A brief history of floods in Guyana
History This Week
By Lloyd F. Kandasammy
February 16, 2006
2005 and 2006 will certainly be remembered for the wide-scale flooding of the country's coastal plain which resulted in millions of dollars in damage that will certainly affect the country's economy for some time to come.
The problem of Guyana's coast began even before modern recorded history. The late Guyanese anthropologist, Denis Williams, noted that approximately 17,000 years ago the sea on Guyana's shores stood 100-150 metres below its present level. Archaeological evidence has revealed that the sea and land rose to their present levels after that period.
According to Williams, the Guyana shoreline once lay much further seawards than at present, but as "glacial retreat began to signal the end of the last Ice Age, glacial melt water caused a gradual rise in the level of the world's oceans...and ocean levels rose world-wide."
With the arrival of Europeans and the displacement of the Indigenous peoples of Guyana from off the coastline, Dutch, French and British colonizers had to contend with the sea in their quest for sugar profits. The pattern of development followed a system of piecemeal polders as individual proprietors sought to protect their lands from floodwaters from the sea as well as the creeks, which spilt their banks whenever there was heavy rainfall. The lands empoldered were, in effect, often the flood plains of the creeks, and polder embankments deprived the creeks of their natural overflow with the result that it was difficult to maintain the artificial banks.
Enslaved Africans were forced into this grand task and according to Rodney's memorable calculation, they dug and moved at least "100 million tons of heavy, water logged clay with shovel in hand, while enduring conditions of perpetual mud and water." While the Dutch proved more adept than most at sea defence, they, like every other colonial and independent government since, were also at wits' end when faced with heavy rainfall or high tide.
Colonial authorities have always regarded the present site where Georgetown now stands as perilous; yet the Dutch moved the original capital from Borsselen Island (20 miles up the Demerara River) to its current location at the mouth of the Demerara River, as the city was laid out during the period of British and French occupation between 1781 and 1784, when the colony of Demerara was restored to the Dutch.
The capital was then named 'Stabroek' until 1812, when it was given the current name Georgetown.
Was that a great mistake by the Dutch colonizers that have come back to haunt us?
Hindsight is always a safe vantage point; there may have been more potential for a coastal town.
One of the earliest reports of wide-scale damage to the Guyana coastline by floods was at Kierfield and Sandy Point, which was located north of the present George-town sea wall. In 1804, these areas were said to have been completely washed away by the angry sea.
In February 1855 a major flood occurred resulting in considerable hardship for residents. According to the historian A.R.F. Webber, the erosion of the sea, which had commenced prior to 1855, washed away Camp House, the former residence of the Governor of Guyana and eventually inundated Kings-ton from the stretch of sea beach from Kitty to Camp House, which was once the scene of duels and horse races prior to the grant of the D'Urban Race Course.
James Rodway, the colonial Guyanese historian, also referred to this flood in his memoirs as the "Kingston great flood". According to Rodway,
"The sea rose so high during spring tide, that it with a violence unknown for nearly fifty years, and in the course of a few hours swept away nearly the upper part of the embankment, and inundated the military land and the adjoining suburb of Kingston."
The Royal Gazette and other newspapers of the day reported that Camp House was abandoned, water rose five feet high, Kingston was a swamp, the famed Lighthouse was in danger of being undermined and the coast, from Plantation Thomas Lands to Plantation Ogle was covered with water.
The efforts of recovery from this 1855 disaster led to a seawall being built up to Kitty. And in "1874 Baron Siccama, the Dutch colonial civil engineer to the Public Works department of British Guiana, advised a continuous wall, from Kitty to Camp Street, a commencement of which had been made two years before, but that had slid into the sea; and the angry waves seemed to be calling for more. This second wall was completed in 1882."
Over time the seawall was extended, eventually stretching all the way down the coast. The coastline, like Georgetown was not immune from flood and the sea. All of the historical notes on villages keep referring to drainage, irrigation, and flooding problems.
In 1849, after the front dam broke Plaisance was under water for a few days. The villagers petitioned Governor Henry Barkly for some form of municipal organisation for the village. Governor Hincks eventually expended the sum of $29,784, mainly for the purchase of a powerful drainage pump and the empoldering of the back lands.
Citizens of Bachelor's Adventure, for example, in 1849 had to use boats "to carry people about and flooding became so bad that many took up residence in other villages."
Walter Rodney reports that in a heavy rainy season between late 1886 and 1887 residents claimed that the floods were "the worst the territory had experienced in forty years".
