Bert Carter is a national treasure; let’s start from there. If you needed any persuading of that, you should have been at Moray House on a recent Monday when he spoke to a very attentive crowd on the drainage infrastructure of Georgetown. Speaking completely off the cuff, without a single piece of paper in his hand, or a reference note book, the gentleman delivered a master class, minus the politics, on the drainage apparatus of Georgetown.
With his background as Assistant City Engineer from 1969 to 1973, Bert is a walking encyclopaedia of what lies below and around the city, and the striking thing is that, no longer a young man, he delivers this information from memory – and what a memory. In the course of a casual conversation, Bert will mention the date electricity came to Georgetown, or who was Head of what Ministry in what year, and sometimes who was the Principal Secretary. He is known among friends and associates for this amazing recall, and for his trait of self-deprecating humour in the midst of some informational gem he has just delivered. His forte, though, is the apparatus and history of Georgetown. He is intensely passionate about that, and he will talk excitedly about the effective design of the city taking into account the below-sea-level conditions and the methods to move water to the river through sluice gates at low tide.
For anyone who has traversed them on foot, bicycle and motor vehicle, a singular revelation from Bert Carter’s Moray House delivery is the complexity of what is arranged below the streets of Georgetown. To begin with, it seems, as in the case with the seawall, that we’ve been giving the Dutch too much credit for the system. In the world according to Carter, the drains around Stabroek, in the vicinity of Croal Street, were the only ones laid out by the Dutch. “Those were done before 1812, but the rest of the drainage we have today was done by the British; they did way more than the Dutch,” said the engineer.
The system of canals and gutters and trenches and alleys and kokers that he refers to is an ingenious combination of inter-connecting waterways and use of gradient that dates back to 1812 when the city as we know it began. These days, Carter looks back on his time at City Hall and praises the Georgetown drainage network as being efficient still to keep the city free of flooding. “There’s nothing wrong with the system; the problem is that we have failed to maintain it. If we ever get the political will to look after and service the system, it will work.”
In the 1950s, as a youngster at school in Georgetown, at Sacred Heart and Saints, I remember when rainy days be taken up with paper-boat races in the gutters in town; the water would be flowing so fast, one had to run to catch up with the boats. In recent times, the water in those same gutters is often stagnant, even as it rains, and school boys have obviously found other diversions. When did that slide from rushing water to stagnant begin?
Carter says the ill-effects on what we’re seeing today began in the 1970s. Prior to that time, it was a common sight in Georgetown to see gangs of workers, armed with cutlass and shovel, cleaning parapets and gutters and weeding and desilting drains. They would start at 6:30 a.m. and work for 8 hours, sometimes in a line beside a roadway. After independence, Carter says that approach was substantially reduced, probably for economic reasons, and attention to the maintenance of the drains and kokers began to wane. With drainage conditions gradually worsening in the city over the years, by 1994, Cheddi Jagan, then President of Guyana, formed an Interim Management Committee (IMC) to tackle the issue. As advisors to that body, Dr. Jagan recruited Bert Carter, Beni Sankar, Andy Moore and Tony Xavier, among others, in a group he described as “Nineteen Citizens of Worth”. Unfortunately, following the 1994 Local Government elections, the remedial suggestions of the “Nineteen” fell by the wayside
Considering the current degraded condition of the city, Bert Carter acknowledges the striking increase in litter that contributes to the flooding of town we see today, but he emphasizes the fundamental condition of blocked drains and outfalls. He says the basic problem, not understood enough by the layman, is the extensive network of drains that make up the heart of the water dispersal system. He says: “Le Repentir, for example, is actually the largest ward – 140 acres. We don’t see it, because there is so much undergrowth, but in Le Repentir alone we have 47,810 feet of earthen drains, and being earthen they’re more difficult to maintain. And that’s just one example. Some wards have concrete drains, but every ward has the same flow problem; some drains flow straight one way but when it turns there’s a block; many drains are fully silted up or blocked, and it’s a common sight to see completely stagnant water in some parts of town. We’ve closed up alleyways that help drainage, and in some cases we’ve allowed drains to be concretized.”
Facing the hypothetical question of fixing the blockages, Bert says that, given the economic constraints, we should start with the wards closest to the Demerara River and work our way east. “Begin with the drains from the Bank of Guyana, go west under the roundabout at Muneshwer’s, under Water Street, and out to the river. That’s the area that floods most readily, and we should fix that first. We do it one ward at a time. It’s not very difficult; it just requires the political will.”
As to the funding of the work, the former civil servant, familiar with the ways of government, says, “The money will come. I heard that question about the Demerara Bridge. I heard the same comment about the airport road in the ‘70s. Where did the money come from for those things? That’s not the barrier; the barrier is we don’t have the political will.”