It’s not nature’s topography; the complex pattern of waterways draining our coastland wasn’t always there. Guyanese built it. The Dutch and the British laid it out, but our ancestors did the back-breaking work that created this astonishing network of canals and trenches and four-foots and drains and dams and conservancies that makes it possible for us to live and work and play in an area generally 6 feet below sea level.
Ours is probably one of the most elaborate networks of drainage waterways in the world, and you can be born and raised in the midst of it, as I was, and be largely unaware of it, as I was. In the 1950s, as a young man in Guyana working with British Guiana Airways, I was familiar with the interior, as far south as Aishalton, but it was only in recent years, flying over our coastal span in planes based at Ogle, that I began to understand, for the first time, the scale of this astonishing network we had created in Guyana to channel water on the land and to move the excess from the coastland into the sea. Of course, I knew we had trenches and four-foot drains on the West Coast, but that was a close-up village view; I had no long-range awareness of the network that was actually around me and behind me and beyond me. It is a phenomenal and often not recognized aspect of Guyana.
Until we get in a plane and look down on it from 5,000 feet flying parallel to the coast, we have no idea of the complexity and precision of this network we’re living with on the ground.
The precision of it, in dead straight lines, is striking. In his book From Plantocracy to Nationalisation, Mohammed Shahabuddeen refers to the writer Anthony Trollope’s remark that the divisions had about them “a Euclidean appearance.” Commenting in 1983, Shahabuddeen says: “Trollope did not have the facility, which we have today, of verifying the startling accuracy of his observation from aerial overview. Geometrical symmetry was a fetish with the Dutch. The legacy can still be seen.”
Geometric is truly how it appears – these hundreds of rectangles, of sugar estate, of farmland, of village and town, all delineated clearly by the waterways, most of them linked together, and with most ultimately designed principally to move water to the sea or to manage it for eventual use. It is an incredibly vast network. I’ve tried several sources, and looked in the places I could think to look, but I wasn’t able to find out how vast. One clue we do have, coming from the Venn Sugar Commission Report of 1949, is that each square mile of sugar cane land required 49 miles of drainage canals and ditches, and 16 miles of the shallower sidelines.
The Venn Report projects a network, in 1949, of nearly 5,000 miles of drains for sugar-cane land without taking into account the multiplicity of feeder trenches needed in adjacent residential areas.
Today, as the threat of coastal flooding from the rising sea becomes a rising concern, our drainage network is facing significant burdens compared to 1949 when the Venn Report came out.
There is the reduced permeability of land generally due to the vastly increased use of concrete and asphalt around homes and businesses. There is the increased number of people living and working here, and of industry, generating more waste water. There is the critical factor of more increased rainfall overburdening a drainage system in our capital designed to handle only a fraction of the precipitation we’re now seeing more frequently.
Most critically, any drainage network is only as effective as the maintenance used to keep it clear, and while we may need a scientific study to tell us how bad it is, observation alone tells us it is very bad. You can see our drainage network clearly from the air – a picture of efficient design; what you don’t see, until you move alongside it on land, is that much of it, particularly in the vicinity of Georgetown, is clogged.
In area after area, waterways are choked with weeds or litter, some kokers are malfunctioning or blocked with silt, and drains are plugged by garbage. In some residential areas, the drains feed into each other but not to an external outlet, so that rainfall remains sitting stagnant in those narrow culverts only slowly soaking away into the soil.
In a poor country, it goes without saying that funds for maintenance may be lacking, and even though there are sporadic efforts to keep this waterway system clear the full cost must be in the billions. As a comparison, Clem Seecharan in his book, Sweetening Bitter Sugar, writes about the colony’s British Governor Lethem asking Britain for a grant of $3,100,000 to empolder lands for cultivation, and this was in 1944; imagine the equivalent in today’s dollars, even as we grapple with the absurd political gridlock in the city where the choice of an executive’s chair becomes the subject matter of the day.
Contemplating the landscape in these times, with all the development in residential communities and farmlands, each requiring yet more canals and trenches, the total mileage of our drainage systems must now number in the tens of thousands of miles. It is not often seen as the monumental achievement it is, and it is also not stressed enough that virtually all of these canals and trenches were initially dug by our ancestors by hand.
With no drag lines or excavators, relying solely on muscle and sinew, it was our “shovel men,” and probably some women, too, tumbling the mud and carving the water channels, battling sun and rain, and snakes and alligators, who did it, day after day, year after year, for thousands of miles.
We’re slow to hold up our heroes, as I’ve said before, but before much more time passes we need to erect a significant monument, in a significant location, to those pioneer ancestors for their astonishing accomplishment; it should be on the scale and the impact of a Cuffy.
What those early builders generated underpins the entire development of the Guyana economy along our coast, where most of us live and work, and the public and significant acknowledgement of those pioneer labourers is long overdue. If we ever get over our current strange reluctance to dispense national awards, they should be at the head of the list.