Around this time three years ago, the floodwater from the January rains had begun to swamp all in its wake and citizens began to learn much more about the East Demerara Water Conservancy (EDWC) and terms like the full supply level and Georgetown Datum.

When the Great Flood finally eased three months later on the lower East Coast and in the Mahaica and Mahaicony creeks, it was evident to all that the EDWC was a clear and present danger that required urgent attention. Prior to 2005 the EDWC was never often in the consciousness of citizens except for the highly-publicised botched works that were done on it some years before. That nonchalance about this dangerous conservancy that sandwiches major parts of the coast against the Atlantic came to a screeching halt in 2005 or did it?

It had been the hope of many who had been forced from their homes and suffered damage to it, lost their livestock and crops and endured emotional and psychological turmoil beyond comprehension that they would be spared reruns of 2005. Unfortunately there was more of it a year later and again last month and this month.

The only good news now is that the government – in the face of the immense suffering of the hardy villagers of the creeks and the East Coast – has finally committed to building a relief channel from the conservancy to the Atlantic Ocean.  Unfortunately, this channel at Hope will not be ready until 2010 and because this is Guyana there is a high probability that it could be further delayed as a result of the weather, availability of experts and the oftentimes exasperating sloth in construction. Three years have been lost in getting this project off the ground and the loss as a result is incalculable. However it is better late than never.

President Jagdeo who announced the formal approval of the channel during a visit to the creeks put its value at $3B or around US$15M. Hopefully this money will be easily found though it must be noted that four times this figure was recklessly expended on the world cup in 2007 when the flood safety of thousands of Guyanese needed to be put first. Another extravagant amount was spent on Carifesta last year and there continue to be injudicious decisions on where scarce financing – particularly in the midst of the bewildering global financial crisis and poor terms of trade – is to be deployed.

While this relief canal is of urgent importance it must be fully transparent and a robust effort made to ensure that the engineering decisions are sound. Tenders have already been sought for consultancy services and we implore the government to make certain that experts with local knowledge and groups like the Guyana Citizens’ Initiative are invited to participate in these discussions and given access to all of the requisite information. There must be no blunders or opacity in this very important project.

It is also worthy of note that members of the public have raised pertinent questions about how the US$15M figure has been arrived at, how the location for the canal was chosen and whether the administration is so organized that the channel will be properly managed and will discharge to its full capacity. The latter question derives from ongoing concern that the EDWC has unnecessarily deteriorated in many ways: weakened and uneven dams, diminished holding capacity because of siltation and weeds and that its internal drainage channels and the outlets are not as efficient as they should be. If this is the case wouldn’t it pose some risk to the proper management of the US$15M channel?

As an aside on transparency, the government recently announced the emergency purchase of a pump to help relieve flooding on East Coast. This pell-mell rush during emergencies is never recommended and must be justified. The government must clarify what tendering was done, where the pump was sourced, whether it had transacted business with this entity before and whether the National Procurement and Tender Administration Board had been involved in this matter at all.

The other area of major concern of the people who have been marooned in floods since December is the readiness of the Civil Defence Commission (CDC). In 2005, it had been reported that when the President called the CDC he got no answer and so he immediately marshalled the relief operation himself out of State House. This year, the CDC didn’t seem much better equipped for the challenge. A warehouse had been built by the US and there appeared to be access to some more resources. However, the CDC was clearly not doing what the citizens expected it to do.  One would have thought  that the CDC would have had any number of boats going up and down the creeks and providing food, water and medical supplies to those who desperately needed it and ferrying the sick and vulnerable to safety. At Dochfour, reporters were frequently told by residents that their food supplies were dwindling and they were unsure where their next meal would come from. One family resorted to harvesting floating dry coconuts to make `shine’ rice.

On Friday, Cabinet Secretary Dr Luncheon indicated that the CDC would shift into a higher gear, soldiers would be mobilized and the shelters used the last time – mostly schools – would be prepared. Better late than never but there must be a thorough review of how the CDC is to be outfitted and mobilized to take on flooding and other disasters and there must be stockpiles of food, water and sanitary supplies particularly since flooding has become a regular phenomenon here. Too much time has already been lost.

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