Flooding and the risk of flooding have become ingrained in the collective psyche of Guyanese in the aftermath of the 2005 Great Flood and subsequent inundations of varied magnitude and length. The anxieties have been heightened by the lack of reliable weather forecasting and the catastrophic failure of drainage infrastructure and conservancy undermining. Any administration, whether at community, regional or national level, that is delinquent or indifferent to flooding does so at its great peril.
The good news for this government and the city administration is that except for the intertidal period, Georgetown, in particular, the central business district and the wards up to Sheriff Street have seen far improved drainage after heavy rain. It would mean that the $120m which the city says it has spent to prevent flooding, along with major assistance from the Ministry of Public Infrastructure (MPI) has improved the state of drainage canals to the extent that accumulation is rapidly disposed of via kokers when the tide is out and by the various pumps.
The bad news for the government is that judged on Thursday’s heavy rain, the parts of the city east of Sheriff Street and villages farther up the East Coast did not drain and were left to wallow in foetid water.
A poignant representation of the plight of the villagers on the East Coast was captured on the front page of Saturday’s edition of Stabroek News. This photo showed two pupils of the Vryheid’s Lust Primary School carefully wheeling a bicycle across what looked like a Cassandra Crossing into the school building as deep water menaced from below. This is not how children should be entering school.
From Thursday afternoon, floodwater began rising inexorably until there was a virtual deluge in some villages and communities along the East Coast. No one in authority seemed to know or care; not the Neighbourhood Democratic Councils that were elected in a blaze of optimism in 2016, not the Regional Democratic Council, not the Ministry of Public Infrastructure (MPI), not the Ministry of Communities, not the Ministry of Agriculture, not the National Drainage and Irrigation Authority (NDIA) and not the Civil Defence Commission (CDC).
Residents were left to watch in horror as unexpectedly the water rose on Friday even though there was blazing sunshine and no rain. Yards and ground floors were blanketed in water, livestock killed or put at risk. Something had obviously gone wrong with the drainage network. Either key pumps had fallen out of operation or impounded water was gushing into the flooded area. By Saturday, the situation had not changed. To the contrary it had worsened and the rain began to fall again. The anxiety and anguish of householders deepened. Social media was awash with complaints of the unresponsiveness of the authorities to the flood plight. The first sign of some action came around 10.30 am on Saturday – around two days after the floods began- when it was announced by the Department of Public Information that Ministers Patterson and Holder would visit Buxton and possibly other villages to evaluate the flooding.
The response of the Granger administration to the flooding on the East Coast was woefully lethargic. It appeared to have been lulled into a false sense of security by the draining of the western section of the city. That was clearly a poor apprehending of the multifarious nature of the flood challenges facing the city and the East Coast. What is absolutely unacceptable is that with all the resources at their disposal, the myriad platforms for instant communication and their awareness of the threatening weather systems and high tides that MPI and the Ministry of Agriculture’s NDIA were unable to respond immediately to the flooding and to begin to diagnose the problem.
Based on Saturday’s visit to Buxton and other areas by the NDIA team and the ministers, it was confirmed that a pump at Ogle was not working and one would therefore be rerouted there from Strathspey. This Ogle pump that was not working appeared to be a vital cog in the draining of the flooded East Coast villages. Had the NDIA been on the ground on a daily basis checking infrastructure, as it should during a period of high flood risk, it would have or should have detected much earlier that there was a major problem at Ogle. It is this lack of awareness of matters on the ground that continues to cost residents enormously in terms of lost productivity and damage to property. MPI and the Ministry of Agriculture need to get their act together in this respect particularly in the wake of the upheaval at GuySuCo and the possibility that its pivotal pumps and drainage infrastructure may not operate optimally.
Last week’s flooding on the coast was preceded by inundation in regions seven and eight fuelled by rain-swollen rivers that overtopped their banks. The general feedback was that the authorities were again slow off the work and residents in these remote areas had to rely on help from NGOs in the initial stages. The politicians who now comprise this government have had ample awareness of the flooding challenges besetting the country. The lack of deftness witnessed last week demands greater effort in detecting and responding rapidly and with more robust involvement of the CDC.