New Site Chosen for Colombian Town Destroyed by Landslide

Last year, Leo Sáenz blogged about Gramalote, a town in northeastern Colombia that was buried under a massive mudslide in 2010, triggered by the wettest La Niña event in over a century. Part of a team tasked with determining a new location to rebuild the town, he reports on the progress on Human Nature.

residents in Gramalote, Colombia visit the proposed location for the rebuilding of their town

Residents of Gramalote — a Colombian town destroyed by a mudslide in 2010 — visit the proposed location for the rebuilding of their town. (© CI/photo by Patricia Bejarano)

If you’ve paid any attention to the news lately, you know that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent due to climate change. For example, in my native Colombia, torrential rains have increased. In 2010, flooding displaced more than 2 million people, or 5% of the country’s population.

In addition to their toll on human life, natural disasters such as flooding, landslides, earthquakes, hurricanes and tornados are also costly in other ways. In Colombia, the number of natural disasters almost doubled between the 1970s and the first decade of the 21st century, with an economic cost of around US$ 7.1 billion.

This trend extends beyond Colombia. Globally, the cost of disasters has increased from a few US$ billion in 1980 to more than US$ 200 billion in 2010, leading to increased tensions between environmental refugees and neighboring communities or governments and causing people to feel less secure in their homes.

church in Gramalote, Colombia, town destroyed by mudslide

The remains of Iglesia de San Rafael in the destroyed town of Gramalote. (© CI/photo by Patricia Bejarano)

These events also fuel government instability and violent conflict. In Colombia, the chaos caused by disasters like landslides or flooding can pave the way for the infiltration of armed groups that quickly take control, exacerbating the conflict further.

Risk reduction and recovery from these extreme events are imperative. Conventional infrastructure and emerging technologies will be important factors in solutions; however, there also seems to be a role for nature to play.

This is where my eco-hydrology work comes in. I study how fresh water creates and interacts with ecosystems. Forests and other natural ecosystems like wetlands or páramos can regulate water flows and hold soils in place on steep hillslopes. Furthermore, preserving their role as “green infrastructure” can result in cheaper, more long-term solutions. However, if these ecosystems are lost, their water storage capacity will also disappear, increasing vulnerability to extreme events like flooding.

CI’s project in Gramalote is perhaps one of the first examples in the world where officials in charge of disaster risk management are giving natural ecosystems a central role in the process.

This wasn’t the first disaster for Gramalote. The town had been destroyed by extreme events three times in the last two centuries. After the 2010 mudslide, many of Gramalote’s 6,000 inhabitants — some temporarily relocated to nearby villages, some still living among the ruins — were rightly pushing for a permanent relocation which would increase their security and reduce regional tensions.

community meeting in Gramalote, Colombia

Residents of Gramalote assemble for a meeting to discuss rebuilding the town in a safer location. (© CI/photo by Patricia Bejarano)

To find a new location for the destroyed town, the national government of Colombia combined technical, administrative and financial efforts with CI-Colombia. Our role was to convince the government’s Adaptation Fund, the entity responsible for collecting funds for site selection and the rebuilding process, that nature’s services must be considered for the relocation of the municipality.

Our scientific analysis was conducted by CI’s eco-hydrology program, with technical capacity provided by CI-Colombia and in collaboration with key scientific partnerships, such as King’s College London. We reviewed past research, performed laboratory studies, conducted biodiversity inventories and performed cutting-edge eco-hydrological modeling.

The tools we used — FIESTA/WaterWorld and Costing Nature — are some of the most robust frameworks that exist to study ecosystem services in the rugged and complex topography of tropical mountains. We are continually striving to improve these policy-support systems to make sure they are as accurate and effective as possible.

merging of two rivers, western Colombia

In the Anchicaya River Basin in western Colombia, the merging of two rivers reveals the difference in sedimentation between a river that is protected (left) and unprotected (right) upstream. (© CI/photo by Leonardo Saenz)

In determining the best place to relocate Gramalote, we considered factors such as landslide/erosion control, flood mitigation and flow regulation. We explored the impacts that the relocation could have on sensitive species (such as amphibians) using Tremarctos, a tool created by CI-Colombia that provides an early warning system of the impacts of infrastructure development on the country’s species. And we considered the impacts of the relocation upon other ecosystem services, such as water provision.

