The municipality of Riosucio (“Dirty River”), located in Northwest Colombia in the Chocó State, floods annually. The ancestral fishing village has traditionally dealt with this yearly problem by building informal plank bridges that citizens must carefully walk across to reach their destination. To mitigate this predicament, the municipality has built Colombia’s longest pedestrian walkway that stretches nearly three kilometers, a length greater than the famous Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. While this structure has significantly improved the quality of life for Riosucio’s 27,000 residents, the municipality continues to face tremendous challenges, including displacement of communities and violence stemming from the region’s long-standing armed conflict, annual flooding and poor health.
Riosucio lies along the banks of the Atratro River. When it inundates, the residents construct an informal network of wooden planks that citizens must cautiously traverse like tightrope walkers. But the bridges don’t always work that well. “At times they’re underwater; they take too long to construct; I’ve even seen kids fall in,” says Josefina Mena, a resident of Riosucio. “Some get lucky and make it off with fractures or cuts, but some have drowned because they got tangled up with hidden branches and couldn’t make it out.”
Seven children drown in Riosucio every rainy season. When Rafael Burgos of the Colombian Red Cross first visited Riosucio, he fell off plank bridges twice and barely avoided injury. Soaked and discouraged, Burgos and his team developed the idea of the pedestrian walkway. The 80,000 planks are made from more than 1 million recycled plastic bottles collected from Bogotá and Cali.
“The bridge serves to facilitate the mobility of those citizens who live in the most isolated neighborhoods,” says Fernando Cardenas, president of the Colombian Red Cross. “It had become an area very difficult to access, completely disconnected from the rest of the community of Riosucio.”
Residents have fondly given the pedestrian bridge the moniker of “the metro.”
“Before, nobody came by here; now the metro brings teachers, nurses, engineers and city administrators,” says Manuel Salas, a blind resident of Riosucio who navigates the planks and pedestrian bridge with the aid of a walking stick. “The whole city is now in contact with this area. The metro is exciting because it’s the only walkway that the town is left with when we’re flooded.”
As the former mayor of Riosucio Jorge Isaac Mosquera says, “The bridge has become the main road helping with the mobility of the city.”
Arising from the necessity of connecting the town and reducing the rates of accidents, the bridge has protected more vulnerable elderly, young and disabled citizens. Unfortunately, the bridge has been heavily damaged by the flooding and is in dire need of repair after only two years of existence.
ADAPTING TO CHANGE
Riosucio is Colombia’s second oldest municipality. Much like in other informal settlements, citizens have built their houses on the banks of floodplains that present precarious situations annually during turbulent rain seasons. Colombia was devastated by floods this year from heavy rains caused by the La Niña storm system. More than 3 million people have been affected by this year’s inundations, mostly in the impoverished countryside. The destruction from the flooding of crops, such as plantains, rice and cattle, has devastated the livelihood of the Riosuceños. At the recent Forum for Sustainable Transport in Bogota, transport and urban planning leaders stressed the urgency to adapt existing and future infrastructure to new climate patterns and the inherent risks of natural disasters.
“Rainwater is the only water supply,” according to Dr. Edgar Augusto Hernandez Perdomo, an orthopedic surgeon from the Colombian Association of Diabetes, who spent two years in Riosucio serving as the municipality’s only medical doctor. “All drinking water is treated with chlorine, according to the guidelines set by CODECHOCO, a local government agency.”
The rural service program of Colombia is a 6- to 12-month requirement for recent medicine graduates to serve in isolated regions of the country. Rural doctors typically are only required to serve six months in conflict regions, including Riosucio, however, Hernandez stayed for two years.
“There are a lot of health problems because of the water,” Hernandez continues. “The flooding brings contamination and disease.”
Hernandez wanted to help the people of the Chocó whose life expectancy rate is 58.3 years old, compared to the average 70.3 years in Colombia, as a whole.
The health problems of this tropical region are exacerbated by flooding and the lack of a water system. Tropical diseases, such as dengue, malaria and leishmaniasis, are all common inflictions of the Chocó department. When Hernandez first arrived, the town hospital lacked electricity, beds, chairs, windows, roofs and a front desk. Medical waste piled up next to the facility. In collaboration with the various NGOs working in the region, Hernandez worked diligently to legitimize the rural hospital with medical supplies, computers and other necessary resources.
“The most terrible is the cemetery,” Hernandez says. “It’s located at the end of the village. When it floods it’s unbelievable; the bodies emerge from the ground. A lot of times, you can’t even get to the cemetery.”
LIVING IN THE MARGINS
The arduous lifestyle of living along the rising riverbank was complicated by the forced displacement by paramilitary forces in the mid 1990s. The paramilitaries were believed to be backed by powerful businessmen and landowners, who forced the majority Afro-Colombian and indigenous residents from their ancestral lands for profitable farming opportunities, including cultivating coca, the active ingredient in cocaine. Both the FARC and paramilitary groups operate in this region because of its strategic proximity to the Panamanian border and the Pacific Ocean—an ideal shipping route for cocaine, a prominent source of revenue for both armed groups.
Caught between the gunfire of paramilitaries, guerillas and government troops 17,000 people fled their homes from the violence in the lower Atrato region from 1996-1998. These refugees joined 3.3 million other Colombians—the second largest number of internally displaced people in the world, according to the United Nations. This difficult chapter is so entrenched in the community’s history that it is retold in detail on the municipality website’s home page. The ubiquitous violence and natural disasters of the inaccesible hinterland has disproportionately affected marginalized minority groups in Colombia.
In their Grammy-award winning hit “De Donde Vengo Yo,” Choquibtown, a Colombian hip-hop group from Chocó, rap about the struggle of their people: De donde vengo yo, La cosa no es fácil pero siempre igual sobrevivimos (“Where I’m from, things aren’t easy but we survive anyways.”)
“Somebody from the city can’t understand this reality of which the people of Riosucio live,” Hernandez says.
The citizens of Riosucio have grown accustomed to living in this difficult setting, however, life continues to be a perpetual challenge.