Card program to include 10,000 to 20,000 more beneficiaries, it is also offering another plan to create job opportunities in Mexico for 15,000 to 20,000 workers from Guatemala each year.

The United States, for its part, is committed to a 65 million dollar pilot program to help U.S. farmers hire temporary agricultural workers, who receive H-2A visas.

“It is necessary to rethink governments’ capacity to promote regular migration based on temporary work programs when it is clear that there is not enough labor power to cover the great needs in terms of employment demands,” said Rivera from Guatemala.

He added that despite the effort put forth by the presidents at the summit, there is no mention at all of the comprehensive reform that has been offered for several years to legalize some 11 million immigrants who arrived in the United States without documents.

A reform bill to that effect is currently stalled in the U.S. Congress.

Many of the 11 million undocumented migrants in the United States come from Central America, especially Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, as well as Mexico.

While the idea of immigration reform is not moving forward in Congress, more than 60 percent of the undocumented migrants have lived in the country for over a decade and have more than four million U.S.-born children, the New York Times reported in January 2021.

This population group represents five percent of the workforce in the agriculture, construction and hospitality sectors, the report added.

 Despite the risks involved in undertaking the irregular, undocumented journey to the United States, many Salvadorans continue to make the trip, and many are deported, such as the people seen in this photo taken at a registration center after they were sent back to San Salvador. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

Despite the risks involved in undertaking the irregular, undocumented journey to the United States, many Salvadorans continue to make the trip, and many are deported, such as the people seen in this photo taken at a registration center after they were sent back to San Salvador. CREDIT: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

More political asylum

The Declaration also includes another important component of the migration agreement: a commitment to strengthen political asylum programs.

For example, among other agreements in this area, Canada will increase the resettlement of refugees from the Americas and aims to receive up to 4,000 people by 2028, the Declaration states.

For its part, the United States will commit to resettle 20,000 refugees from the Americas during fiscal years 2023 and 2024.

“What I took away from the summit is the question of creating a pathway to address the issue of refugees in the countries of origin,” Karen Valladares, of the National Forum for Migration in Honduras, told IPS from Tegucigalpa.

She added: “In the case of Honduras, we are having a lot of extra-regional and extra-continental population traffic.”

Valladares said that while it is important “to enable refugee processes for people passing through our country, we must remember that Honduras is not seen as a destination, but as a transit country.”

Raquec Cum, of the Pop No’j Association in Guatemala, said “They were also talking about the extension of visas for refugees, but the bottom line is how they are going to carry out this process; there are specific points that were signed and to which they committed themselves, but the how is what needs to be developed.”

Meanwhile, the Salvadoran teenager en route to New York has told her uncle that she expects to get there in about a month.

“She left because she wants to better herself, to improve her situation, because in El Salvador it is expensive to live,” said Omar, the girl’s uncle.

“I have even thought about leaving the country, but I suffer from respiratory problems and could not run a lot or swim, for example, and sometimes you have to run away from the migra (border patrol),” he said.


Healthy Planet Needs ‘Ocean Action’ from Asian and Pacific Countries

Asia-Pacific, Climate Action, Climate Change, Conferences, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Environment, Headlines, Poverty & SDGs, Sustainability, TerraViva United Nations


BANGKOK, Thailand, Jun 27 2022 (IPS) – As the Second Global Ocean Conference opens today in Lisbon, governments in Asia and the Pacific must seize the opportunity to enhance cooperation and solidarity to address a host of challenges that endanger what is a lifeline for millions of people in the region.

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana

If done right ocean action will also be climate action but this will require working in concert on a few fronts.

First, we must invest in and support science and technology to produce key solutions. Strengthening science-policy interfaces to bridge practitioners and policymakers contributes to a sound understanding of ocean-climate synergies, thereby enabling better policy design, an important priority of the Indonesian Presidency of the G20 process. Additionally policy support tools can assist governments in identifying and prioritizing actions through policy and SDG tracking and scenarios development.

We must also make the invisible visible through ocean data: just three of ten targets for the goal on life below water are measurable in Asia and the Pacific. Better data is the foundation of better policies and collective action. The Global Ocean Accounts Partnership (GOAP) is an innovative multi-stakeholder collective established to enable countries and other stakeholders to go beyond GDP and to measure and manage progress towards ocean sustainable development.

Solutions for low-carbon maritime transport are also a key part of the transition to decarbonization by the middle of the century. Countries in Asia and the Pacific recognized this when adopting a new Regional Action Programme last December, putting more emphasis on such concrete steps as innovative shipping technologies, cooperation on green shipping corridors and more efficient use of existing port infrastructure and facilities to make this ambition a reality.

Finally, aligning finance with our ocean, climate and broader SDG aspirations provides a crucial foundation for all of our action. Blue bonds are an attractive instrument both for governments interested in raising funds for ocean conservation and for investors interested in contributing to sustainable development in addition to obtaining a return for their investment.