Friendship village on the East Coast was another bad case of neglect and struggle, especially in the area of drainage. Apart from having to contend with "flooding of their provision grounds from the European planters of neighbouring plantations who wanted to force villagers to continue working with them, the settlers of Friendship found it extremely difficult to maintain their roads and drains." Relief from the floods was brought to the village finally in 1869, when the canals were cleared and steam-powered pumps were installed in both Buxton and Friendship to remove the excess water.
Flooding continued to cause severe problems during the 20th century. In 1921, for example, a heavy rainstorm, lasting over twenty-four hours, flooded some city streets and swept away bridges. Every decade since the 1920s has had flooding and sea breaches on a smaller scale. But the sluices and drains, which were built and elaborated upon in design and scale over the years to provide drainage for the polders which extended some two or four miles inland to the 'backdam' worked reasonably well and water was sent away expeditiously with few exceptions. However, maintenance proved to be an uphill task that resulted in disastrous floods in the following decades in different areas along the coast.
1934 will be forever embedded in memories as the year of the great flood. In January of that year Guyana experienced great distress as Georgetown, the entire coastal strip and some inland regions were flooded. A review of the literature of that year, particularly the accounts as reported by the daily newspapers, The New Daily Chronicle and The Daily Argosy, could easily be mistaken for an account of the floods in 2005 and 2006 with the exception of a few minor details.
After 11 hours of incessant rainfall between 8:10 pm on, Sunday 7 January 1934 to 7:15 am on Monday 8 January 1934, large sections of Georgetown were inundated. The reports in the newspapers indicated that residents in the wards of Albouystown, La Penitence, Wortmanville, Kitty and Newtown were forced to abandon their homes, navigating the flooded streets in motor cars and boxes, which were converted into small boats.
In addition, telecommunications were temporarily disrupted as trees fell across power lines, plunging some sections of the city into darkness. Strong winds and abnormally high tides also damaged several schooners docked at various wharves throughout the city.
The incessant rainfall combined with breaches in the sea defences and the Lamaha conservancy dam further compounded the situation leading to extensive flooding along the entire coastal strip. At Nabaclis, for example, it was reported that there was a thirty-foot-wide breach of the Lamaha conservancy, which ultimately led to floods in the surrounding villages.
In Plaisance, Beterverwagting, Buxton, Victoria, Nabaclis and the entire area between Mahaica and Drill the water was reported to have risen as high as three feet. It was reported that residents along the East Bank were forced to "seek refuge among the rafters of their homes as they were trapped, surrounded by floodwaters over three feet high.
The situation was equally distressing in other areas. In Essequibo, for example, at Spring Garden, Aurora, Four Fields, Queenstown, Henriet-ta, Richmond, Daniels Town and Dartmouth floodwaters were reported to have risen as high as four feet. In Mahaica the situation appears to have been equally distressing.
Residents along the West Coast of Berbice in the villages of Lichfield, Fort Wellington and Belladrum were flooded with water from the Atlantic Ocean as well as that of the conservancy. Even the Pomeroon was not spared as the entire district was reported to have been under water, leading to substantial damage of coconut and coffee estates.
The newspapers reported that thousands of coconuts were floating down the river and cattle, pigs and fowls were drowning. In the Mazaruni the floodwaters were reported by miners and Indians to have risen as high as eight feet, forcing the closure of mines as the miners retreated to higher ground.
On 11 January 1934 the Governor, Sir Edward Denham toured the flood-ravaged area. He noted that he was greeted with "vast stretches of water, which completely covered the land on either side of the railway line and for a stretch of about one mile from Wilhelmina to De Hoop the water, had risen so high that the rails had been completely covered."
After noting the plight of the people, orders were issued on 12 January 1934 to evacuate areas along the Coast, which had been the most severely affected. Special trains were contracted to evacuate not only persons but also cattle to prevent the outbreak of diseases. Assistance was rendered but the carcasses of cattle prevented access to some areas along the West Coast of Berbice.
With many of the ground provision lots and rice fields flooded, it was inevitable that a food shortage would occur. It was also inevitable that in this time of distress that hucksters and retailers would also choose to increase the prices on items and make a quick buck. In fact, it was reported that the price for plantains increased from 20 cents to 60 cents per bunch. Milk and potatoes were also reported to have been scarce.
In the circumstances the government on 14 January 1934 quickly enacted wartime measures that allowed them to fix the price for food items and temporarily suspend the export of rice. In addressing the council the Governor stated:
Honourary members of the council; you have been summoned for this emergency meeting in a time of serious crisis in the history of the colony. We most of all deplore the losses which the colony is now suffering from severe floods that we are experiencing.
