Living with water Editorial
Stabroek News
January 29, 2002

A.F.R. Weber in 'The Centenary History and Handbook of British Guiana' (l93l) recorded that in l72l Laurens de Heere, the then 'Commandeur of Essequibo' was a great believer in the coast as against the higher reaches of the rivers and he initiated the movement that culminated in the eventual abandonment of all the river plantations and that settlement of the coastline in evidence today. However, owing to the controversy at the time between those who lived on the sea coast and those who stood for the rivers Maurain Saintcterre, an engineer, was sent out in l722 to report on the Dutch West India Company lands. He declared that:

"the lands above the falls were even better than those below".

Is Georgetown sinking? Is the water table rising? Is the sea level rising? Answers to these questions are of vital importance to the long-term viability of human settlement along the coastlands and the sustainability of the economic, social and cultural infrastructure and activities. The effects of climate change, according to the scientists, are manifested globally in the melting of the polar ice caps, more rainfall and rising sea levels. Already in Guyana the erratic weather system within recent years has led to serious disruption of the socio economic fabric of our society and resulted in major disaster relief operations having to be mounted, to ease the trauma suffered by residents in flooded areas along the coast and rivers.

What exactly is the prognosis for Guyana? Studies upon studies have been done on the weather phenomena but the public is little the wiser as to the results of such studies and the implications for the nation.

One such study on 'Coastal Vulnerability and Risk Assessment' for several Caricom states including Guyana, was undertaken as a 'Caribbean Planning for Adaptation to Climate Change (CPACC)' project by the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology.

It is learnt that the June 200l report on the study done for Guyana, predicts that over the next three decades there will be:

"an increase in salt water intrusion, extensive flooding and irreversible damage to agriculture and infrastructure on the coast".

The study recommended that immediate action needed to be taken to:

"develop a public awareness programme, to start developing infrastructure on higher ground and, over time, to influence the relocation of those communities on the coast which will be particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, flooding and salt water intrusion".

If this study has been given due consideration by the decision makers, could the public be advised on government's policies and plans in this regard? How are these plans integrated into the National Development Strategy and reflected in national short, medium and long term plans? Will this year's capital budget make provision for infrastructural development behind the projected areas facing inundation, so that over a transitional period of five to ten years there can be structured relocation of vulnerable communities and economic entities?

What implications are there for the continuing expansion of housing schemes, industrial estates, and support services along the coast?

The following extract from a recently published book titled 'Holland, living with water' (De Vos,A, (200l), Scriptum, The Netherlands) is most instructive. It states on page 22:

"we thought we had finally won the centuries-old struggle with the completion of the Delta Project. But even this unparalleled triumph of hydraulic engineering, which cost billions of guilders, can no longer guarantee a safe future. On the contrary, as we embark on a new millennium, the threat of rising water levels once again rears its head. Warnings that water is endangering our very existence sound more urgent than ever. For the first time in history, we are asking ourselves what chances of survival we have in our small country surrounded by water. Filling sandbags will not be enough".

Those who are so empowered cannot ignore their responsibilities to the nation and it is timely for the general public to be apprised of the scientific predictions, and engaged in the dialogue to chart our collective future.