Colombia declared a red alert on Wednesday in the face of a drastic drop in the levels of the two main rivers that supply water to hundreds of towns and cities, President Juan Manuel Santos said.
More than one fifth of the 1,102 municipalities in Colombia already face water shortages due to the climate phenomenon El Niño, which has been warming the Pacific Ocean.
"The lack of water in the rivers has led IDEAM (Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies) to recommend to the Government, which I'm doing right now, to declare a red alert because of low levels in the Magdalena and Cauca rivers in 23 departments," Santos said.
Both rivers cross densely populated areas in which the majority of Colombia’s 48 million reside.
Santos also asked the Colombian people to save on electricity consumption and acknowledged a risk of energy rationing due to a significant drop in the level of the reservoirs that supply hydroelectrics.
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The Government also declared red alert this week because of an increase in forest fires as a result of droughts caused by El Niño, which caused a rise in temperature of three to four degrees Celsius in several areas nationwide.
The phenomenon is also threatening to affect agriculture in Colombia, including the production of coffee, one of its main exports.
While El Niño causes droughts and high temperatures in Colombia, in other South American countries it has triggered heavy rains and flooding.
Devastating floods have now displaced as many as 160,000 people across the border regions of Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina since Dec. 18.
The disaster has destroyed homes and crippled infrastructure. Paraguay has been the worst hit, with an estimated 100,000 people displaced, according to local media. At least 20,000 people have been forced to leave their homes in Argentina, according to state broadcaster Telam, while another 9,000 have been displaced in Uruguay.El Niño is a natural phenomenon which occurs every seven to eight years and peaks late in the calendar year although effects can persist well into the following spring.