As is typical at this time of the year, we are in the middle of one of the rainy seasons experienced in this country. It was in the year 2005 that the December-January rainy season really made its presence felt. No one who was alive then can ever forget that event, now dubbed the ‘Great Flood’. It is a story many will tell to their grandchildren, that is unless the extreme incompetence we are forced to live with in this country causes a flood that eclipses that one. Look around you; it is truly not impossible, as scary as that thought is.
On December 23, 2016, the heavens opened and rain poured by the colloquial bucketful. At the same time, according to those in authority, there was a high tide. Despite all that has gone on before and in spite of the advanced technology available to us there was no warning from the Hydrometerological Office that we should expect inundation both from the sky and the sea. Everyone, therefore, was taken by surprise. All who had done their Christmas cleaning, laid down their carpets, rugs and linoleum—it was two days before Christmas after all—had to redo it all the next day or on the big day itself, depending on where in the city or along the coast they live and how quickly the water drained off.
Surprise number two was that in Georgetown as well as many areas along the coast, the water did not recede as much or as quickly as expected, in spite of the much-touted, millions-spent-on clean up. The reason for this was that there were pumps and sluices that were not in working order. Incompetence to the nth degree.
Coastal Guyana, as we have all learned since primary school, is below sea level. This means that when there is excessive rainfall, flooding can be expected. But we were never meant to wallow in it. No. All along the coast, inherited from our European colonisers, is a system of interconnected canals and sluices that, if used in the manner expected, would drain the water off the land more effectively than is the case at present.
It would be obvious, one would think, that those in authority would ensure that these structures are maintained, modernized and rebuilt when necessary. But it is not obvious; far from it. Instead, what we have seen over the years is the folly of successive governments that have allowed canals and drains to be filled in, squatting on the banks of drainage canals, sluices to fall into disrepair and become abandoned, and pumps to lie inactive for want of spare parts and repairs.
The result is that almost everyone suffers. Farmers lose millions of dollars in crops and livestock, people fall ill from the stagnant dirty water and our poorest, who still live in bottom-flat rentals, become poorer still.
The refrain was the same this year. In the city, sluices could not be opened on the morning of December 23, 2016 on account of the high tide. But that was not all. Two pumps were inoperable. According to the City Engineer, the Kingston pump failed on the day itself after a piece of wood became caught in it. However, the one at Riverview had been “down for a little while,” City Engineer Colvern Venture shamelessly told this newspaper. He claimed that it had been clogged by garbage and several parts had been damaged. In the height of the pouring rain that Friday morning too, an excavator mounted on a pontoon was attempting to desilt the Cowan Street, Kingston canal and “emergency” works were ongoing in Albouystown and East and West Ruimveldt.
Along the East Berbice, officials claimed that all pumps and sluices were in working order. However, a villager at Canefield, Canje pointed to a section of a dam, which had been broken down about two weeks earlier to facilitate some other work being done. It was not replaced; water poured in through that breach and compounded with the heavy rainfall, flooded the community.
On the Essequibo Coast, there was a comedy of errors. A sluice at Andrews had been down for two weeks, main drainage canals were not cleared and desilted, a sluice door at Better Success was faulty and had not been fixed, and fuel designated for the pumps was allegedly being stolen. The result was that there was heavy flooding.
And as recently as June last year, there was a similar situation in Region Five, where heavy rainfall caused massive flooding because the pumps which had been vandalized in 2013, had not been repaired.
While we are willing to concede that our low coastal plain will flood given its geographic situation, the fact is that the flooding would not be so dire, if the systems that are supposed to be in place work the way they should. But systems cannot work themselves, they have to be operated by people. The people in charge of the drainage must ensure that clearing and desilting of drains and canals are done in the dry season and that a check is made of these channels at the beginning of the rainy season to confirm that they are ready for the deluge whether it comes or not. Similarly, kokers/sluices and pumps must be maintained at a high standard and must always be in working order. Neglect of these necessary structures/assets should be considered a crime and those charged with their maintenance and operation should be held accountable when they fail at crucial periods.