How much more can the nation’s poor take?

Experts agree that climate change is impacting floods, droughts, typhoons and other natural disasters and we see the devastating effects across the world, from typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines to devastation in China, Haiti, Illinois and Sardinia.

This information is not new to us here. In fact, our former President Bharrat Jagdeo champions climate change issues at the international level. Therefore, it is reasonable for us to expect that our government would focus on strengthening the capacities of our communities to protect the livelihoods of their members.

However, last week we were advised that the intensity of last Wednesday’s rainfall was “highly abnormal” and this apparently meant that a few hours of rainfall could result in significant personal and corporate losses.

FOR DE RECORD BWBut last Wednesday’s flash flood was not the Great Flood of January 2005. There was no continuous rainfall that flooded the city and reduced the coast to a reservoir of stagnant water. But the capital and parts of the coast were equally devastated. The question that inevitably arises is, how much can we take? How much can the nation’s poor take?

The disaster in 2005 exposed visible cracks in the government’s flood risk management system, and also emphasised the reduced capacity of our communities to withstand flooding. Several years later and nothing has changed, except that we face greater risks and the likelihood of more disasters, and very little action seems to have been taken by the relevant authorities to prepare for such eventualities.

President Donald Ramotar was quoted as saying that effective management of the Mayor and City Council could have lessened the impact of the flooding that was experienced. And as expected, the Mayor pointed to the longstanding issues between central government and the Council which have left the capital vulnerable. While they throw around blame regarding who is responsible for our persistent flood woes and massive losses, we continue to live in harm’s way.

As observed by the President, local government elections will resolve some of the issues, but we are not going to wake up the next day after voting in a new Council and Mayor to find solutions. That is unless, of course, the government has an action plan that addresses disaster risk reduction, proposes pre-emptive strategies, and carefully considers the way in which flooding has impacted on the people and their livelihoods.

Many citizens already experience insecure lives and livelihoods because of poverty, which means that frequent flooding only increases hardship. Consider the difficulties and health risks residents in many South Georgetown communities face every time the city is under water. Take for example, Albouystown and the fact that residents were battling flood waters in October due to a damaged koker. Then the brief period of intense rainfall last week and for a second time in less than a month, they were in flood waters again.

Indeed, indiscriminate dumping of garbage into the drains is a cause of the flooding woes in Albouystown—as is the case in many other areas—but improper waste disposal is not the major issue. This quote from a resident in the community, which was carried in a Stabroek News, report was instructive: “They don’t clean the drains so now yuh see what happen? One day of rain and this whole place flood out bad. Them children can’t even go to school nothing.”

The quote was instructive because it points to what is wrong with our response systems and with our approach to disasters in general – we run around during the flood trying to alleviate the problem and bring some relief to affected citizens and before the flood we are throwing blame and waiting on local government elections to turn things around. This is what we are up against: the authorities take the $20 dollars the state has to spend on flood mitigation and spend $2 before the disaster and the remaining $18 after.

Disaster risk reduction should be a priority area for the administration given the city’s vulnerability and the increasing threat of climate change. Do we know how much the government is currently spending on disaster risk reduction and how much of that budget is set aside for flood management?

Issues such as flood management, adaptation and mitigation ought to be part of our national conversations. In some developed countries, including the United Kingdom, the government is partnering with local flood-risk communities to raise funds for flood management and also to get people to take some responsibility for the circumstances they find themselves in at the time of risk. We could take similar steps here and involve people at the community level, particularly the communities where improper garbage disposal is a major issue.

The issue with flooding here is not only centred on economic losses, there is a psychological element. The water settles in our homes and on our minds, and when it recedes we go about picking up the pieces and try to recover until another shower comes and it starts all over again. The headlines in the press about flooding are not going away, which means that until some plan is presented on how to build a more resilient capital city, the authorities need to identify the current weaknesses and fix them–not after local government elections, but now. Beginning with the clogged drains, damaged kokers and canals that need desilting, they need to get to work.

Interestingly, the Civil Defence Commission (CDC) came out publicly to say that the recent flooding was not at alarmingly levels. Tell that to the residents affected in many of our communities whose livelihoods were destroyed. Tell that to the mother in Albouystown who is sitting around wondering how the water level was higher in her home last week than it was in 2005. Tell that to the residents in Bent Street who said water was never in their homes in 2005 but it surged in last week and reached alarming levels.

Of the majority of homeowners affected during the recent flash flood, an estimated ten percent probably has personal effects insurance. The other ninety percent have either never considered it or simply cannot afford it. We also know that insurance helps people to recover quickly, but again this idea of insuring property and personal effects is not popular in our communities, especially the disadvantaged communities. The majority of these residents also have no access to personal savings unlike the few who are likely to replace the damaged carpet this Christmas.

Perhaps the CDC could tell us if we should be alarmed that a few hours of intense rainfall could have that kind of impact on the city’s infrastructure. More important, is the CDC in a position to tell us how might flood risk change in the capital city in the next five years. Have we explored the impact of growing urbanisation, economic development and natural disasters, in this case, flooding? How do we respond to future challenges in a month’s time?

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