Mar 18, 2011 Editorial
As an American Baseball legend once exclaimed, “It’s déjà vu all over again!” For us in Guyana it’s the flooding.
Inundated six years ago during the tail end of the December-January rainy season, we suffered catastrophic floods on the coastlands and learnt a new word – leptospirosis. This time around, the December-January rains seem determined to blend into the May-June season. And these rains are not the usual heavy, but short tropical downpours to which we are accustomed: these persist doggedly throughout the day – and even night – to ensure an incredible accumulation of water
This is caused, we are informed, by La Niña climatic conditions, but what it means to the ordinary coastlander is more floods. We haven’t quite reached 2005 levels yet, but if the predictions of another week of La Niña rains are to be trusted, we might not be too far away. The authorities have been patting themselves on their backs for the initiatives they claim to have taken since 2005 – which they boast have averted that danger up to now. They haven’t been bold enough to positively guarantee that eventuality, and they may be wise not to do so.
Our coast, as we have been at pains to remind our readership over the years, has been made into basically a trench to support our agriculture and settlements. Since our entire coastal plain – extending more that 5 miles inland – is significantly below sea level at high tides, our Dutch forebears initially settled inland along the Berbice and Essequibo river banks. They moved to the coast after the riverine soils lost their fertility, only because they had the engineering wherewithal to build sea walls and sea dams to keep out the raging Atlantic.
But because we did not have rainfall all year long, they also had to construct dams behind their plantations (“backdams”) behind which water could be conserved (hence “conservancies”) to irrigate the crops during the dry seasons. In Essequibo we have the Tapakuma Conservancy; in Region 3, the Boerasirie; East Demerara in Region 4 and MMA in Region 5. So between the backdams and the sea walls/dams we live in a trench, drained by canals that empty accumulated water into the Atlantic through kokers at low tides. Those are the stark realities of our hydrographics.
With the changes in global weather patterns, those hydrographics are under pressure from both banks of the trench, so to speak.
Rising seas due to global warming question both the height and integrity of our sea walls. Over the last few decades, we have been assisted by the EU to the tune of many billions to strengthen our sea defences.
The latest initiative is to replace the mangrove belt that had historically protected our coast – but we should be aware that this protection was from erosion rather than flooding from high tides.
For the latter, there’s been some debate whether the traditional concrete walls or the newer “rip-rap” design might be more effective, but in the long term if the predictions of the experts are accurate, it might all be moot. We might have to move to higher ground.
The accumulation of water in all the conservancies during these extended rainy seasons now exceeds their specifications. We have already had to resort to diverting water from the East Demerara Water Conservancy (EDWC) into the Mahaica Creek which creates its own set of flooding problems for farmers on its banks. The heights of the conservancies’ dams cannot be raised.
The controversial Hope Canal under construction is projected by the government to offer another option to deal with this contingency. One of the challenges is the low gradient from the conservancy to the ocean. The canal is expected to have elevated earthen walls throughout its length to facilitate the flow of water, but the integrity of such walls is in question.
It is high time that the nation is presented with a comprehensive plan to deal with our water woes: the facts of our hydrographics will not disappear – rather, as we have emphasised, they will be exacerbated.
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