Research Trip to Condega and Cartagena

By Carolina Morgan, Research Associate,

Globally, the subject of climate change has risen to the top of the development research agenda. International conferences, agreements, and publications are filling the knowledge gaps and flooding the literature with creative and innovative ideas for mitigation, adaptation and resilience. But when we drill down to the local urban level, we know very little about the problems cities will face and adaptive strategies they can pursue. First, climate change projection models are not as accurate locally as they are globally. Secondly, as previous I2UD research has shown, implementing long-term climate change adaptation strategies is not the priority of local administrators with short office terms, especially in developing cities where governments are faced with very pressing social and economic issues that take precedence over what are perceived as gradual and distant-future issues such as sea level rise.

A third aspect of climate change in developing cities, and the focus of our current research sponsored by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, is that those who are most vulnerable to extreme weather and sea level rise are the city’s most poor. Rapid urbanization has left cities with little land other than areas considered too environmentally hazardous for development. Informal development in high-risk areas is common: these areas are the only viable options for low-income groups who cannot access the formal urban housing market and who cannot afford transportation into the city from farther away. Aggravating their vulnerability are poor housing conditions, which lack structural safeguards against floods, earthquakes, landslides, or other environmental risks. As a result, the socioeconomically vulnerable also become environmentally vulnerable. We are studying this situation in two cities: Condega, Nicaragua and Cartagena, Colombia. After months of research and consultation with our local research partners, we made the trip last month to see for ourselves what we had been learning.

Condega resident showing flood levels in her house during heavy rains.

Though only a trickle now, the Pire River swells and overflows its banks during the rainy season

Condega is nestled between a set of hills and sits at the junction of two rivers, the Pire and Esteli. As most of the flat-land has already been built-up, new urbanization is limited to unstable slopes or flood-prone river beds. During our visit in April, the rivers were almost dry: it was difficult to imagine that in the winter months during the rainy season, the rivers grow so high that they spill over and flood adjacent neighborhoods, and that the current erodes the banks so severely that bridges must be extended every year.

Several factors have been increasing the intensity of Condega’s flood problems. First, climate change is projected to increase the frequency and intensity of rains in the region (although an overall decline in precipitation is expected). Secondly, deforestation upstream has reduced the natural meandering of the rivers, increasing their flow speed and width. Finally, the expansion of impermeable surfaces in the urban core, an insufficient drainage capacity, and the city’s natural slope lead to flooding of the eastern-most neighborhoods during heavy rains.

After the devastating effects of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, Condega formed a Disaster Risk Committee and developed a very good emergency and evacuation plan. These reactive strategies have worked well for the city. Its small size and the fact that everyone knows each other by name have enabled the Municipality to implement these plans during emergency situations. Their longer-term plans for preventing risks have not been as successful. One of the Municipality’s biggest challenges is to provide affordable housing to accommodate new families and for the relocation of people living in risk zones. Echoes of Nicaragua’s Communist past are still heard in Condega, as for a long time the city gave houses in new developments at no cost to the beneficiaries.

The municipality (and the new national socialist government) is now trying to change this culture of dependence on the state. Its most recent initiatives involve buying large sections of land and selling the subdivisions at low cost through a low-interest financing system. The families then build their own houses piece by piece as they are gradually able to gather enough savings for each construction phase.

Location of the new housing project


The Buena Vista housing resettlement site as it looks today

The newest project is located in the community of San Diego, beyond the urban limit and across the Esteli River, which is impassable during rains. The project is three years old, and all 475 lots have been sold, with half already paid in full. However, when we visited the site, it was practically deserted. The journey from the city to the site requires a vehicle. The only source of water for the entire 20-block site was a single borehole. The nearest commercial establishment is a mile away. For me, it was easy to see why people would rather risk floods in houses that have access to city amenities, rather than invest in a new house so far away, with no nearby employment prospects, and the need to pay for a 30 minute-trip to reach the closest grocery store.

Cartagena, Colombia, presents an interesting contrast. While the income gap between the low and high earners is much greater than in Condega, all sectors and neighborhoods are affected by flooding. In addition to sea level rise and the coastal erosion, Cartagena also faces serious drainage problems. Its most vulnerable population lives at the edge a coastal wetland known as the Cienaga de la Virgen. Much of the city’s runoff drains to the Cienaga through a system of channels. An informal settlement has grown on the edge of the Cienaga and straddling the drainage channels. Over the past 30 years, settlers have been filling in the land with trash and construction debris, growing directly into the Cienaga. They are thus exposed to floods from rising tides, overflowing drainage channels, and runoff from nearby hills. Additionally, until a few months ago, 60% of the city’s wastewater was deposited in the Cienaga. While this has recently been addressed by diverting the sewage through an underground pipe, the problem of solid waste, which surrounds the shacks against the Cienaga and clogs every drainage channel in the city, remains.

Houses at the edge of Cienaga de la Virgen

View from above of the informal settlements (center left)

Walking in the neighborhoods at the southeastern edge of the Cienaga, carefully stepping on the pieces of trash that act as paths connecting the shacks, I could see multi-million dollar real estate developments just across the water. While most of the city is exposed to climate change risk, income inequality translates into a greater vulnerability for the poor and informal communities. In the 1980s, the World Bank carried out a regularization and improvement program in the lower part of this area; in 2006, the city built a highway along part of the Cienaga’s edge to deter further growth into the water. New affordable housing projects, like in Condega, have been unpopular due to their distance from employment centers and the lack of non-residential facilities such as grocery stores and schools. Despite these initiatives, the Cienaga settlements continue to grow and increasingly suffer from bad floods, pollution and costly losses to weather extremes. With climate change already a reality for the Cienaga residents, what can this city, which unlike Condega has so much wealth, do about it?

Part of the challenge is the complex institutional and political landscape, the overlapping responsibilities for coastal and land management, and the power of private interests in local development matters, which have all made it difficult for the city administration to adopt an integrated climate change adaptation policy. However, a new national climate change agenda recognizes Cartagena’s potential as a pilot city that could serve as an example to other Colombian coastal cities. This has prompted a series of initiatives and studies to start to measure and address the problems related to adaptation, including a new Storm Water Drainage Master Plan that is expected to greatly reduce rain-based flooding. How long these programs will take to reach the city’s poor remains to be seen.

View from above of the channel-streets, which drain stormwater runoff from the city to the Cienaga.

Houses against the drainage channels that end at the Cienaga.

“In both cities, the challenge is not only an environmental one, but an urban planning one: at the core of the problem is the unavailability of affordable urban land, which forces low income groups to settle in the riskiest areas. In order to better understand and analyze this dynamic, we have taken a holistic approach that integrates the environmental, spatial, economic and institutional aspects at play in each city, and then looks at how they affect efforts to adapt to climate change. Throughout this analysis, our study considers the opportunities and challenges for social inclusion for all of the cities’ residents. Our goal is to evaluate the cities’ land and environmental management policies based on how they impact poor neighborhoods, and explore policy options that can help Cartagena and Condega address the needs of the poor while integrating them into an overall city adaptation strategy.”

The results of this research will be published in 2014.

(Find more photos of Condega and Cartagena in our album on Facebook).