Sitting on the tarmac in Guapi, one of the few municipalities with an airport in the conflict-impacted southern coast of the Pacific region in Colombia, the view from the window is dominated by one thing: a vast mangrove forest. Cutting through that mangrove is a tangled labyrinth of waterways, channels and estuaries – the only link to the outside world for many of the small and isolated afro-Colombian and indigenous communities that have long inhabited this wild area. Building roads or railways would be a losing battle against the shifting water and shorelines.
Trying to connect these communities to the rest of the country is a key development challenge, particularly in an area traditionally plagued by armed conflict and now criminal gangs often fighting over territorial control.
While illegal activities in the mangroves still play a large role in the local economy and fuel continuing violence, improved connectivity through these waterways can play a vital role in integrating the region and facilitating shipping of legitimate goods.
But this is no easy task. Shipping depends on the tides, which only provide an average navigation window of five hours each day. The timing of that window shifts with the tides. Navigation is made even more difficult by erosion and sedimentation, and by the many tree trunks and other vegetation streaming out of the mangrove. Those without the inter-generational knowledge of the network frequently get lost. Sometimes the only way to solve the riddle comes when one stumbles across an isolated community and have the luck to find a local expert willing to point the way out.
The existing transport services are often informal, unsafe and lacking the needed facilities for cargo, ships and passengers. Some communities have decaying concrete docks, while other get by with just simple wooden docks or nothing. This makes it hard for passengers – especially women, the elderly, people with disabilities and children – to get on and off the vessels. Loading and unloading cargo is equally difficult.
Can you imagine the challenge faced by the residents of this area every time they need to get to work, go to the hospital or visit a family member?
Investing in transport infrastructure and waterway connectivity is a clear priority for these Pacific Coast communities and municipalities. This was established during an extensive consultation and dialogue the government carried out in 2016. The government then worked together with the World Bank to develop a new program to enhance waterway connectivity and to improve the coverage and quality of water and sanitation services.
The program has the clear goal of improving navigation safety and reducing travel time by building floating docks that adjust to water level changes and therefore provide better access to waterway transport, especially for women, children and people with disabilities. Through this project, the government of Colombia is providing a solution to the main challenge faced by the population. It is boosting shared prosperity by focusing on a vulnerable region with high levels of poverty, subnational fragility, inequality, conflict legacies, violence, forced displacement, poor basic service provision and climate change vulnerabilities.
The World Bank is ready to work with Colombia on connecting the “docks” to improve the lives of the roughly 147,000 Colombians who call this unique and challenging place home.