Flooding and garbage

There is nothing more depressing than George-town on a wet day. It is bad enough in the dry season, but in the rain, all those piles of sodden garbage ooze goo onto the parapets, while the saturated litter from the filthy gutters is swept by the floodwaters onto the roadways. It’s enough to make even the most stoical citizen nauseous. For the average resident trudging through the refuse and the effluent, it feels as though they have been transported to one of the planet’s most notorious slums. And as they pick their soggy way to work or school, they must surely wonder why it is that those who rule over them don’t seem to be offended by what is deeply offensive to everyone else.  The answer is, that the denizens of ‘Ville I or ‘Ville II don’t experience the flooding and the rubbish directly; they just go whizzing past in their hermetically sealed Prados (or whichever model is currently in vogue), to their sanitary retreats on the East Coast, where in their little universe the water courses unhindered through the gutters, and not even a matchstick is permitted to pollute the parapet. So why should they care about the rest of us? And of course, they don’t.

On Thursday the Mayor and City Council let it be known that four inches of rain had fallen in a 24-hour period. All that can be said about this is that it is hardly an unusual amount of rain for this time of year, and we may well see worse before the season has ended. Given that most of the drains in the capital remain undug despite the fact that we’ve been blessed with several dry months this year; that with the best will in the world the ‘Pick it up’ campaign has not yet made much of a dent in the littering habits of the population; and that the Christmas period is upon us with its extra volumes of waste, it looks as if we can all look forward to a saturated, mucky, garbage-strewn season.

The same press release which told residents about the four inches of rain, also informed them that the City Engineer had reported that two pumps in Sussex Street were inoperable, while the following day this newspaper learned from the PRO that they were expected to be repaired by tomorrow. In the meantime, of course, we have had showers of rain, and Princes Street is under water, and West Ruimveldt and Albouystown too are likely to be affected if the rain continues. The immediate question is exactly when did the City Engineer’s Department discover that the pumps were not functioning – was it only after the rain started to fall? Are the city pumps not supposed to be monitored on a regular basis, even in the dry season, so that when the rains arrive they are all in working order?  We’ve been through this charade before, when City Hall did not convince anyone that regular monitoring and maintenance of the pumps were being undertaken.

And if that was not enough the M&CC went on to complain that the Kitty pumps too were down during the power outages. “We had repeatedly asked Guyana Power and Light to connect that facility to a second power line. This would have allowed that pump to continue functioning even when there are blackouts in that section of the city,” the release said with a sanctimonious air.

So here we have instances of the incompetence of the city council and the incompetence of the government – the one probably responsible for the non-functioning Sussex Street pumps, and the other for not facilitating GPL with a subvention to give the Kitty pumps a second power line (always assuming that the electricity company could not accommodate this within its current budget); the opposition would surely not oppose a supplementary for that purpose. But this little tale is symptomatic of the whole sorry story of the physical deterioration of Georgetown, namely, the political tug-of-war between the government and the city council. The whole problem is that there is nothing political whatsoever about cleaning the drains, clearing the garbage, mending the roads and maintaining the pumps, which are among the more important things a local authority has to do here. Whoever sits in City Hall, no matter what their political persuasion, is going to have to ensure the drains are cleaned, the garbage is cleared, etc. Politics have been inflicted on this city and we are paying a very heavy price for it.

Basic cleaning and maintenance of the capital requires in the first instance two things: money and organization, and of the two the second is probably the more important. It doesn’t matter how much money you throw at a problem, if it is not utilized in a cost-effective, efficient, results-oriented way, then it is a complete waste of resources. Even with a shortage of funds, with proper organization, prioritization, co-ordination and monitoring, far more could be achieved than is being done currently. But in our case, there is neither money nor organization.

Despite the fact that the government’s own IMC from the period before 1994 as well as every consultant who has ever produced a report on the M&CC, including Mr Keith Burrowes, has said that the city council does not have the financial resources to discharge its functions, the central administration has done nothing to relieve the situation. Not only can City Hall sometimes not pay the staff that it has on time, it simply cannot afford the staff that it needs.  On several occasions central government postponed the payment of rates for its own buildings thereby precipitating garbage crises because funds were not then available to pay the garbage contractors. One of the excuses was that there was corruption at City Hall, which indeed there was. However, under the current act it is the Ministry of Local Government which has the power to hire and fire senior municipal officers, not the city council, and the government did nothing about corruption and the way local officers were functioning for many years. At the present time there is a contretemps between the ministry and the council about the appointment of the current acting Town Clerk, the details of which the public cannot even be bothered to learn.

That the government wants the city council to fail, and has gone to some lengths to see that it does – its current objective is the imposition of an IMC – does not exonerate the M&CC for its abysmal inefficiency in relation to monitoring and maintenance in priority areas – the city pumps being one of them and the care of vehicles and equipment being another.

Even although the current legislation is counter-productive, what prevents some level of co-ordination between the M&CC and the Ministry of Local Government to work out schedules and arrangements for dealing with the garbage and the drains at least – although now that the rainy season appears to be here, it may be too late for the latter this year. The government had brought in some new garbage trucks, but they should monitor them to ensure that the council workshop is maintaining them in the way that should be done.  And as for the garbage itself, there needs to be a large framework for dealing with it, as well as a plan for each ward, although for immediate purposes, they should concentrate on central Georgetown in particular.

The futility of the current efforts is illustrated by the case of an abandoned gas station in the central district which has become an unofficial dumpsite for renegade businesspeople in the area. Many of the businesses around pay privately for an official garbage contractor to remove their rubbish on a daily basis, but there are some who are not so conscientious. They pay vagrants or whoever ‘a piece’ to dump at the former gas station. Some time ago the city council sent in its workers to clean it up, which they did, but by the next day it was almost as bad as ever. The council then sent the workers back, but once again the garbage reappeared.

Is it beyond the wit of any official in either the government or the council bureaucracy to dispatch the city constabulary or the police in plain clothes to trail those who are doing the dumping back to the business place involved, and then put the offenders in front of the courts?  Whatever strategy they come up with – provided it is effective – doesn’t matter; what does matter is that they should not be prepared to tolerate a repeated breach of the law on this scale. The lesson from other cities in the world is clear: it is only when the authorities are prepared to systematically enforce the littering and dumping laws, and the sanctions are of a sufficiently daunting nature to act as a deterrent, that many people develop respect for their environment. Education programmes on their own just simply do not cut it.

As we pointed out in our editorial last Monday, and as several correspondents have said, we urgently need local government elections under reformed legislation. Among other things, this would sort out the structural relationship between central and local government, so the latter could become more autonomous and by extension be held responsible for acts and omissions within its sphere. Long term progress for the city, starts there. So will the government please stop playing silly games, and will the opposition please stop wasting time with Mr Rohee, and really put local government legislation at the very top of their agendas. They owe it not just to the citizens of Georgetown, but to the country as a whole.



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