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Trekking to see flood recovery efforts

Colombia, May 9, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Anne Castleton/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The sun sets over the water — both a valuable resource to rural Colombian communities and a danger if not managed well. Photo: Anne Castleton/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Anne Castleton/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Horses rounded up community members brought Mercy Corps staff to Oriente, where they heard from residents about their water challenges. Photo: Anne Castleton/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Anne Castleton/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The team traveled through the jungle in dugout canoes to reach another community, Guartinaja, where Mercy Corps is helping the residents build better protection from floods. Photo: Anne Castleton/Mercy Corps

I just returned from a trip to Colombia where, instead of sitting behind a computer, I sat in planes, taxis, boats, vans, dugout canoes and on horseback — in one day. Going to see Mercy Corps’ projects that have responded to last year’s floods required some intrepid travel to the Atlántico and Cordoba departments in the northern Caribbean region of the country. We were also there to monitor ongoing Xylem-funded activities designed to strengthen communities against future water-related disasters.

I was accompanied by Oregon's former State Conservation Engineer, David Dishman, who volunteered to share his technical expertise to help these communities recover in long term ways. In the wake of those recent severe floods — and facing rising sea levels as a consequence of climate change — Mercy Corps staff in Colombia are interested in developing a country-wide strategy to better protect themselves from flooding in the future, and I was there to help facilitate initial planning.

But first, we flew down to Monteria, capital of the department of Córdoba, and drove to Ayapel to visit flooded communities on the lake. Some natural dikes on the River Cauca recently burst during the flooding season, and Mercy Corps has been distributing emergency food aid; we are now moving into a food-for-work phase of the recovery, when people can begin rebuilding their community. Xylem also supports Mercy Corps with a standing emergency fund and donated funding to help two remote communities on the lake in the Ayapel municipality. Because the dike has not been fully repaired (for political rather than technical or financial reasons), these communities, along with many others on the lake, have remained flooded and have not planted crops for nearly three years.

We left the hotel at 5:30 a.m. to head to the boat launch. About a dozen Mercy Corps team members piled into a boat with a small outboard motor and headed across the lake. Ninety minutes later we reached a community that is a distribution site for the emergency food project. It was also was home to many bats.

There we transferred to more than 20 horses, which had been rounded up from community members for our visit, and traveled 45 minutes on horseback to the community of Oriente. The residents were gathered to tell us about their water challenges and had prepared a delicious lunch for us — turtle eggs.

After our feast, we walked 30 minutes and arrived at a rickety boardwalk where men from the community were ready to help us into their dugout canoes, which would take us another 45 minutes to the community of Guartinaja. They used poles to silently glide through a pristine jungle full of wild birds, water fowl and some domestic livestock (including water buffaloes).

Some of us had the good fortune to ride in dry, non-leaking dugout canoes. But not me. I met the good people of Guartinaja with a soaking wet derriere!

We retraced our steps and modes of transportation back to Ayapel just as the sun was setting over the lake. Everyone was tired on the boat ride back which allowed me to reflect on the day and how people we met treated us as though we had personally provided them help. It was very humbling to receive their gratitude on behalf of a global organization, a generous corporation and foundation, and the US government. It was a perfect day in the field.