In whole page advertisements last week, the government has sought to defend its performance in relation to the floods that have rolled up and down the coast since the start of December. It has provided statistics to show how rainfall has been far above what it was in 2005, the year of the Great Flood. The problem for the government is that the people know that it controls the stats and therefore they will peer at them rather skeptically especially since it is in the government’s interest that the amount of rain appear to be completely off the radar. This is notwithstanding the fact that people who have lived through many seasons of high intensity rainfall routinely tell the media and others who are prepared to listen that the storms are of no greater magnitude and longevity than previously experienced. That argument would leave open the possibility that much of the flooding that is being experienced has nothing to do with the intensity of the rain but with engineering problems and ever diminishing storage capacity through concreting, improperly conceived engineering works and lack of maintenance. Of course, the only manner in which such a theory can be reasonably disapproved is to have climate and hydrological specialists go through our rain data very carefully and for drainage experts to survey the efficiency levels of the various systems.
That clearly won’t happen anytime soon but is demanded by occurrences like that at Dochfour on the East Coast. After over three weeks in knee-deep water, the flood drained away several days ago. The small community had not experienced anything like this in 2005 and given the fact that the water had just settled in the area it appeared that its plight was a combination of two things: the non-performing Hope koker and engineering works which created a basin-like area with constricted drainage. The reaction of the authorities to this embarrassment was to sack a koker attendant. What a travesty. Since when a koker attendant should be held culpable for a koker that simply wasn’t performing even when it was open at low tide? Since when a koker attendant should be held culpable for an age-old groyne that had been so degraded over time that it could not prevent the rapid silting up of the Hope koker? Dochfour is a prime example of human failure that both the Region Four Regional Democratic Council and the National Drainage and Irrigation Authority should explain in great detail to the residents there and then to the rest of the nation.
But the biggest shame of all and one that the PPP/C government should be held completely responsible for is the gut-wrenching flooding of the Mahaica Creek and the devastation to the crops, livestock and households of hundreds along it and the Mahaicony. For the third time in four years, the state has drowned the crops and livestock of these people and turned their lives upside down. The state must adequately compensate these people and immediately provide them with relief supplies and shelter if they so desire it.
Why is the government at fault? It has known since 2005 that the East Demerara Water Conservancy (EDWC) is an enormous liability that has to be seriously addressed otherwise it would only be a matter of time before the Great Flood is repeated. The EDWC’s problems are multifarious but there are key ones. Sections of its northern dam are so fragile that keeping it at the fully supply level would be a catastrophe, its holding capacity has been reduced through weeds, siltation etc and can only be restored by massive desilting, its channels to the various outlets are no longer as efficient as they were meaning that the speed of drainage has ebbed and the outlets to the Demerara need to be properly maintained.
Again, the government has presented lists of work to show that it has engaged in serious maintenance of this type. Again, Joe Public at Joe Hook can only take its word for it. However, the key test of whether the government’s remedial work in the EDWC is achieving its goal is whether it was able to avoid the dreaded release of water from the Maduni sluice into the Mahaica Creek. By that measurement it has failed disastrously. By stealth and without informing the farmers immediately, those in charge of the EDWC began releasing water into the Mahaica two Fridays ago. Infuriated farmers videoed this release on Saturday and passed on the footage on Sunday to this newspaper and CNS Channel Six and this was reported in the Sunday Stabroek. It was only on Sunday that the authorities confirmed the release from the Maduni even though it had started the day before. Reprehensible beyond belief and the type of act that causes mistrust of the authorities.
So, with full knowledge of the Great Flood and the reality, as it says, of much heavier rainfall, the government’s works in the EDWC over the past three years have been insufficient to prevent the third flooding in four years of the Mahaica creek and the near-by Mahaicony. Only an expert assessment can again determine if what the government undertook in the EDWC in terms of shoring up the dam and clearing was adequate and represented value for money. It surely had the resources at its disposal so money should not have been a factor. During the interval since the Great Flood it spent massively on the world cup cricket – maybe over US$55M – for which it is yet to provide comprehensive accounting, lent millions to private hoteliers for no good reason, doled out at least $1B on Carifesta and expended on an assortment of other projects which could not be as important as securing the creeks and the coast from flooding.
There were two irrefutable needs where expenditure on drainage would have given the government cover against any flak that it was not taking the danger of the EDWC and pumped up rainfall seriously: new drainage pumps at Liliendaal for the capital city and a new outlet from the EDWC to the Atlantic. The former is a constant hostage of low level politics starring the city and central government and the latter is often spoken about in hushed tones by government officials. Neither has started. The government however had the gumption to say the northern outlet was going to be costly and had to be carefully conceived. Well, considering the cost to the country in 2005 and the possibility of a repeat the northern outlet would have been worth every single dollar and would certainly have been covered 10 times over by the world cup expenditure as would the new pumps for the city. The government therefore has no reasonable defence on the EDWC and should be held culpable for the losses in the Mahaica and the Mahaicony this time around.
Undoubtedly the second and third phases of the MMA Scheme would be costly and might not even be the best options considering the changed parameters since phase 1 but as we have said before this government has to have its priorities right. The number one priority cannot be the 20/20 tournament in 2010 as inviting as that sounds. Since 2005 the real-economy priority has been the EDWC and the government needs to seriously grapple with this. It is well known by all that the coast cannot absorb more than 1 to 2 inches of rain in 24 hours and so the government must not feel the need to drone on about it ad nauseam. What it must confront is how it could lift its response to this fact so that Guyanese are not routinely threatened by floods in each rainy season.
In keeping with the tenor of his New Year’s address, President Jagdeo should immediately sit down with the parliamentary parties and civil society and formulate a list of absolute drainage priorities and this should be one of the major themes and projects to fund in the 2009 budget which will be due for presentation shortly. Flooding is the type of national challenge that could and should galvanise all stakeholders and we urge President Jagdeo to act now.