Guyana’s unique geographical location on the North Atlantic coast of the South American continent has many benefits including being accessible to water transportation such as cargo, luxury and other vessels. However, our land of many waters is also six feet below sea level on the coastal plane, and this present a significant challenge for coastal management – the defence against flooding and soil erosion, and strategies to reclaim land lost by flooding and erosion.
Despite this high propensity for flooding and erosion, Guyana has never developed much of an internal capacity for systematic, scientific coastal management systems. Significant and most visible sea defence systems, such as the Georgetown and East Coast Demerara sea wall, have been built well over 100 years ago, and post-independence Guyana has not attempted any such grand structures to date. Sea defence work has been more of an ad hoc operation over the years, in the main, responding to rather than anticipating and preventing flooding and erosion.
In February 2018, Chief Sea and River Defence Officer in the Ministry of Public Infrastructure (MoPI), Mr Kevin Samad, in noting the rapid degradation and erosion of Guyana’s coastline over just a few years, had opined that, “In the sea and river defence sector, over the years, our major challenge has been a steady supply of rocks.” This is because Guyana’s chief strategy for fighting flooding and erosion over the years appears to be the laying of riprap – loose stone formations – as a breakwater to reduce the destructive force of waves coming ashore. With the reactionary posture that has been our approach to sea defence, weakness in our most effective measure, that of laying riprap, exposes the fact that we are losing the battle against the sea.
It is no surprise, therefore, that flooding and erosion continue to be among the major challenges that citizens of Guyana face, particularly, but not limited to, the majority of the population living on the coastal plain. A poorly maintained, deteriorating and disappearing drainage network of canals, sluices and trenches add to the fallout as the destructive power of unmanaged water is displayed. Roadways and streets are undermined, slipping into adjacent trenches whose walls have not been fortified with wood or concrete to prevent the erosion. When full scale flooding occurs, the situation is exacerbated, but because of the overall slow pace of this inexorable march of destruction, its effects are largely unmeasured and generally ignored.
It is against this backdrop that the Ministry of Public Infrastructure has recently made an announcement of the set-up of a 20-member Sea Defence Board consisting of several engineers and other specialists among other stakeholder representative bodies. This new Board, chaired by engineer John Cush, has committed itself to employing scientific approaches to coastal zone management. While this is laudable, it does immediately raise the question as to the current technical capabilities of the MoPI to measure, predict, prevent, and mitigate the effects of rising sea levels, particularly in the context of global warming.
The new Board and the MoPI does have a lot of catching up to do with respect to the already degraded areas including, Zeelandia, Belle Plaine and Leguan in Essequibo, Canefield and Crabwood Creek in Berbice and areas on the West and East Bank Demerara, which the MoPI marked for upgrades in 2018. However, an effective Coastal Management System must be forward looking and must be able to measure and predict which areas are in danger of degradation and flooding in the years to come so as to mitigate these effects and prevent serious damage. A “scientific” approach would also want to consider an appropriate mix of other “hard” and “soft” engineering options to coastal management outside of the popular methods used here, such as riprap, revetments, and mangrove preservation and planting.
With Guyana’s many rivers and waterways, the problem of flooding and erosion has moved inland and threatens even our interior locations. Farming and other economic enterprises suffer annually from poorly managed riverain defences and drainage systems across the country which lead to widespread flooding and land deterioration. The farmers in the Mahaica region are more than a little familiar with rampant and repeated flooding which leads to the destruction of crops each rainy season. In the land of many waters we have not at all mastered this force of nature to our benefit, even in the most basic way of managing our kokers and outfalls.
If the MoPI and the new Sea Defence Board are to achieve success over the next few months and years, they have to start by putting a dollar value on the destruction from flooding and erosion that occurs each year. This means that the capability to accurately collect, measure, and compile data into information must be a core competency acquired. Once it becomes clear the value of losses that Guyana is incurring as a consequence of a very lax sea and river defence posture, then there might be a more focused effort to acquire funding for all the necessary works languishing undone, including upgrading the technical resources and skills available.
As a country, we have not made good use of the blessing of the sea and rivers at our disposal. We do not have a deep water harbour and we do not have hydropower electricity generation in spite of this blessing. Rather, we have made the blessing into a curse by not having good coastal and river management systems, and not maintaining internal drainage networks. The new Board has its job cut out for it, if it is to produce visible improvements in the short term.