Steaming over the big flood

By Raffique Shah
August 08, 2010

RainHEAVY rainfall, like that which we experienced last Monday, is an act of nature. Heavy flooding, which we have repeatedly been subjected to over the past two decades, is caused by a number of factors. Many of these are beyond man’s control. But governments and citizens must shoulder much blame for some of their actions, or inaction in instances, that add to the hazardous mix of factors that return to haunt us all, especially during monsoon-type weather conditions.

Among the realities we must face as a small island state is the fact that as much as 75 per cent of our residential, commercial and industrial communities are located on lands that are barely above sea level. The entire west coast, from Chaguaramas to Cedros, and several kilometres inland, which house most of our population and industries, fall in this category. So, too, do communities on the east coast (Manzanilla to Mayaro), and many in-between.

Trinidad and Tobago is also blessed with lovely mountain ranges and hills that are not only scenic, but serve (maybe I should use past tense here!) as forests we badly need to prevent soil erosion and as barriers to storms that skirt this country. Over the past few decades, the very wealthy have chosen to site exclusive residential communities on the hillsides, often without any consideration for the deleterious consequences such developments wreak on people who have long lived below their levels.

I should add that ironically, some of the very poor, mainly squatters, have also joined the “hill club”, along with slash-and-burn “farmers”. Like the wealthy developers, these squatters give no consideration to their lowlands-brethren when they scar the hillsides, baring their backsides in the faces of the latter with impunity.

In any civilised country, there would be regulations governing land use. This country has such laws or regulations. It also has an agency that is supposed to approve or deny requests for land development of any kind that could have adverse effects on other citizens. The inappropriately named Town and Country Planning Division, which falls under the Ministry of Planning, seems to have no plan and no teeth. Over the years, when people report to T&C developments taking shape that would impact negatively on them, they are blowing in the wind.

T&C officers, who are quick to pounce on ordinary citizens for minor infringements to building codes, turn a blind eye to greater hazards, to those whose actions would create floods or run-off slush that adversely affect others, sometimes entire communities. Why no government has disbanded this useless Division defies logic. Further, no government in 50 years has enacted legislation and instituted measures to curb the rampant lawlessness that passes for land-use-laws.

This is where governments must take blame for what happened last Monday, and too many times before that. Governments or their agencies also have the responsibility to ensure water courses are cleared, and to see they remain that way. The Drainage Division of the Ministry of Works shoulders that responsibility. But much like T&C, this critical arm of the State is also an abject failure. Oh, I know its senior officers would hide behind the skirts of successive ministers: de borse didn’t give we okay to clear so-and-so. Crap!

That same Division arbitrarily decided to construct a “box drain” in what I used to describe as a rustic ravine that runs behind my house. In other places along the main road, where such drains are needed, they do nothing. Partly as a result of their action, my neighbours who never before suffered floods, were inundated on two occasions recently. Mercifully for me and some others, we live on slightly higher ground. And you should see the mess the contractor left behind in the unfinished project—a haven for the dreaded Dengue.

Now for the sins of the people. Land has been a blessing for mankind; it has also been a curse of horrendous proportions. Every man who owns a plot wants to claim every millimetre, matters not if it runs into a watercourse. None will leave room for run-off. Some add to their land by blocking streams that become rivers in a deluge. However much that hurts his neighbours is of no consequence to him. Of course, when he or she dies, you could well see the land going into his grave. Fool!

The arbitrary narrowing of watercourses is a prime cause of last week’s floods…and worse is yet to come. No one intervenes, tells the fools that they are the architects of destruction. The same holds true for the tens of thousands of seemingly “good citizens” (who Sparrow sang about many moons ago) who dump their waste in, or close to, watercourses. The worst offenders are those who discard their plastic water bottles and similar waste anywhere they feel like doing.

On the night of the flood, TV images showed scores of motorists trapped by raging waters on the Santa Cruz main road. In the swirling waters I saw a sea of plastic. Now, tell me, who is to blame for that: “De Govament’? No! It’s the rank ignorance of foolish people who don’t give a damn about their fellow citizens.

In fact, I often wonder if these “good citizens” care about themselves. Whew! I’ve blown some steam—but what else can I do?