These actions and others are steps towards ensuring the viability of several of the region’s key ocean-based economic sectors, such as seaborne trade, tourism and fisheries. An estimated 50 to 80 per cent of all life on Earth is found under the ocean surface. Seven of every 10 fish caught around the globe comes from Pacific waters. And we know that the oceans and coasts are also vital allies in the fight against climate change, with coastal systems such as mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass meadows at the frontline of climate change, absorbing carbon at rates of up to 50 times those of the same area of tropical forest.

But the health of the oceans in Asia and the Pacific is in serious decline: rampant pollution, destructive and illegal fishing practices, inadequate marine governance and continued urbanization along coastlines have destroyed 40 per cent of the coral reefs and approximately 60 per cent of the coastal mangroves, while fish stocks continue to decline and consumption patterns remain unsustainable.

These and other pressures exacerbate climate-induced ocean acidification and warming and weaken the capacity of oceans to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Global climate change is also contributing to sea-level rise, which affects coastal and island communities severely, resulting in greater disaster risk, internal displacement and international migration.

To promote concerted action, ESCAP, in collaboration with partner UN agencies, provides a regional platform in support of SDG14, aligned within the framework of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030). Through four editions so far of the Asia-Pacific Day for the Ocean, we also support countries in identifying and putting in place solutions and accelerated actions through regional dialogue and cooperation.

It is abundantly clear there can be no healthy planet without a healthy ocean. Our leaders meeting in Lisbon must step up efforts to protect the ocean and its precious resources and to build sustainable blue economies.

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)

IPS UN Bureau


Colombia Votes for Social Justice

Armed Conflicts, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Regional Categories, TerraViva United Nations


Secretary-General António Guterres talks to villagers in Llano Grande, Colombia, where he witnessed how the peace process was developing in Colombia. November 2021. Credit: UNMVC

BOGOTA, Colombia, Jun 22 2022 (IPS) – On Sunday, 19 June 2022, the hopes of millions of Colombians working for a more democratic, safer, ecological, and socially just country came true.

Senator Gustavo Petro, in a duo with his Afro-Colombian vice-presidential candidate, environmental expert Francia Márquez, received approximately 50.44 per cent or 11,281,013 of the votes cast, and has been elected the 42nd President of Colombia.

Both his predecessor Iván Duque and his opponent Rodolfo Hernández publicly congratulated him on his election victory.

Some 22,445,873 people or 57.55 per cent exercised their right to vote in the run-off election on 19 June 2022, about 3.7 per cent more than in the first round three weeks ago. Only in 1998 was the turnout higher.

Getting people to the polls is not always easy in Colombia: Thousands of people in some parts of the country again had to travel for several hours, even days, to reach one of the polling stations. In some regions, heavy rain also prevented people from voting. In addition, threats, violence, and vote-buying continue to restrict voting, especially in remote rural areas.

Oliver Dalichau

For the first time in the country’s history, neither a conservative nor a member of the Liberal Party will lead the government of Latin America’s fifth largest economy.

With Gustavo Petro, the winning streak of leftist movements and parties in Latin America continues and provides further momentum for the upcoming elections in Brazil in October 2022.

Gustavo Petro’s opponents

In this historic situation for Colombia, what will matter is how the losers behave. On Sunday, Petro not only relegated his direct challenger, the anti-women and anti-migrant 77-year-old self-made millionaire and populist, Rodolfo Hernández, to second place, but with him also the country’s previous political elite.

With 47.31 per cent or 10,580,412 votes, Hernández received much less support than the polls had predicted.

However, significantly more people than in the last elections opted for neither candidate: 490,118 or 2.23 per cent gave a voto blanco.

This is a Colombian peculiarity that allows voters to express their disagreement with the candidates but, unlike abstention, allows them to exercise their democratic right.

Precisely because this triumph is so unique, President Petro should now reach out to his critics, remind the losers of their responsibility in state politics and call on the opposition to work constructively. At the moment, it is unclear whether the losers will be able to accept their new role.

The military, traditionally strong in Colombia, also remains a key player in this phase of the democratic transition. It is expected that the military leadership will soon send out signals that leave no doubt about Gustavo Petro’s election victory.

He will also be their commander-in-chief after his inauguration on 7 August. Should the recognition fail to materialise publicly, Petro’s presidency would be tainted from the outset and rumours of an imminent coup d’état would continue to do the rounds. Both Colombian NGOs and the international community should keep a close eye on this.

Six urgent challenges

In any case, the new president faces enormous challenges. It is already questionable whether Petro will find a majority in the Colombian parliament for a fundamental change of the unequal living conditions, the high unemployment, inflation rate, national debt, and the necessary socio-ecological transformation of the country.

Although quite a few deputies of his left-progressive alliance Pacto Histórico support Petro after the congressional elections in March, he lacks a legislative majority of his own.

