Scientists ponder effects of rising sea on Guyana coast

by Shirley Thomas
Guyana Chronicle
November 3, 2000

SCIENTISTS attached to the Caribbean Planning for Adaptation to Climate Change (CPACC) are trying to determine the effects a projected .2 metres rise in sea level could have on Guyana over the next 20 years.

It is, however, feared that since Guyana's coastal strip is already some 2.4 metres below sea level, any .2 metre rise in sea level could result in the stretch, including Georgetown, becoming seriously flooded, resulting in devastating consequences for the economy.

Hydrologist, Mr Kailas Narayan of the Caribbean Operational Hydrology Institute of the Caribbean Meteorological Institute (CMI) is in Guyana to collect data for an analysis being done for Georgetown, Onverwagt and Leguan.

The study is being done for the Government of Guyana by the CPACC in collaboration with the section of the CMI based in Barbados.

According to projections, the vulnerable areas include the coastal plain across the country, varying in width from about 15 Km in the North West to about 70 Km in the East (Corentyne).

The reclaim is, however, expected to be a gradual process.

Narayan said that as early as the 1970's one of Guyana's former Chief Hydrometeorological Officers, Mr John Bassier had indicated in a report that: "Georgetown may be sinking."

CPACC has indicated that investigations should be carried out to determine what would be the effects of the next century for the following scenarios -

Sea level rises for:

2020 - .2 metres

2050 - .5 metres

2100 - .9 metres

Based on these scenarios, CPACC is conducting Coastal Vulnerability and Risk Assessment studies for Barbados, Guyana and Grenada.

According to that body: "The coastal countries in the Caribbean are highly dependent on their coastal zones. Therefore, sea level rise and climate change are important threats which need to be understood and responded to appropriately."

If the projected rise should materialise, it is anticipated that of the three countries, Guyana, by virtue of being already 2.4 metres below high tide level, will be hardest hit.

According to a Sea Defence Sector Review, Guyana is vulnerable to flooding and is protected by an extensive system of dykes, drains and sluice gates.

Further, "Over the last 8 years, some 8 Km of sea defence have been rebuilt, while the other 100 Km is deteriorating, and new coastal zones exposed."

The big question being asked therefore is:

"Is Guyana losing its battle against the sea?"

According to a recent Guyana Sea Defence Review, completed by a Dutch Rijkswaterstaat Mission for Guyana, "Yes, Guyana is losing its war against the sea."

In the light of this, Narayan is holding discussions with local Hydrologists, Civil Engineers, other technical personnel and national planners to determine Guyana's future over the projected period, should an emergency arise.

Last week Wednesday, the visiting (Guyanese born) CPACC Hydrologist, in collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency held a seminar at the Institute of Applied Science and Technology, University of Guyana campus, to discuss the implications for Guyana, should the disaster occur.

The participants, locked in a grim three-hour discussion pondered the situation if, as the Dutch report points out, Guyana is losing the battle against the sea.

Factors they considered:

- The present position of being 2.4 Km. below high tide level;

- the gradually deteriorating sea defence;

- allowing for seepage of salt-water under the walls and the now commonly used "rip-rap" form of sea defence;

- the projected .02 metre rise by 2020.

Since 90 per cent of the population, 80 per cent of the populated land and the two main cities of Georgetown and New Amsterdam are located in this strip, the workshop felt it was important that a sensitisation campaign should be embarked upon sooner than later.

Under the guidance of the visiting Hydrologist, the participants who included Civil Engineers, inter-agency technicians, housing officials, environmentalists and students of the University of Guyana, examined the implications of any .2 metre rise in flood waters.

They looked critically at the effects of salt water intrusion into the fresh water rivers, and even more dramatically, the irreparable damage which would be done to our aquifers (water bearing layers below the earth's surface, retaining water, and from which water is extracted.)

It was noted that once the acquifers would have been contaminated with seeping salt water, after it would have reached re-charge, no longer would the damage be repaired. The aquifers could have been completely destroyed.

Hence, permanent problems would be reached in terms of finding supplies of potable water for the coastal areas.

They also examined:

- the possible disruption of agricultural production and the population centres;

- the effects on tourism and industry and ground water resources;

- the effects on housing - particularly in areas where more and more high rise buildings are being constructed;

- the implications for the banking sector and housing development;

- loss of land by inundation and erosion;

- infrastructure loss;

- displacement of population;

- destruction of the "Mangrove" - vital to keeping the sea off the land, and associated faunal loss;

- effects on the sewerage system;

- health hazards as a result of water-borne diseases, mosquito infestation and rodents seeking dry ground.

The workshop, in the final analysis thought that a choice must of necessity be made between:

** relocating the coastal settlements including the towns of Georgetown and New Amsterdam, deeper inland and on higher lands.

** Waging a relentless battle against the sea by pumping large sums into strengthening and building dykes much higher, and building sluices to control intake and outflow of water from the rivers.

The latter was considered a difficult and costly exercise since it was felt that concentrating on improving the seawalls, and not doing likewise for the rivers, would amount to "shutting the front door" and leaving the backdoors (rivers) open.

It was the consensus of the workshop that, should these scenarios materialise, relocation would be the better way to go.

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