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Footbridges over otherwise impassable rivers give isolated communities access to health care, education and markets

By Barb Feldman

In 2001, Ken Frantz happened to see a photo in National Geographic of men dangling precariously from ropes that they were using to pull each other across a wide, high gap in a bridge across the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia. Frantz, who owned a construction company, knew how to build and believed he could help. He persuaded family, friends and his Rotary club to donate time, money and materials, and within three months the two sides of the centuries-old stone span, which had been deliberately destroyed in World War II to stop the advance of Italian troops, had been reconnected.

The success of this first project inspired Frantz to found Bridges to Prosperity (B2P), a non-profit dedicated to building footbridges over otherwise impassable rivers to give isolated communities safer access to health care, education and markets. Both B2P’s basic cable-suspended bridge design and its community-participation and teaching model were inspired by and adapted from programs begun by the Swiss development agency Helvetas (now HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation), which began its own community footbridge-building programs in the 1980s. Since 2008, B2P has also been developing its own safe, replicable and locally viable suspension bridge design alternatives.

Reliable and safe river crossings lead to more school enrolment, health care treatment, women’s employment and local business 
“In rural areas, people largely live in a walking world – so when a river swells, a walk to school or work or the doctor can become life-threatening without a bridge to cross,” said Abbie Noriega, B2P’s director of development. “We’ve seen through evaluation efforts that when a community gains access to reliable and safe river crossings with a footbridge, there’s a 12 per cent increase in school enrolment, a 24 per cent increase in health care treatment, an 18 per cent increase in employment for women and a 15 per cent increase in local business.”

Flatiron Construction Corporation has been one of more than 20 corporations providing funding, materials, innovative design and volunteer project management and labour to B2P. Since 2009, the company has sponsored more than 60 of its engineers, supervisors, labourers and support staff to travel to projects in rural El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua as part of bridge-building teams and gets four applications from its employees for every available spot. Flatiron undertakes three or four projects a year, and has pledged to construct at least 12 footbridges globally by 2017. 

Rick Morrison was involved in the first two Flatiron/B2P joint-venture bridge projects in Honduras and Guatemala, acting in Honduras as project manager for an eight-person team. The Flatiron team began by participating in constructability reviews and providing input for construction methods, based in part on what donated materials they’d have to work with.

“There’s quite a large learning curve, not really knowing what we were getting into,” said Morrison, and overall planning and logistics presented some of the biggest challenges. “Just getting all the building materials and tools we used down to Honduras and planning for all the people to have places to stay [was problematic].”

When the team arrived at the site, the foundation had already been dug and bridge abutments already built by B2P and local people, says Morrison.

“We erected the bridge from that foundation,” he said. The bridge itself was built with fairly simple methods and equipment, “using techniques not typically done on construction sites anymore but that would be common down in that part of the world,” such as using ropes and pulleys to erect the towers. Without the “luxury” of a crane, for example, the team built a moving platform that rode on the suspension cables to install the deck hangers.

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Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.