The governor proposed the adoption of an emergency ordinance to ensure food supplies to the people. The council adopted this without objection.
The ordinance enacted empowered the government to seize and give compensation for any article of food that it required. In addition, proprietors found guilty of selling foods at exorbitant prices were liable to a fine of $500.
The government commenced its relief operations on 15 January 1934 and Colgrain House, the present residence of the Secretary General of Caricom, was identified as the operation centre for the Central Relief Committee of the colony of British Guiana. Lady Denham the Governor's wife and other leading ladies of the colony worked to put together packages of clothing and food. In Berbice, Mission Chapel Congregational church, All Saints Scots Church and All Saints Anglican Church raised special collections for the relief of those who were affected by the flood.
The Salvation Army and numerous church groups also launched appeals for the donation of clothing and food supplies to assist those affected. These relief packages were then transported via train to the affected peoples. Mobile clinics were also set up to distribute medication as well as to treat those affected.
The floods continued to expand their havoc as the sea wall at Nog Eens and the Lusignan Sluice soon gave way due to continuous erosion. Addition the sea dam between Bee Hive and Pearl was washed away resulting in the continued inundation of areas already affected. At Plantation Diamond some 400 labourers were contracted to lay bags with cinders to stop the Lamaha conservancy from overtopping.
This proved futile in some areas as the mud banks were quickly eroded.
The findings of the Flood Investigation Committee later revealed that residents attempted to patch broken areas of the conservancy and the dams "with just about anything that they could place their hands on, from tree branches, grass and wood." The newspapers reported that the breaches of the Lamaha conservancy were estimated to be as wide as 30 feet at the "east wing of the intake koker at Nabaclis - with water flowing over at the crown dams at Golden Grove, Enmore and Non Pariel on the East Coast of Demerara". At Haslington the same was reported as the dams at the back of Plantation Lusignan and Buxton were washed away.
There were numerous letters from members of different organisations and individuals who called for the investigation into the causes of the flood. Mr. Joseph Eleazar, a member of the Berbice Chamber of Commerce and Development, stated that the floods were simply a result of the government's neglect of drainage.
On 24 January 1934 Governor Denham appointed a Flood Investigations Committee, comprising of Major J.C. Craig, the Director of Public Works, Mr. J.S. Dash, Director of Agriculture, Mr. J.C. Gibson, Mr. R.B. Hunter and Mr. C. Shankland to report and advise on the general effects of the flood and the steps to be taken to meet the present situation as well as preventative measures for the future.
On 27 January 1934 this Committee held a preliminary meeting and devised strategies for how the work should be undertaken. It was resolved that District Commissioners be instructed to compile data with regard to the effects of the flood as well as to make the necessary recommendations. The schemes and suggestions were then examined by the Committee.
In their final report to the Governor on 23 April 1934 the Committee reported that there was extensive damage to Guyana's agricultural industry. With regards to the sugar industry, it was projected that there was a loss of approximately 20,172 tons.
Furthermore, it was projected that there would be low yields in 1935 and 1936. It was estimated that a total of 3,815 tons would probably be lost. The Committee recommended that $12 - $15 per acre be granted for the re-establishment of fields for the replanting of canes as well as an additional $4 - 5 per acre for ratoons.
The commission also reported that there was extensive damage to fruit plantations as well as livestock, holdings. The Abary Cattle Ranch Company, which lost some 299 calves and 103 cows, and the Rupununi Development Company Limited, which lost 678 cows, were compensated.
The Department of Agriculture was commended for its timely intervention, in ensuring assistance to those farmers affected. Quick-growing food crops were "telegraphed for and received with minimum delay from Trinidad and cuttings and suckers were purchased locally from the North West District."
With regards to the causes for the flood the Committee noted that the lack of maintenance by derelict or partially derelict estates contributed significantly to the flooding of villages as dams were not cleared in an 'efficient manner.' With respect to the conservancy the committee recommended that the dams be strengthened and that the area be kept free of trees and grazing cattle, which served to weaken the dams. A total of $307, 200, granted by the Imperial Loan in Aid, was expended on the flood works undertaken by the colonial authorities.
The present floods have served as a painful reminder of the need for the rigorous maintenance of the coastal plain's interlocking system of kokers, dams and canals. Recently His Excellency President Bharrat Jagdeo - indicated his commitment to appoint a committee to investigate the reasons for the present floods.
It is envisioned that this will be undertaken so as to allow for a comprehensive strategy to be devised for the protection of the coast against the ravages of nature in the future.