Ituango, Colombia – Ruby Posada escaped from her home on her son’s back, under the stark light of the moon in northern Colombia, when the waters reached waist height.
Her house, like dozens of others close to Colombia’s immense River Cauca, was flooded when water burst through a dam construction site earlier this month.
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Grabbing what they could, she and her son joined other artisanal gold miners and started a three-day hike upland to safety.
Once they could go no further, they fashioned a white flag out of a rag and attracted the attention of rescuers from the Red Cross and the national disaster agency.
Now, the displaced group have joined at least 24,000 people, many of whom earned their living fishing or mining gold in the river, who have been evacuated from the area due to the risk of further flooding, and are living in temporary shelters.
“We have no work, no tools, no houses, no animals,” Posada says, sitting on the concrete floor of the public auditorium that houses some of the displaced, as woodsmoke billows in from the makeshift kitchen in the muddy yard outside. “The flood has taken everything.”
The Hidroituango dam, in northwest Colombia, was nearing completion when disaster struck.
The hydroelectric facility, first conceived of in 1969 and initiated in 2010, will be the biggest the country has ever seen, and will meet nearly 20 percent of Colombia’s entire electricity needs – if completed.
In the wake of the flood, some 1,500 engineers are working against the clock to complete a 415-metre-high wall that will hold back rising river waters.
The project will now likely far exceed its projected $5bn budget – $250m of which was invested by the Canadian government – due to the flooding of its engine room and the complete destruction of two bridges over the river, as well as two schools and a health clinic in a riverside town.
Hidroituango had been touted as the pride of the region and of the country, with promises of millions of dollars of social investment in the local area.
Now, though, with the future of the dam hanging in the balance, some say it comes at too high a price for a community already traumatised by years of conflict, and risks sparking fresh bloodshed in a fragile region.
‘There’s a new war taking place’
Posada, for one, knew the despair of loss long before the flood took her livelihood; she lost two brothers to Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict. The first disappeared 15 years ago – his body was found two weeks later on the banks of the River Cauca, his heart removed and his eyes gouged out by right-wing paramilitaries. Four years later, her other brother was shot dead by a left-wing rebel group, in a case of mistaken identity.
It is estimated that the area affected by the dam saw over 3,500 murders between 1990 and 2016, with more than 600 people forcibly disappeared and 110,000 displaced.
A region once dominated by FARC rebels, violence here was fuelled by the area’s strategic location in a corridor that links the coca-producing inland with the Gulf of Uraba, and from there with markets and traffickers in Central America.
“The River Cauca is a cemetery – at the height of the conflict the paramilitaries lined people up on the bridge and shot them, and then threw their bodies into the water,” says Posada, taking a deep drag of her cigarette.
“And we know that there are mass graves along the banks of the river. Now, because of the dam, we’ve lost the chance to recover the remains of our loved ones; they’re under 100 metres of water, and nobody will search for them.”
Despite last year’s landmark peace accords between the government and FARC rebels, that legacy of violence shows little sign of stopping. Two members of the activist group fighting against the dam, Movimiento Rios Vivos, were shot dead within a one-week period in May, and many more have faced assassination attempts and threats.
“There’s a new war taking place right at the heart of Hidroituango,” says Carlos Alberto Builes, a professor of political science at Colombia’s Pontifical Bolivarian University. “In what we call the post-conflict period, it’s one of the most fragile areas in the country. It’s still the perfect drug trafficking route, and new paramilitaries and guerrilla groups are now fighting it out for control.”
Empresas Publicas de Medellin, the utilities giant in charge of the dam project, did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
‘If we carry on like this, we’ll never achieve peace’
Hidroituango is just one of many such projects being rolled out in regions still struggling to cope with the effects of Colombia’s bloody conflict.
Since 2012, the Contract Plan development programme recommended by the OECD – an economic bloc Colombia is finally joining this month after a five-year wait – has seen the central government pump millions of dollars into regional infrastructure projects in some of the worst-hit parts of the country. To date, 700 projects have been completed under the plan, including roads, electricity networks, schools and aqueducts.
The programme has brought benefits to some of Colombia’s most impoverished communities, but Builes insists that such projects require careful management.
“The real idea behind [the Contract Plan] is to build infrastructure that enables large companies and multinationals to do business in areas left behind by the FARC. This is development without regard for the local communities left spiritually and psychologically broken by the conflict. These communities must instead be incorporated into development projects.”
If we carry on like this, we will never achieve peace
In the case of Hidroituango, Maria Victoria Uribe, a professor of anthropology at the Del Rosario University, says the project’s effect will go far beyond the effects of the recent floods.
“Despite the resistance Hidroituango has generated among riverside communities, it remains a very important project that will meet the energy needs of large numbers of people. It’s just like always; what we call ‘progress’ will force its way into these communities and change their way of life.”
For Posada, who has spent the last eight years fighting against the dam alongside other local women, projects like Hidroituango have little hope of benefitting the local community if they obscure the scars of the past.
She says a community museum on the banks of the River Cauca, where relatives of conflict victims kept pictures of their loved ones and gathered to discuss restitution processes, was destroyed to make way for the dam.
“The museum was a sacred place, and its loss caused us great pain,” she says.
“If we carry on like this, we will never achieve peace – the first step must be to find the truth,” she adds.
“Once we have our own land I will invite the man who killed my brother to eat lunch with my family – but it will be made with ingredients I have grown myself. That will be the moment when I can finally forgive him.”