Six metric tons of structures and materials were transported by air to rebuild a 40-meter long pedestrian bridge on the Blanco River in the department of Cauca.
The operation took place on December 17th and benefited 1,500 local residents. The Colombian Air Force (FAC, per its Spanish acronym) employed two UH-60 Black Hawk aircraft from Air Combat Command No. 5, a Huey II helicopter, and 14 crew members. The Colombian Army deployed the 27th Brigade to support the project.
Major Andrea Archila Álvarez, chief of FAC’s Integral Action Department, is in charge of these operations. “Achieving efficient connections between population centers is fundamental, especially where passage over rivers is done by means of cords or in areas that have ended up isolated due to the destruction of infrastructure as a result of natural disasters. That is why we have always supported the Puentes de la Esperanza (Bridges of Hope) initiative. To close 2016 with a finishing touch, we intervened in Cauca, a region with a large indigenous population which has historically been battered by conflict and fluctuating climatic conditions,” Maj. Archilla said.
Puentes de la Esperanza brings regions closer together
Colombia is located where the Andes mountain range is divided into three and is home to one of the most diverse river basins on the planet. Its geography has made it difficult to build roads and bridges to reach populations located far away from urban centers, right in the middle of the mountain range. In addition, the decades-old armed conflict made it even more difficult to reach these populations.
The organization Puentes de la Esperanza came into existence in 1994 as an independent alternative to reaching those regions and building the pedestrian bridges necessary for the security and well-being of the residents. The people lack access to roads and children, and adults risk their lives daily crossing rivers using cords or very rudimentary constructions.
Carlos Barrera, director of Puentes de la Esperanza, explained that the role of FAC consists of airlifting structures, materials, and implements necessary for the construction of bridges in areas where there are no roads, and materials must be transported by donkeys.
“We build the structures in Bogotá, transport them by truck to where the road ends, and hand them over to FAC there, so they may be brought by helicopter to the village where they are needed. Once they arrive, they are assembled by the community,” Barrera said. “This partnership has been essential because the materials for each bridge weigh between five and 15 metric tons. Taking that weight by road or by donkey would take months, an amount of time we do not have because it usually rains a lot, conditions are adverse, and the labor force is limited. With the help of FAC, we get it done in one or two days.”
Puentes de la Esperanza has used this system to build 93 bridges. In 2016, three bridges were built, and FAC is planning a second phase of the air transport operation for the construction of two additional pedestrian bridges that will connect important rural roads in the same area, between the departments of Cauca and Putumayo.
“Once the request is received from the community with basic information on the terrain and the area, we pay a visit to learn the topography and to determine if building one of our bridges would be viable. In Bogotá, we study the designs that can be applied to that specific region,” Barrera said.
Air Force Colonel Carlos Silva, commander of the CACON 5 Base in Rionegro, was in charge of the transport of 28 metric tons of material for the construction of a pedestrian bridge in the town of La Represa, which used to take six hours to reach by mule.
“The [people who live in] places where we have come with bridges have suffered a lot because of the collapse of roads and bridges during the rainy season. Many people have died crossing the rivers because the necessary structures were not there. In other cases, the armed conflict kept the population isolated, as insurgents destroyed bridges to force the population to do what they wanted,” said Col. Silva.
In 22 of the country’s 32 departments (all in rural areas), the joint work of Puentes de la Esperanza and FAC has improved people’s mobility in the region. Travel time has been shortened from six to two or three hours.
A key element of the initiative is the requirement that rural residents who have solicited the help of the organization contribute to the construction of the bridge. “This is empowering work for the community; they help assemble, paint, and do maintenance on the bridge. So, the bridge becomes a piece of the community’s heritage,” Barrera explained.
“The current dynamic of the country is encouraging unarmed ways of seeking the enduring well-being of the population, in addition to ensuring their security. We support strategic partnerships like Puentes de la Esperanza, which seek to improve the quality of life of the populations,” Major Archila said.
Modular bridges, an appropriate solution
The organization began its work helping victims of an earthquake that shook the south of the country in 1994. This quake prompted the melting of the mantle of the Nevado del Huila volcano, and caused landslides and an avalanche that destroyed hundreds of homes and vital infrastructure in the region. After this tragedy, Puentes de la Esperanza began its work with the support of FAC.
“The idea of prefabricating structures to transport them more easily and assembling them later in rural areas was the idea of Toni Rüttimann, a Swiss builder who has dedicated his life to building pedestrian bridges without pay for the most vulnerable rural communities around the world. We were able to build 10 bridges thanks to his work and the work of the community, as well as with the unconditional support of FAC and the U.S. Southern Command to help the affected population,” Barrera concluded.
Puentes de la Esperanza has a team of engineers and architects who have modified the original designs to be able to build different types of bridges in accordance with the characteristics of every mountain and canyon in Colombia. They now use lighter materials that are easier to assemble