PhD Research visit to Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

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Understanding flood risks with communities in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

I landed in Cartagena, Colombia for a 10-week field visit to find the city flooded following heavy rainfall from Storm Franklin. I was thrown in on the deep end of my research (pardon the pun) and had my first experience of the challenges and chaos that ensues during floods. Two days before departing Cartagena, my apartment flooded. I had the stressful task of cleaning and drying my things before I had to leave, which was no simple task given the humidity. Then, two days after leaving the city, Cartagena experienced the worst floods of the year with waist-level flooding. I saw videos of friends wading through water to get home, inundated cars and motorbikes and flooded buildings and homes. News reports later indicated that 15,000 families were impacted, and the local government pledged to allocate 35 billion pesos (approximately 7 million pounds) for damages.

I went to Cartagena with the aim of understanding flood risks in the city and developing networks with local communities and government. This feeds into my overall PhD objective, which is to create an integrated digital geospatial framework of spatial and community driven data, to support communities in Cartagena with flood risk information. I did my placement with Universidad Tecnológica de Bolivar (UTB). Through connections at UTB, I built relationships with three neighbourhoods and developed relationships with academics and local government representatives from the offices of infrastructure, urban planning and disaster risk. I also ran social cartography workshops with each neighbourhood to better understand flood risk and impact in peoples’ everyday lives. This included an interactive participatory mapping session using satellite imagery, with discussions of flood risks and impacts.


Ask anyone living in Cartagena and they will say that flooding is a big problem. Many people say that the whole city floods with heavy rainfall. At times, it can really feel like that. Yet, the mapping sessions showed specific areas are more impacted than others. These findings differ from official government flood risk data. The discussions also unpacked some of the issues that were highlighted spatially. Developing this understanding was a key part of my PhD, as it ensures that the impact of the research truly matters to people impacted most.


For some, the regularity of floods is normal, therefore an excuse for a moment of pause within the safety of their homes. However, the reality is that most stay at home because they are afraid of the consequences. Flood risks result in higher vehicle accidents, accidents due to open manhole covers or potholes, damage to infrastructure and property, and loss of life, material goods and income. Floods also increase insecurity with increased robberies and gang violence. With less people and police on the streets, there is less vigilance and more opportunity for criminal activity. Furthermore, flood risks are exacerbated by excessive waste and the lack of maintenance of the canals.


When asked what information is necessary to improve resilience to flood risk, participants wanted to know the causes of flooding, flood prevention methods, who to go to in an emergency and evidence of locations that were particularly impacted. Currently, communities turn to the news and social media (particularly Facebook and WhatsApp) for information.


This trip was my first field visit to better understand the scope of my PhD and whether there was appetite for the research within communities and local government. Having been to Cartagena now, experiencing the impacts of floods for myself and learning from a variety of community stakeholders, I am pleased to be able to continue developing my research. This will include developing the mobile mapping stage of the research, ready to support communities with flood water and waste data collection upon my return to Cartagena in April 2024.


The incredible thing about my PhD is that it includes an army of support, without whom none of this would be possible. This includes the CDT in geospatial systems and EPSRC, who allowed me the flexibility and the financial means to carry out my research trip. Furthermore, my supervisors Maria Valasia Peppa, Jon Mills and Cat Button at Newcastle University, who have supported me throughout my research, helping me to develop the relationship with UTB through their work with the Water Security Hub. My supervisor Yady Tatiana Solano-Correa at UTB who was fundamental with supporting the connections and relationships I’ve built, helping me stay on track in Cartagena and throughout the PhD. Alan Mills with MapAction, my industry partner, who has guided me with expertise and experience of work on the ground in disaster risk. And of course, to everyone in Cartagena who have given me their time, knowledge, experience, and guidance, with whom I eagerly look forward to continuing working with over the course of my PhD.


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