Coping with climate change
April 8, 2007
More than 30 years ago, there was talk in Guyana about shifting the capital from Georgetown to the North West. There was no talk about global warming and climate change. Instead, the move to shift the capital was to make use of that part of the country that offered the best hope of development.
For starters, the North West has some of the best agricultural lands; it is above sea level and sits on the largest county in the country. The people who came up with the idea noted that development of Brazil caused a shift of the capital from Rio to Brasilia.
Today, we are in the midst of talk about global warming and climate change. Two years ago, when this country suffered the worst flood in its history, panic stepped in. For the first time, people recognised how fragile this narrow strip of coastland is that accommodates some 70 per cent of the population.
Indeed the floods were concentrated in Regions Three and Four, and to some extent Region Five. The effects were harshest in Region Four, and losses were widespread; people, crops and livestock died. The international community was forced to rush to our aid. One group duly informed us that, had the flood continued, we could have faced a situation where the pressure of water from the land would have caused the sea defence to collapse.
Needless to say, with the coastal plain being some six feet below sea level, the disaster would have been catastrophic. The capital and the coast would have been lost forever. Salt water would have put paid to the agricultural lands and to the very existence of this country.
People were forced to vacate their homes, which were often under as much as four to five feet of water for three weeks. The panic is still there, even as we recall the authorities contemplating evacuating large sections of the population to the higher reaches of the country.
On the international scene, we have the people who are talking about melting polar caps and rising sea levels. The threat is for low-lying states. The word is that they will all lose their current coastline and their populations would be forced to seek higher ground. Island states would be no better off, but that is of no consolation to us.
Over the past few decades, we have had to shift our sea defence inland, in cases by as much as 200 metres, because of the relentless attack from the Atlantic; but even then, we did not contemplate the danger, choosing instead to fool ourselves into believing that the attack by the Atlantic was seasonal.
Over the past few years, we have been spending millions of dollars on sea defence, because there is constant collapse.
But shifting now is easier said than done. In the first instance, the cost of shifting all the major enterprises would be astronomical; and even as the threat remains, people are still investing in property and business. For the Cricket World Cup, entrepreneurs have invested millions of dollars in hotels and in shopping plazas.
We recently spent even more millions on roads and bridges, and continue to enhance those constructions. The largest sugar factory is being built on the same coastal belt that is being threatened, because the only sugar plantations exist in the threatened areas.
We are even seeking to expand the rice cultivations, because sugar and rice still represent the bulk of this country's export earnings. Perhaps we recognise that the threat is not immediate and that, while the coastland may be under threat, it could be decades, long after many of us would have departed this earth, before the threat is manifested.
At the same time we have to live, and whether we like it or not the coastal belt still represents our salvation. The food belt cannot be shifted at this time.
What is worrying is that we seem disinclined to pay heed to any threat to the coastal belt from the rising water levels, and we are not making any arrangement to counter the threat. Perhaps we are of the view that we simply cannot cope. And it is apposite to note that when the Americans gave us our disaster preparedness bond they were at pains to site it away from the coast, all the way at Timehri, where there is the unlikely possibility of a flood should the Atlantic rage past the sea defences that we have.