So where will the new Gramalote be located? Out of four possible sites proposed by local institutions and communities, our analysis indicated that a rural area called Miraflores is the best choice.

town meeting in Gramalote, Colombia

Gramalote residents attend a meeting to learn about the planned location for their rebuilt town. (© CI/photo by Patricia Bejarano)

Miraflores is located only two miles northeast of the old Gramalote. According to geological assessments, the team found that the risk from landslides is lower at this site. In addition, the headwaters of the local river are located within El Bojoso Reserve, which could help sustain the water supply and provide resilience against future extreme weather. In order to perpetuate these benefits, CI proposed to double the size of the reserve — a move which has been positively endorsed by the government.

Through several workshops, we shared our findings with national, regional and local governments — as well as the affected communities — in order to make sure everyone understood the science and could use it to inform their decisions. In discussions with the affected communities, their reactions have been very positive.

boys at town meeting, Gramalote, Colombia

Boys in front of a poster showing the planned location for the reconstructed town of Gramalote. (© CI/photo by Patricia Bejarano)

The next steps in the relocation of Gramalote will be development of the new town management plan; acquisition of the land, including the expansion of El Bojoso Reserve; infrastructure design and urban planning; and finally the actual reconstruction of the town. It is expected that Gramalote will be rebuilt by the end of 2014, and its inhabitants will move in the following year.

I believe CI and our partners are meant to lead the world toward a green infrastructure paradigm. The new Gramalote may be one of the first towns in the world that is completely designed from scratch in a way that truly values the critical role that nature plays in all our lives.

This project represents a big opportunity to influence Colombia’s climate adaptation policies. I also think it’s an important step toward changing global perceptions about how we cope with disasters. Rather than simply reacting once they happen, we need to do more to protect ourselves, both now and in the future.

I’ve been honored to be a part of this project so far, and I’m excited to see what comes next.

Leonardo Sáenz is CI’s director of eco-hydrology. Thanks to Dr. Fabio Arjona, Patricia Bejarano and Angela Andrade for their contribution to this blog; special thanks also to Colombia’s Adaptation Fund, the Gramalote community and King’s College London.


  1. Leonardo Saenz says

    Thanks so much to every one making part of this blog. Especial thanks to Juliana Vivas for her work in the Video for our nomination to head in the Sky award. Thanks to Tatiana Escovar for her work in helping me to implement costing nature and to Jairo for his work on the analysis of extreme events. You also deserve the credit for this. And finally, especial thanks to Molly for her constructive feedback and edition of the blog.


  2. Jairo Guerrero says

    Great work Leo, I hope it serves to make the right decisions for the communities in the area and that is the example that people can live in harmony with nature in the concept of what you call “green infrastructure”.

  3. Leonardo Saenz says

    Thanks Jairo,

    Our role is to educate the public about these issues because as our vice chair Harrison Ford says “people need nature, nature does not need people”
    Thanks for your comment.

  4. Zoilo Maicelo Salón says

    Felicitaciones a Leonardo y a todo el equipo de CI por dearrollar el concepto de la “infraestructura verde”, es un caso concreto de cómo el conocimiento científico puede ser utilizado para resolver problemas concretos de todo una ciudad

    1. leonardo saenz says

      Mil gracias Zoilo tienes toda la razon. Estamos en un momento donde los componentes ambientales de las companias, cuidades entre otros estan creciendo y es mejor tenerlos en cuenta desde el principio de manera tal que su recuperacion no sea mas costosa y que el valor agregado de su inclusion beneficie estos sistemas desde el principio.

  5. Lara E. says

    Hi Leo, this project sounds great and am glad to hear both community and government are looking into using and valuing green infrastructure. Keep us informed!

    1. leonardo saenz says

      Thanks Lara! great to hear from you again. I will keep you posted of any development. I guess that experience can be very valuable for places like China.

  6. Enrique says

    Important and interesting experience. We need to show numbers to governments and make public cases like this, in order to get attention from politicians. “Not doing” environmental planning is a cost, a big cost, as you are showing here. Work like this has to be fully understood and part of politicians agenda.

