Children learn in Social Studies class that Guyana is an Amerindian word which means ‘Land of Many Waters’. When one considers the country’s three long rivers: Essequibo, Berbice and Demerara; its many waterfalls, including the world-famous Kaieteur and that it shares the lengthy Corentyne River with neighbouring Suriname, this supposed etymology seems apt, even if it is not quite accurate.
Guyana also has two fairly long rainy seasons and its capital is below sea level, putting it at risk of flooding from the Atlantic Ocean, which runs along its coast.
There are also manmade conservancies, which store water for farmland irrigation and some domestic water requirements, especially in the case of the capital. However, the domestic water needs of citizens are met in many areas by way of groundwater aquifer systems. Before the conservancies were constructed, citizens used creeks and rivers where available. In the city, huge wooden vats were a construction feature at many residences, collecting rainwater to supplement what was piped into yards and dwellings.
But then there were advances. Following independence in 1966, the British entity established to operate and maintain the sewerage and waterworks of the city, Georgetown Sewerage and Water Commissioners, became the responsibility of the new government.
Not long after, the removal of city vats was enforced as more residents were availed potable water in their yards and homes. The rainwater vats were said to be mosquito meccas; they were indeed. Throughout the ʼ60s and ʼ70s, and for most of the ʼ80s, standing water anywhere in the city, even in vases in homes, was strictly monitored by the then so-called Yellow Fever Unit. Citizens who did not adhere to getting rid of stagnant water faced fines and penalties.
There was virtually no preparation for what happened next – urban migration on a large scale by people seeking jobs and a better life; everything seemed to be happening in Georgetown. The result was that things began to fall apart in all sectors and the water utility was no exception. The service could not keep up with the burgeoning population and water shortages along with poor water quality became a fact of life.
But, as the water utility is now fond of saying, water is life and because the yard vats had been taken out of the picture for such a long time, citizens began to seek alternatives. The importation of black plastic water tanks was the response to that need. These tanks are now ubiquitous. They are covered, just as the vats used to be and like them, they also attract mosquitoes. They are used to store groundwater or rainwater so that water can be pumped from them into overhead tanks in areas where the pressure is low – which where the city is concerned, is most wards ‒ and life can continue with some amount of normalcy.
Guyana is water tank land. But by no means is it the only such identified country in the world. There is the island of Sri Lanka, where, according to history books, a system of interconnected tanks, reservoirs and canals dates back more than 2,000 years. Said to have been designed by royalty back then, as part of the island is arid, the tank system fell into and remained in disrepair for some time as the island endured a long civil war; it is being revitalised by the current government. Sri Lanka has a population of some 21 million people.
Another example is Rwanda, a landlocked country in central Africa, where the people depend heavily on water tanks. Droughts are an issue as they are in other countries with similar geographical characteristics. Collecting rainwater in the rainy season is the logical thing to do. Rwanda’s civil war and its mass ethnic genocide in the 1990s is well known. Even so, Rwanda’s population is pegged at close to 12 million.
In countries with large populations and where civil war may very well have destroyed infrastructure, one could fathom why there would be potable water shortages. Guyana has never had either of these to contend with and yet, it is unable to date to have a good, working potable water or sanitation system that provides coverage of its capital or even of a particular ward. Nothing would work if citizens and businesses did not invest in tanks and electric pumps to store water for everyday use.
Everything points to lack of planning, dearth of knowledge and deficiency of funds to properly run water utilities, and this dates back to the urban explosion of the ʼ70s. Sad to say, not much learning seems to have taken place since then. Governments, past and present, seem quite comfortable with the country’s water tank land status. Perhaps one day, when everyone is not too busy anticipating the oil revenue, a study of the effects of 80-degree temperatures on these tanks of water will be done, since it is well known that plastic leaks toxins when heated. Possibly too, in the future, oil money will be used to really fix the water system. In the meantime, no one should stop breathing.