Moreover, the newly elected representatives must first prove that they can stick together and also lead a government together, especially now that the ministers are to be appointed. Tensions are already pre-programmed in the colourful spectrum of the Pacto Histórico.

The government’s most urgent tasks include:

Reviving the peace process: In the last four years under Iván Duque’s ultra-right government, the peace process signed in 2016 with the former guerrilla group FARC was hardly implemented.

President Petro needs to relaunch it, push for its implementation, and ensure that social and local leaders are better protected from displacement, violence, and assassination. This year alone, more than 60 of these líderes sociales have been murdered.

After this process, a dialogue with the guerrilla organisation ELN would be necessary too. It is up to the new government to send out signals define conditions as to whether and how negotiations can take place.

A new economic policy: Petro takes over a country with the highest inflation rate of the last 21 years from his unpopular predecessor. With a current debt of around 63 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) and a budget deficit of over six per cent, the president-elect has announced that he will begin his term with a structural tax reform.

This envisages an increase in the tax burden for the richest 0.01 per cent of the population. This idea is vehemently opposed by the political right. During the election campaign, they left no stone unturned to discredit Petro, accusing him of preparing the country’s economic decline.

Commitment to women’s rights and greater equality: Petro proposes the creation of a Ministry of Equality led by Francia Márquez, which would be responsible for formulating all policies to empower women, people of all sexual orientations, the different generations, and ethnic and regional diversity in Colombia.

Under Petro, women in particular could expect to gain priority access to public higher education, credit, and the distribution and formalisation of land ownership.

Petro and Marquez are proposing an energy transition that will rule out new developments of future oil fields.

Land reform and protection of indigenous people, peasants, and Afro-Colombian women: The extremely unequal distribution of land is one of the structural causes of the armed conflict in Colombia. The internal displacement of recent decades has led to the expansion of arable land: the resulting tensions are at the root of conflicts between ethnic communities (indigenous and Afro-Colombian) and peasant women over access to this land.

All these groups have been and continue to be excluded from the development of the country. At the same time, they are among the most affected by the armed conflict’s violent dynamics.

Petro’s government will need to ensure a more equitable distribution that enables the integration of ethnic and farming communities into the production and development circuits.

Better education for more people: During the social protests last year (and already in 2019 and 2020), the demand for more public and quality education was one of the central messages of the mostly peacefully demonstrating Colombians.

Petro promises to provide them with a higher education system in which public universities and secondary schools in particular are properly funded.

More environmental protection: Under the Duque government, environmental and climate protection in Colombia was largely neglected, deforestation increased, and the first fracking pilot wells were approved. Petro and Marquez have announced fundamental change.

They are focusing on a more environmentally-friendly production and service model and are proposing an energy transition that will rule out new developments of future oil fields. This process is to be accompanied by a land reform on unproductive lands – mostly resulting from illegal forest clearance.

A Colombia of social justice

Beyond these urgent reform tasks, the president and his government will also have to find answers in other important areas, such as integrated security reform, a diversified new foreign policy, a different drug policy, and on the regulation of narcotics.

At the same time, they must not disregard the necessary coalition with civil society that ultimately lifted them into office.

Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez achieved something historic on that memorable Sunday in June 2022. The expectations for both are huge, perhaps even unrealistic. On the one hand, the winning couple must stick together and remain capable of compromise.

At the same time, both have raised many hopes and are exemplary for the new Colombia: both want a more social, a more ecological, a more secure, and a more democratic republic.

President Petro will make mistakes and he will hardly be granted the usual 100 days grace period.

The fact that the ultra-conservative and liberal power elites were voted out of office by the majority of Colombians is a political turning point for the country. The losers will hardly accept the new opposition role constructively – and as an important element of a consolidated democracy.

It is more likely that they will torpedo the new government from day one and do everything they can to make it fail.

President Petro will make mistakes and he will hardly be granted the usual 100 days grace period – neither by his hopeful supporters from civil society, nor by the more than ten million people he has failed to convince of his programme and person.

He will have to govern openly, transparently, and with a certain flexibility to be able to react appropriately to national and international challenges. He will have to change his behaviour, which is often described as arrogant and self-centred.

And he should emphasise the social team spirit that was the basis for the victory of the Pacto Histórico. That is the only way he can succeed in breathing new life into the peace process and achieve the urgently needed reforms in economic and social policy for Colombia. And he will need many allies to succeed, both at home and abroad.

German and European politicians would be well advised to pledge their support to the new president and strengthen the peace process along the way. At the same time, this would contribute to the consolidation of democratic institutions after this historic change of government.

Both remain crucial for a sustainable, peaceful development of the country, and necessary for a Colombia of social justice.

Oliver Dalichau heads the office of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Colombia.

Source: International Politics and Society (IPS)-Journal published by the International Political Analysis Unit of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Hiroshimastrasse 28, D-10785 Berlin

IPS UN Bureau