As stated in the February 5, 2012 Sunday Stabroek editorial, after two decades in office inclusive of a major disaster seven years ago, the PPP/C government has run out of excuses where it relates to viable solutions and a comprehensive plan to confront flooding. If there is a single issue which has reflected the full range of the PPP/C’s incompetence, lack of imagination and drift while presiding over the most serious and grievous losses to large segments of the populace year after year it is flooding. If there is a single performance-based issue that the government should have lost office over it is flooding. There is no doubt about that.
Any minister responsible for drainage who has to deliberately flood the Mahaica creek annually because of the dangerous East Demerara Water Conservancy could not seriously hope to retain his position without coming up with an urgent solution. The government, however, appears unmoved by the plight of the hardy residents of the Mahaica and Mahaicony areas. Perhaps the disinterest is a factor of the belief that the people of these areas will inflict no punishment on the ruling party at elections so there is no premium on urgent action. Given the repeated flooding of Mahaica by the government, affected residents should be compensated for the loss of crops and livestock and given the option of being relocated to another part of the country.
The culpability of the government is reflected on two planes. The first is simple. After the 2005 Great Flood the government was fully aware that it needed a game changer to insulate the areas vulnerable to the swollen EDWC. It has had a full 7 years – almost to the day – to complete the lynchpin in its plan – the Hope Canal. The questions about the engineering wisdom of this canal aside, it was for the government to show in words and deed that it recognized the grave danger posed by the EDWC to Mahaica/Mahaicony and the lower East Coast and that it was prepared to execute this project properly and rapidly. Seven years later the project is plodding on and 2014 might arrive without it being completed. Minister Robert Persaud who presided over this sector has been moved to another area without fulfilling arguably the most important commitment he and his government had made to the people. It is also worthy of note that the dredging of several rivers including the Pomeroon and the Mahaica had been on the government’s agenda after the Great Flood and had been discussed by Minister Persaud with several donors and friendly countries. Nothing came of it and residents of the Pomeroon were left to plead again this year amidst deep flooding for the dredging of the river. It should also be pointed out that while admittedly the price tags are high, the Jagdeo government made no progress on taking decisions on phases 2 and 3 of the MMA scheme and the rebuilding of the northern wall of the conservancy.
The second plane of culpability is the persistent and unanswered dilemma of the EDWC. Is the threat posed by the EDWC a function of the extent of its siltation and poor management over the last 30 years? Is it also the case that if these issues had been addressed in the ambit of a comprehensive flood control plan there may have been no need for this giant canal at Hope leading out to the Atlantic? Prior to the 2005 Great Flood, the ordinary citizen knew very little of the EDWC. There was no daily nail-biting over how close to full it was during the rainy season and GD (Georgetown Datum), the height of the water in the reservoir, which has now entered the every-day lexicon, would have been completely foreign to the majority of people. What changed in 2005 was the perfect storm of the accumulated neglect of the maintenance of the dams in the preceding years combined with persistent rain – not necessarily record-breaking – and compounded by the spring tides. As a result, the EDWC was comprehensively overtopped by its catchment resulting in the worst flooding on the lower East Coast in living memory and in Mahaica/Mahaicony/Abary after the release of water from the conservancy into the Mahaica Creek.
It may well be that had the EDWC been optimally maintained pre and post-1992, the 2005 rains might not have resulted in what came to be known as the Great Flood. This is the dilemma that has not been thoroughly investigated and pronounced on by experts and an option not proceeded with by the government. It is reckless to ignore this problem as it will remain an annual one. So even if the Hope Canal is completed and provides another outlet north to the Atlantic it will only be a matter of time before the every decreasing holding capacity of the conservancy and its clogged internal drains lead to another challenge or weakened dams give away under localized pressures. It is also possible that the requisite efficiency of the flow from the north of the dam into the Hope Canal might not be obtained and therefore not drain the EDWC quickly enough in times of emergency.
Given all that has been revealed about the EDWC in the last seven years several things are clear. There is heavy siltation which has significantly reduced its holding capacity, key sections of the northern dam are weak and can give way, cycles of intense climate changes have led to slippages and lowering of the dams, its internal channels have not always been properly cleared to lead to efficient flows west to the Demerara as evidenced by the vastly different GDs to the east and west of the conservancy and its western outlets to the Demerara at Kofi, Cunha and the five-door sluice are operating below capacity.
Taking account of all of this it would mean that neglect of the conservancy and its attendant infrastructure over the last several decades has resulted not only in severe losses to the public from flooding but also massive band-aid expenditure on the EDWC without solving key engineering and hydraulic challenges and leading to further exorbitant spending on infrastructure like the Hope Canal and downstream maintenance.
The PPP/C government has not grappled dedicatedly with this conundrum but it must be investigated in the interest of the country and its people particularly in view of the heated rhetoric that issues from the government on climate change. The opposition now has a golden opportunity to place this problematic prominently on the agenda of the extra-parliamentary tripartite talks and the Economic Services Committee of Parliament. Perhaps given the gravity and frequency of the flooding problem and the immense damage done to the country in recent years there should be a parliamentary standing committee on climate change and flooding. It would be an overt way of placing this matter at the heart of the parliamentary agenda.
For those in the government who may deny that there is gross neglect of important drainage infrastructure by those in charge there is a perfect riposte in this season’s flooding. Officials of the NDIA and farmers of Canal, West Bank Demerara at a recent meeting agreed that the main drainage canals had not been cleared as they should have been and that unused infrastructure will now be opened up. They further agreed that the main canals should be cleaned at least six times a year if not more. What sort of system prevailed since 1992 if such a fundamental matter is only being hammered out in 2012? Who forgot to do regular cleaning of Canal No.1 and No.2 and what does this reflect in terms of the seriousness of drainage maintenance? Then there is the plight of Yakusari, Black Bush Polder, Corentyne. Residents twice took to protesting after it was determined that an outlet to the Corentyne River was so heavily silted up that there could be no immediate relief from flooding. How could that be? Two agriculturally important areas with bungled drainage infrastructure in the midst of heavy rains; can it really be so?
Clearly, the lessons of the 2005 Great Flood were not taken seriously by the 2006-2011 government. The novel factor in the equation this time is the opposition control of Parliament. What impact will it have on the flood woes of the country and its suffering people?