Sending engineers to the US to study Gulf Coast defences is a waste of public funds

Dear Editor,

It has been reported that four engineers from the Ministry of Public Works (MPW) are being sent by Minister Benn to the United States of America for a technical working visit to understand processes and hydro-dynamics as well as to get some cross fertilization ideas with respect to sea and river defence construction now being undertaken along the Gulf Coast by the US Army Corps of Engineers with the help of Dutch consultants.

The sea and river defence structures under construction along the Mississippi River Delta and Louisiana Gulf Coast were designed and being constructed for hurricane conditions. Therefore the design complexity and construction costs for the various components of this project – pumps, levees, revetments, etc, cannot be duplicated or modified for conditions along Guyana’s coastland, primarily because of the high cost and design parameters required for specified hydraulic conditions and structural forces anticipated for that environment. It’s like Minister Benn sending his bridge engineers to the US to check out the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the George Washington in New York for ideas to construct a bridge across the Demerara River. Guyana should only design and build structures suitable for its environment and whose costs are within its financial capacity.

It is therefore puzzling as to why Minister Benn is wasting scarce public funds to send MPW engineers on a wild goose chase to the US to get ideas from a project which is too sophisticated and costly for Guyana, unless he is rewarding them with rest and recreation for the long hours’ work they have been putting in on the sea defences. It was not so long ago that Minister of Agriculture Ramsammy sent a team to India to check out pumps bought from that country some of which are yet to be installed. It is evident that Guyana’s benefit from this team’s technical working visit to India has been a wash-out. Unfortunately, Guyana is too poor to afford these extravagances and it is time President Ramotar put a check on the wasteful spending of public funds by his ministers for dubious purposes. If there are gaps in the knowledge and skills of government employees to enable them to effectively carryout their duties, then training should be provided in-house or wherever it is available. Alternatively, experts could be employed to provide the necessary needed skills, but haphazard whirlwind overseas visits for selected employees under the pretext of acquiring lacking skills is not the way to go.

In the past Guyana has received substantial funding from the European Union (EU) to reconstruct its river and sea defences as well as other projects. This is unlikely to continue as EU assistance funds worldwide are drying up fast because of the economic and financial problems being experienced by its members, who have subtly indicated that they are unwilling to dole out freebies when many of their own people are out of work and finding it difficult to make a decent living. Their economies are not growing sufficiently to generate surpluses to provide overseas assistance, and therefore Minister Benn should stop dreaming about substantial EU help in the future and start getting Guyanese weaned off the generosity of others to support their country’s development needs.

Minister Benn has declared that the status of Guyana’s sea and river defences has dramatically improved as there have been no significant breaches and overtopping, or loss of national territory in recent times. However, during the past year or so overtopping and breaches have been occurring in Leguan, Wakenaam and the Essequibo Coast, while overtopping from Kitty to Liliendaal in Georgetown has caused untold damage the losses from which is unrecoverable, and which is why the MPW has raised the coping of the sea wall in these areas.

The replanting of mangroves as a means of arresting erosion along Guyana’s Atlantic foreshore now or in the immediate future is nothing but a pipe dream. Climate change with resulting sea level rise poses serious problems for MPW to protect the coastland from breaches and severe flooding, and mangrove trees planted on the foreshore is not the answer as was evident at those locations with mangroves where severe erosion took place and breaches occurred. The MPW should keep track of those vulnerable areas through constant monitoring and take appropriate breach preventative action by constructing well designed sea defences before the erosion cycle hits the area. Existing designs should be updated to enable the sea defences to resist the larger forces generated by higher tides and waves of greater amplitude, and ensure stronger, stable soil embankments. The larger predicted hydro-dynamic forces on the sea defence structures could be easily computed by MPW hydraulic engineers without the need for them to go the US to acquire the knowledge to do so. After all this is not rocket science.

Finally, Minister Benn must have in place and start executing a strategic plan to upgrade and repair the existing sea and river defences which are falling apart for want of due care and attention. The plan must also include new works necessary to protect vulnerable areas. Coastal residents should be aware that crisis management and neglect of the country’s sea and river defences will only result in serious consequences to their lives and properties if Minister Benn continues his dilly-dallying course of action.

Yours faithfully,

Charles Sohan  

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