Gov’t initially ‘mishandled’ `06 flood response -US ambassador said in cable

-noted difficulty of getting accurate data on EDWC

A year after the worst flood in the country’s recent history devastated areas along the coastland, the administration botched its initial response to the returning heavy rainfall, which necessitated a massive public relations exercise and a relief spending effort.

This was former US Ambassador Roland Bullen’s assessment of the government’s response to the flooding between December 2005 and January 2006, and he suggested that the initial “underestimate” of the situation showed that lessons of the previous year had not been learned.

“What is not questionable is the GoG[Government of Guyana]’s mishandling of the flood situation. After initially dismissing the media’s coverage of the flood problem as overblown, then saying it had not been properly kept abreast of the situation, the GoG is now engaged in a high profile scramble to address the matter,” he said in the January 13, 2006 diplomatic note released by WikiLeaks.

Bullen further noted that this “inept response presented opposition parties with a golden opportunity to score political points with a disaffected Guyanese public in an election year, but the rudderless opposition failed to capitalize.”

He said that many of the affected areas were also underwater during the previous year’s devastating floods. “The absence of simple factual data about levels of rainfall and status of drainage infrastructure combined with the GoG’s incoherent approach suggests that Guyana has learned little from the past and remains at the mercy of the rains,” he declared.

Flooding attributed to seasonally high rains had been plaguing most of coastal Guyana except greater Georgetown since the end of December, Bullen explained in his report. He further cited the Stabroek News’ report on December 25 that flooding in the eastern region of Mahaicony had been occurring for a week and the follow up on January 5 about flooding in Black Bush

Polder, in the Corentyne, and later about Canals 1 and 2 polders on the West Bank of Demerara, in the backlands of the Essequibo coast and the Pomeroon River region.

He did note that these were all agricultural areas a few miles inland from the coastal strip where 90% of Guyana’s population lives.

According to Bullen, after an initially slow response, the GoG has mobilized “a highly public flood relief campaign, with virtually every cabinet minister visiting one of the affected regions.”

Bullen said the Embassy had also been receiving data from the Hydromet Office, but pointed out that the data was of limited use, since 13 of 14 rainfall gauges were on the coast and therefore did not report interior rainfall.

Later, in a follow-up cable, dated January 17, 2006, Bullen also referred to the lack of adequate information on rainfall at the conservancy. He said that after a meeting held by the government with donors, the Head of the Civil Defence Commission, Chabilall Ramsarup acknowledged that there were no rainfall gauges in the conservancy or the conservancy watersheds “so assessing how much water is draining relative to how much is falling is impossible.” Bullen also cited the difficulty of obtaining accurate information on the EDWC. He said that on January 17, 2006 at a meeting of the Guyana Citizens’ Initiative for Flood Relief, Major General (ret) Joe Singh had said that the level that day in the EDWC was 58.65 GD (an increase of one inch overnight) and that he expected the Lama sluice to be opened immediately. Bullen said that an EDWC engineer related to embassy’s consul that same day that the EDWC level was 58.4 GD compared to the 58.5 GD the day before. Further, the engineer said that the Lama sluice was not open.  “Such conflicting reports reflect the difficulty of obtaining accurate data on the status of the EDWC”, he said in the cable.

Bullen concluded that there are two major differences between the response in 2005 and that in 2006. He explained that the interventions after the 2005 floods to restore the drainage and irrigation infrastructure, while “leaving much to be desired,” worked.  “Georgetown and the populated East Coast have not so far experienced and serious or sustained flooding, although many buildings built on ground in violation of building codes have experienced intermittent water intrusion,” he said.

Additionally, he said in 2006, the GoG was much more pro-active in sharing information and consulting concerned constituencies, including the donor community and the political opposition. “This in turn provides an environment in which people are able to make better-informed decisions and a political environment in which the government and opposition can concentrate on managing the situation rather than harping at each other,” he added.