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Universidad EAFIT
Carrera 49 # 7 sur -50 Medellín Antioquia Colombia
Carrera 12 # 96-23, oficina 304 Bogotá Cundinamarca Colombia
(57)(4) 2619500

Innovación / 29/05/2014

Classrooms floating on waters sailed by La Piragua


​Thursday, 15 May of 2014 will be a day to be remembered by the Sempegueros. That date marked the beginning of a pilot project that is expected to be replicated in other places in America and the world.

• The first pilot project on floating classrooms in Latin America was launched in the village of Sempegua (Chimichagua, Cesar) by Universidad EAFIT, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP); the National Unit for Disaster Risk Management and the European Union (EU).

• At a cost of about 556 million pesos, the project benefits 155 primary school children attending Nuestra Señora del Carmen Educational Center close to Zapatosa, the country's largest swamp.​​

Zapatosa swamp, a vast body of freshwater shared by the Departments of Cesar and Magdalena on the Caribbean Coast of Colombia, inspired maestro José Barros to compose La Piragua, a song that talks about a canoe that "when the ocean winds lashed it would tremble; it would impassively defy the storm."

Upon hearing the notes, this song evokes images of the life back then in "El Banco, the old port," or at the "beaches of love in Chimichagua."

As the famous cumbia depicts, these waters have the old habit of stirring up, moving around and inspiring minstrels such as maestro Barros to compose master pieces like the one that immortalized the "cachaco" Guillermo Cubillos’ vessel in the mid-20th century. (“Cachaco” means a native person from a city where the weather is colder, like Bogotá or Medellín).

Now, almost 55 years later, a total of three classrooms will ’navigate’ these waters where a piragua would have done it. These rooms are also the result of two "cachacos" hard work: Lina Cataño and Andres Walker, the Universidad EAFIT engineers that designed the project.

On Thursday May 15, Lina and Andres, on behalf of the spin-off Utopian-EAFIT, and the partner entities -EAFIT, UNDP, the National Unit for Disaster Risk Management and the EU - attended the donation ceremony of the first floating classrooms in Latin America at Nuestra Señora del Carmen Educational Center in Sempegua.

"The water levels of the swamp rise between March and April, and between September and October. These floods prevent children from attending classes at the school. As a result, they have to attend class at the square, the church, the huts or the "patios," as stated by teacher Nereida Palomino Serpa, a native of Sempegua and teacher at this educational center for the last 15 years.

This center, which still remains in the same place, started its operations in the mid-1970s during the time of the relocation of the village that was located a few kilometers further south some decades ago.

Nereida claims that around 17 teachers work at this center, which is divided into the elementary school that operates close to the swamp with 155 children, and the high school, which offers up to ninth grade and is located in another place of the village. The center gathers a total of 283 students.

Like a​​ boat

Juan Diego Jaramillo Fernandez, Professor at the School of Engineering at EAFIT, couldn’t stop walking around the floating classrooms during the morning of Thursday, May 15.

On one side, he showed the infrastructure foundations (those that remain on the ground during a flood).  On the other hand, he explained how the concrete slab can float like a boat as the level of the water rises. He added that thanks to a few metal interlocking poles, the classrooms remain in the same place while they are surrounded by water.

Professor Jaramillo believes that this project could be replicated in other parts of Colombia, the continent and the world because, among other aspects, these materials can be purchased at any hardware store.

In fact, Andres Walker, one of the "cachacos" responsible for this initiative that was built over the waters once sailed by Guillermo Cubillos, knows that this type of models can be adapted to regions such as La Mojana in the Momposina Depression in Sucre to allow the communities to go on with their daily lives without any hindrances, even if floods affect the area.

Having so many public figures coming in a single day to donate this infrastructure to its people was very unusual in Sempegua. The Sempegueros got so deep in Lina Cataño and Andres Walker’s hearts that they even taught them about garbage collection techniques.

What only a few people know is that Andres and Lina's floating platforms, which now work as a pilot project in this village of Chimichagua municipality, were part of their thesis project during the completion of their Bachelor's degree. This tangible solution was possible thanks to the collaborative work of the Applied Mechanics Research Group and the spin-off Utopian-EAFIT project.

Although the result goes beyond a technical explanation, it is necessary to understand that this type of solution is addressed to alluvial flood prone areas, which also experience the contingencies of the change in climate. Based on these needs, they came up with the idea of a floating platform, as stated by Professor Juan Diego Jaramillo.

Destination: Sempegua​​

Sempegua, one hour away from Chimichagua through a gravel road, has about 600 inhabitants.  Most of its people live from fishing, but some of them also make a living from raising cattle. The inhabitants of the Zapatosa swamp (the largest swamp in the country) that has its waters coming from the Cesar and Magdalena rivers and residents from other regional surrounding villages earn their living from the swamp. A great variety of fauna and flora can be found in its 400 square kilometers. 

"Children will have better opportunities to attend class and, even better, there will be no interruptions,” as stated by Jesus Noble, director of the educational center.  In addition, he says that they feel proud of having this pilot project done at Sempegua, a place that, according to him, was severely damaged during the floods of 2006 and 2011, just to mention some of the bigger ones.

"It was the ideal place to build these classrooms due to the geographical location," as stated by Mr. Noble. They hope the project will be expanded some day to benefit more kids, since the classrooms have a capacity for a total of 60 children and the rest of the students will have to attend classes at the old building, left at Mother Nature’s mercy.

For centuries, this area has been a strategic location for trade, so much that indigenous people from the Sierra Nevada had a close relationship with the villagers for the exchange of food and other supplies. The UNDP country deputy, Inka Mattila, analyzes that although floods have affected many regions throughout history, this vulnerable community requires adaptation measures to face different natural phenomena due to climate change.

As the level of the swamp waters increase, Sempegua becomes an island that can only be accessed by means of river transport.

"We will no longer have to move the tables to Mrs. Leo's place when the floods come," as stated by Paula Andrea Serpa Beleño, a nine year-old fourth grader who now spends most of her time at the new educational center not just because of the classrooms but because of the playground next to the bridge that allows children to access the new infrastructure.

"We will all prosper," as stated by Paula and her classmates the second grader Yaritza Knight, third grader Manuela Toloza,  fifth grader Jeferson Acuña, second grader Estrella Florian Valley, and Luis Felipe Gutierrez Rocha, from seventh grade who rides his bicycle to the educational center.

As in La Piragua, "the old timber no longer creaks in the water."

The three floating classrooms have now been boarded (two for academic activities and one for different purposes). They became the pride of a region that has learned to coexist with the swamp over the centuries and which now in the twenty-first century, demands, as other places in Colombia, the participation of the State, academia and international organizations to join forces and find solutions that make an entire population feel that they were finally noticed.

Journalists’ contact information
Marcela Olarte Melguizo
Journalist Information and Press Area
Telephone: 574 2619500 Ext. 9931 Mobile: 3113547204
Última modificación: 07/01/2015 16:54

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