Managing flood risk

Important questions have been raised during the budget debate in Parliament and in the Committee of Supply about major public works and whether they have been well thought out and maintained. The basis for these questions is solid. There have been numerous instances where the government has flubbed straightforward decisions. Questions were recently asked about the Demerara Harbour Bridge and while it can be said that the government has done a far better job at maintaining this key artery than was the case pre-1992, a crucial juncture has been arrived at in relation to its future and care must be taken to avoid costly and irreversible missteps.

On another front, one hopes that the Ministry of Agriculture will be able to provide in painstaking detail how the acquisition of 14 pumps from India at the cost of $800M was handled. The arrangements have been haphazard at best and there is still no comprehensive picture about the mobile and fixed pumps.

This, however, pales into comparison with the infrastructure which left large parts of the East Coast at its mercy in the 2005 Great Flood – the fragile East Demerara Water Conservancy (EDWC).

The World Bank-funded Conservancy Adaptation Project devised in the aftermath of the flood recently spawned a report entitled `Managing Flood Risk in Guyana’ which has said that around US$123M will have to be spent to shore up defences against devastating flooding. The major part of this expenditure would be on the EDWC. Considering the severe blow to the economy in 2005 from the flood, one would have surmised that the government would upfront this on its list of priorities once it was convinced that the expenditure was merited. This year’s budget made no mention of a comprehensive evaluation of the proposed expenditure in the report. However, on the day the report was unveiled to the public, a government official let it be known that there was only US$11M available for the project. It must be a case of misplaced priorities if the government can find even larger amounts to sink into dubious projects like the Marriott Hotel and the Amaila Falls hydropower project road which can hardly be considered priorities for state expenditure when compared to mitigating flood risk. Before the end of the consideration of the estimates, the government should provide a detailed explanation of what it is doing in relation to the fragile dam of the EDWC and the recommendations in the report.

There is still much to learn about the events of the 2005 Great Flood so that it can be chronicled definitively as part of the flooding and hydrological history of the area. However bits and pieces of information still come to the fore. At the event, the Chief Executive Officer of the National Drainage and Irrigation Authority, Mr Lionel Wordsworth told the gathering that in 2005, 10% of the length of the conservancy behind Non Pariel was overtopped, leading to widespread flooding. Severe overtopping of the conservancy had long been blamed for the flooding though the Jagdeo administration was more intent at the time on blaming the weather rather than focusing on whether the overwhelming of the drainage infrastructure could have been avoided.

Coming from the NDIA CEO at this forum, though it had been mentioned before, the 10% figure highlights two problems for the administration. Between 1992 and 2005, the PPP/C governments paid little attention to the EDWC. As the water rose rapidly in the conservancy in the early part of 2005, those charged with flood relief determined too late that drastic measures needed to be taken to relieve overtopping and the pressure on the dam. The end result was the weeks of deep flooding on the East Coast and in the Mahaica and Mahaicony creeks. It was only post-2005 that the EDWC was recognized as a grave flood risk because of its reduced holding capacity. Indeed, the report said that since 2005, the government has carried out a series of improvements which based on the modelling results has expanded the outflow capacity of the EDWC by 25% during 50 and 100-year flood scenarios. Had serious maintenance work been done earlier to improve its holding capacity by desilting, improving the efficiency of its drainage to the west by clearing internal channels and reactivating crucial infrastructure such as the Cunha Canal, the 2005 flood might not have been of epic proportions. It is a lesson that the government must take seriously.

The other problem dredged up by the report is the still fragile state of the EDWC which could lead to further undermining if there is significant pressure on the dam. Again, between 1992 and 2005, government expenditure would have been insufficient to begin the expensive process of recovering the integrity of the dam. So, it was only after 2005 that pleas were made to various multilateral institutions for help and at a time when donors would have perceived that the government had been delinquent in looking after this important infrastructure. So, to hear that the government can only commit US$11M when there is so much unnecessary expenditure is startling. The Ramotar administration needs to get its priorities in order.

The March report had a modicum of good news for the government in that it said that the $3.6B Hope Canal project will be able to alleviate catastrophic flooding on the coast. It must be noted that this project took close to 10 years to materialize and it will be sometime before it begins functioning despite earlier promises. The same way in which the EDWC and other critical infrastructure was neglected for many years can also be the fate awaiting the Hope Canal. Its holding capacity and drainage efficiency can be similarly constricted as was the case with the EDWC. Costly infrastructure such as this must be attended by failsafe maintenance and constant upgrading to achieve its objectives.

Both the Hope Canal and the EDWC now hold the key to securing large areas of the coast from flooding. However things can go awfully wrong as they did in 2005. The two sides in Parliament have a golden opportunity to ensure that mechanisms are put in place to keep them functioning optimally.