No need to panic over likely rise in sea level
Though climate change can affect us, say experts
by Matt Falloon
February 4, 2001
The prospect of a rise in sea level should not be a cause for widespread concern, according to the country's leading hydrometeorologists. Dilip Jaigopaul, the government's Chief Hydrometeorological Officer, stressed the importance of an educated and calm consideration of the problem, in an interview with Stabroek News early last month.
Studying recently unearthed sea level rise data from the Transport and Harbours Department for the period 1960-1980, Jaigopaul observed a varied and gradual rise. "The rise is not monotonic, there is a variation to the trend," he remarked, "but the data does show a rise of about 6 inches over 25 years."
"This is no cause for panic," he explained. "We are researching the trend as it stands at present, but it will take time to determine exactly how Guyana will be affected."
"The indications are," he confirmed, "that as long as we do not stand still, we will not be under threat."
Ex-Chief Hydrometereological Officer, Sheik Khan, explained the global situation. "There has been a lot of hype as regards the effects of global warming and what a rise in sea level could do to low-lying countries and small islands. The truth of the matter is that no one really can say for sure."
"Unfortunately," Jaigopaul concurred, "the media have painted a bleak picture for the world so that when people envisage global warming, they see cities under water and people forced to live in the hills.
"For some people this may become a reality, but it is important to balance the picture," he said, "the effects may be minimal."
"Every region is different," explained Khan, "and every section of every region will be affected differently as well."
"The estimate for the average global sea rise over the next fifty years ranges between 25-100 cm," he stated. "Clearly, if the sea was to rise by a metre across the globe, the effects would be catastrophic.
"One area of the Caribbean could be more heavily affected than another. Guyana is likely to face a 25cm rise. This would not be unassailable."
"What needs to be determined," Jaigopaul interjected, "is whether this change in sea level is a trend or climate change. Climate change is full of uncertainties. A lot of scientists ask the same question, is it a natural trend or is it something more significant."
Another officer displayed temperature change statistics across several thousands of years. The graph demonstrated that temperature change tends to increase slowly over a long period before remaining constant for a shorter period and then abating. This pattern is repeated throughout recent metereological history. There was one difference in the graph, however.
"As you can see for yourself," he said, "over the last 15,000 years there appears to have been a levelling off in temperature change. This means that the globe has been getting constantly warmer for this period."
"This would indicate a trend," Jaigopaul stated. "Coupled with the effects of industrialisation, it is not difficult to understand why we face adverse effects across the globe."
"However," he said, "whether industrialisation is to blame for the change, it is hard to tell. The evidence of this graph would suggest otherwise."
"Until these questions are answered it is difficult to determine a plan of action.
"The specific problems we have here are that man claimed a lot of land back from the sea to build here; if you don't keep up the tempo the sea reclaims the land.
"We are below sea level and therefore any rise in sea level would require action. There is no need, however, for us to relocate to higher ground.
"Our sea defence system is adequate, but needs constant rehabilitation. If the sea rises by 25cm over the next 50 years, the costs will be big. Furthermore, there are areas of the sea defence that are weak or non-existent. These areas are likely to face flooding and more serious damage."
"However, flooding has happened before and it will happen again. It is part of Guyanese life. The government is implementing a three-pronged plan to counter the effects of flash floods and rising global sea levels," he explained.
"We will continue to defend the coastline, by improving sea defences; we will accommodate losses in insignificant areas and thirdly, place new housing schemes away from the coast."
"These efforts," he said, "will allow us to protect our assets. In the meantime, it is important to maintain a continuity of observation, we can't rely on our neighbours for data. We must know specifically what our fate is. Rest assured," he smiled, "our office is exploring all avenues to make sure we get the information we need."
One thing that will be of concern to tropical countries, if the rise in sea level is not enough, is just the simple prospect of a steady rise in temperature.
"If the temperature increases by 1/2 degree, we could face serious problems," Jaigopaul warned. "Climate change is a reality. This reality will produce increased deserts, less forests and radically change man's relationship with the biosphere.
"Half a degree in the colder parts of the world will no doubt be welcomed with open arms," he said, half-joking, "but here it could make life increasingly difficult."
"The cost of keeping foods fresh would go through the roof," another officer agreed. "There would be an increase in pests and therefore disease; animals would find it harder to survive in general."
"That is why we need to change our lifestyles," Khan explained. "If climate change is a trend there is little we can do about these things, other than prepare for them and not exaggerate the consequences.
"If it is due to trend then it is nature taking its course," he smiled. "There is little we cn do about that!"
"Seriously," Jaigopaul explained, "the consequences of climate change are very real. It is up to us to ensure that these consequences do not run away from us, and as Khan said, it is important not to scaremonger. We are very capable of dealing with the problems we may face. But it can only be achieved through informed decision making."
"For example," he continued, "it has been said that if the sea level continues to rise, the water table will rise and our inland water systems will become salinated and cash crops will be adversely affected.
"This would have serious implications for our country, if it were to be the case. We are currently investigating the interface between inland waters and salt waters, how the two interact and the situations that we in Guyana will face.
"As far as our cash crops being ruined, our soil is very resilient, and not very porous. It is very clay-based. In the past when areas of land have been flooded by sea water for long periods of time, we have seen little adverse effects, once the water has abated. In fact, vegetation has continued to grow without any obvious problems.
"The research we are conducting now will help us determine just to what extent a rising water table will have on our inland aquifers. As yet, there is no cause for concern. We do not face the severity of problems that countries like Bangladesh have to deal with. Our sea wall is effective and will continue to be effective with continued improvement and close monitoring."
"This can only be done with adequate funding. It is important that money is invested in protecting our population, commerce and agriculture," Khan elaborated.
"Funding is being provided," assured Jaigopaul. "That is certain. It is more important, in the meantime, that the public are made aware of the reality of the situation. Misinformation could be very dangerous."
Misinformation has plagued the issue of global warming since the theory came about. Climate change, it is important to remember, is very gradual. There should be, by and large, time to adapt to it. However, this is not the impression the general public receives from information currently circulating based on global models.
Jaigopaul explained the problems of misinterpretation.
"Global models are just that," he said, "global models. They are not region specific nor country specific. We must be very careful what we give to the public. If information is inaccurate, then there will be distrust, and worse, panic. It is only natural. Unfortunately, the general public tend to misunderstand the statistics that are available."
"It is our job to make the situation as plain as possible." He concluded. "As I said, there is no cause for alarm; action is being taken to determine the situation accurately and to plan for the future. It is a real problem we face but we are a resilient people. We have dealt with flooding before and we can deal with it again. As for the other effects of climate change, rising water levels and changing land and sea water interfaces," he said, "we will have to await the results of our investigations before we act.
"In the meantime, it is important to reassure the public that all that needs to be done is being done."
For further information on climate change visit http://www.ipcc.ch/ [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] and for regional information visit http://www.cpacc.org [Caribbean Planning for Adaption to Global Climate Change]
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