$54M Wakenaam airstrip not in use… two years on

More than two years after the completion of the $54.4 million Wakenaam airstrip built by the government, residents of the island say it has only been used once for reasons unrelated to its primary purpose, bolstering arguments that it was never necessary.

Zulficar Mohamed, Director General of the Guyana Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) yesterday told Stabroek News that the airstrip was licensed just a few weeks ago, although he was unable at the time to specify the exact date. This assertion however, is at odds with statements made earlier this year by Region 3 Chairman Julius Faerber.

What the airstrip looked like in January 2011 (SN file photo)
What the airstrip looked like in January 2011 (SN file photo)

Faerber, in 2011 had told Stabroek News that the airstrip was completed. It was initially slated for completion in April of 2010 but several hurdles made meeting this deadline impossible.

Additionally, earlier this year he had said that planes, on occasion, were taking off from, and landing in the airstrip. These assertions however, do not match statements made by residents who told Stabroek News that they were only aware of the airstrip’s use on two occasions.

A trip to the Essequibo Island by Stabroek News last Thursday revealed that the airstrip remained unpaved, while a significant portion was overrun by weeds. Asked how such an airstrip could qualify for licensing, Mohamed said that some airstrips, depending on their type and purpose do not requiring paving.

Nevertheless, he said that he was unaware of the present condition of the airstrip, and added that its condition was the responsibility of the Works Ministry. Attempts to contact Works Minister Robeson Benn  were futile.

In addition to the grass which encroached on the airstrip itself, there was also a considerable amount of brush on its shoulders. Two “agricultural workers” were at the time spraying the growth with a poisonous substance. Stabroek News was made to understand that the men were attempting to clear the vegetation on and around the airstrip ahead of a visit by Benn. The Minister is reportedly scheduled to visit the airstrip on June 16th.

During the trip, residents of Maria’s Pleasure told Stabroek News that they were only ware of two instances where planes landed on the airstrip.

One resident, who asked not to be named, said that businessman, Captain Gerry Gouveia piloted the first plane ever to touch down on the airstrip. Gouveia, who reportedly arrived with a team of officials from GCAA “engaged residents of the area and informed them that the purpose of his trip was to determine what more needed to be done to the airstrip before it could be licensed by the GCAA.

The team reportedly told residents that power wires in the vicinity of the airstrip had to be removed since they posed a hazard. They also said that a few coconut trees which were also close the airstrip were much too tall and would have to be cut. These obstacles, residents say, have since been removed.

The resident was unable to say exactly when Gouveia made the trip, but said that it was either October or November of last year. Efforts to reach Gouveia yesterday were unsuccessful.

Spraying growth parallel to the airstrip on Thursday (Photo by Arian Brown)
Spraying growth parallel to the airstrip on Thursday (Photo by Arian Brown)

The removal of the coconut trees and electrical wires was likely the determining factor which led to the airstrip’s certification although this could not be verified. Nevertheless, residents say that since the contractor charged with constructing the airstrip left the island in 2011 no further works have been carried out.

Residents further stated that  a plane which was on its way to Suriname made an emergency landing on the airstrip earlier this year after it experienced difficulties.

The plane’s pilot was said to have had initial ambitions of putting the plane down at the Ogle International Airport after it started experiencing difficulties but decided to land it on Wakenaam after he noticed the airstrip.

For unknown reasons however, the aircraft has remained in the yard of a resident of the island.

The Wakenaam airstrip has been at the centre of debate since the government revealed plans to construct it. Bids were opened for the airstrip’s construction in December of 2009 while work commenced in January 2010 and was expected to be completed by the end of April the very year. By the deadline however, work on the airstrip was still in the initial phase. Bad weather three months later was cited by Faerber as the main reason the airstrip still had not been completed.

In July of 2011 the airstrip was still incomplete. Chairman of the Wakenaam Democratic Council, Zakir Khan had told Stabroek News though, that based on the schedule of the work the airfield was completed. He added however that the authorities were still looking to pave the runway but did not know when this would happen.

Grass on the Wakenaam airstrip on Thursday (Photo by Arian Browne)
Grass on the Wakenaam airstrip on Thursday (Photo by Arian Browne)

Many residents, including Ganesh Mahipaul, who moved to the island in 2011, stated that instead of an airstrip the government should have invested the $54.4 million in the construction of better roads and the upgrading of the Wakenaam Cottage Hospital in Kunjbeharry. Residents on Thursday shared that while the medical team at the hospital was sufficient the facility lacked much of the necessary equipment needed to tend to serious injuries or illnesses.

Residents say that on several occasions the families of persons who got ill or were injured were forced to hire boats to take them to Parika since the local hospital lacked the capacity to tend to their conditions. The cost for hiring a boat, especially at nights, is very high and has to be borne by the family of the person seeking medical attention.

The government however, had stated that a key reason for the airstrip’s construction was so that persons could be airlifted from the island to the capital city where they could receive better medical attention. Mahipaul though, maintained that if the hospital was properly outfitted with the necessary equipment there would be no need to airlift patients to the city.

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