  7. leonardo saenz says

    Thanks so much Enrique – I agree with you. I will posted any future development about the Gramalote story.

  8. Oscar Bautista says

    Good Job Leo and team! This is an example of how science, environment and politics are very important tools to make or support decisions focused on the community wellbeing, an appropriate scenario to show risk mitigation and social progress and security linked to the relationship social fabric – environment sustainability.

  9. leonardo saenz says

    Thanks Oscar – all of them great points – we need better science, policy support systems and communications to communicate to the different stakeholders how nature can be part of the solution to mitigate or adapt to increases in extreme weather events.

  10. Alonso Castro says

    Muy interesante el trabajo, Leo, muchas gracias por publicarlo. Me llamó especialmente la atención el concepto de “infraestructura verde”. Ojalá tenga oportunidad de verlo aplicado aquí en el Perú. Saludos, y felicitaciones.

  11. leonardo saenz says

    Gracias Alonso!
    Cualquier oportunidad avisame porfavor.
    Podrias ponerme en contacto con otros Peruanos interesados en Eco-Hidrologia, estuviste en el curso de Medellin, cierto? Te agradeceria si ademas lo puedes compartir entre tus redes.

    Gracias, Leo

    1. leonardo saenz says

      Thanks so much – please stay tuned on my work on eco-hydrology and let me know of any work carried out in Colombia
      Best, Leo

  12. Leonardo Saenz says

    Valuing green infrastructure solutions in connection with conventional infrastructure can be one of the most interesting areas of research in coming years now that natural disasters are increasing in frequency.

  13. Harrison Benavides says

    I enjoyed reading this article. It really excites me to know that this community soon will be in a safer place, unfortunately an important part of our country has been impacted by these natural phenomena but it is interesting how you have sought the best way to relocate them to improve completely their quality of life. Congratulations for this great work.

  14. Leonardo Saenz says

    Thanks so much Harrison. Please stay tuned for future stories.
    And most importantly, stay in touch to know about your developments.
    Best, leo

  15. Leonardo Saenz says

    Greater support to RD&D is needed to scale up the technologies like the ones applied in Gramalote in order to be able to help other communities impacted by similar catastrophes. Monitotoring using cutting edge early warning systems and integration with conventional infrastructure is also key. That is why I would like to call for greater support to the eco-hydrology program and their technological innovations. Any help is highly appreciated. We need 1000$ to keep the tools running.

  16. Leonardo Saenz says

    Like all models – models are only as good as the quality of the abstraction, data, science and data and testing that underpin them – prestigious journals such as hydrological process, hydrology research, international journal of ecosystem services and water international have endorsed the quality of the science of the models used in this cutting edge project.

  17. Claudia Quitian says

    Que bueno que trabajos como este sirvan de evidencia para mostrar que si existen alternativas para pueblos y comunidades que deben ser reubicadas y que garanticen que tienen acceso a recursos para sobrevivir y renacer. Casos como el ocurrido en Brasil el año pasado ( en el que la fata de alternativas de parte del gobierno llevaron a un pueblo indígena a pensar que morir era su unica opcion antes que ser desalojados de su territorio, pueden ver una salida favorable usando modelos como el usado Grmalote. Igualmente en Colombia, en donde existen actualmente conflictos con la reubicación de comunidades indígenas hay un gran espacio para seguir replicando este exitoso proyecto.

  18. Carolina says

    Hola Leonardo, me parece valioso tener en cuenta las cifras de cuanta inversión se debe hacer para después de ocurrido un desastre natural, a sabiendas que esto con una buena estrategia se puede contrarrestar, este estudio es interesante porque sale de una simple propuesta a una ejecución, que es lo que se busca, menos escritorio y mas campo! exitos Leonardo y bendiciones, saludos desde Pasto – Nariño (Col)

  19. leonardo saenz says

    Carolina, gracias por el comentario. es precisamente lo que queremos hacer y estamos planeando una publiacion al respecto. permanece pendiente. Gracias! Leo

  20. Bruno Coutinho says

    Bom trabalho Leo. Gostaria de saber mais sobre, apresenta-lhe algumas experiências na Região Serrana do Rio de Janeiro e trocar idéias.
    Um abraço.

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