11 thoughts on “Steaming over the big flood”

  1. Finally! I’ve been writing about this for years and each time I’d revisit things got a little worse. The last time I was there; earlier this decade, fires were springing up everywhere along the highway; and after a drive up to Santa Cruz I knew Trinidadians were in for some heartache, like what happened to the homwowner on La Canoa.

    Why humans think they can win in a battle against Mother Nature is really the question for all lifetime. Unfortunately its the least among us who suffer most; however, if you come into this world with working limbs and digits, eyes, and a functional brain consider yourself blessed and master of your own destiny. The length of time it takes for you to discover this reality is entirely up to you.

    Humans control nothing even if they wear a crown or come adorned with magic titles. Always take your cue from nature she is there for your edification.

  2. Drainage has been ignored by the previous administration, it is something that demanded attention for some time. There has to be a comprehensive review of drainage, deforestation and sanitation. They are all tied in together and must be tackled simultaneously. To change human behaviour you must start with the children.

  3. Yeah! I guess that’s why people are dying like flies in Europe and Asia from the same cause; Improper drainage. Actually up till now T&T has been quite lucky; I’ve been expecting something on the scale of Venezuela ’99.

  4. Hey buddy , get your head from whatever elite , misguided crevice it seems locked in. The children that you sarcastically referred to, and is attempting to insinuate , in not so subtle fashion, that their parents are the sole reason for the problem, are still forced to live in the Brazilian crowded , unwholesome , unsanitary neglected ,favalers. As for deforestation, you are barking up the wrong tree , as all the earth people from Toco gave up that foolish lifestyle, the day Shorty, his frustrated wife, and 25 children decided to leave the bush for civilization.
    Hey khem , since you and buddy T-Man,choose to remain the Spokeman, and Apologist in Chief for this YOUR new government over the next four, or less years, let me again inform you for the umpteen time, as it seems to elude you repeatedly. The act of looking over your shoulder like Lot’s wife ,as opposed to making efforts to deliver as mandated, via your manifesto campaign promises TO THE PEOPLE , can bring no fruitful political dividend today , or tomorrow.

  5. “Areas in the Caroni River Basin include Bamboo Settlement, Valsayn, Kelly Village, Caroni, Chaguanas, Warren, Cunupia, Edinburgh, Felicity, Chase Village, Korea Village, Chandanagore, Brickfield, Bank Village and Carapichaima. Other areas prone to flooding include Brazil Village, Talparo, Caparo, Todds Road, Longdenville, Mamoral, Couva, Balmain, California and Macaulay.” Trinidad, Newsday

    I’m reading these place names and I probably recognize three; Caroni, Couva and Chaguanas; I’m not saying the other places didn’t exist before but I’ll bet anything that residency has more than doubled since Trinidad gained its independence in 1962. Since then and even long before then, the citizens of our great nation have known that the Caroni river and its tributaries were likely to flood during the rainy season: It is the nature of a flood plain. How many lives were lost in Africa before Pharoah learned to build the Dams that probably changed the course of Africa’s Nile Valley, Western Kushite civilization? How many Eastern Kushites died and continue to die during India’s monsoons when the Ganges and its tributaries overflow?

    The ancient Kushites learned how to live with mother nature; if the plains were naturally going to flood then they should be used for farming or agriculture, and because of this wisdom these populations were able to thrive. Both Kemet and Varanasi served as the foundation for all other world civilizations that followed.

    But here in Trinidad and Tobago the inheritors of these great cultures can’t seem to get it together. Yes we’ve been displaced but that’s now behind us, it is now time to put our collective heads together and drawing on the wisdom on our ancestors arrive at solutions to our collective problem. Its time to ween ourselves off the breasts of Great Colonial Whore.

  6. Some advice to those who think flooding is worse than before: Rio Claro named by Trinidad’s early settlers the cocoa farmers means Clear River. If you build your house in or around a river bed expect floods. Rio Claro another place like Caroni was originally meant for Agriculture not for Residential development, so what you are experiencing is Nature being Nature. There is no truth to the statement “Ignorance is Bliss” After floods and landslides took the lives of thousands of Venezuelans back in ’99 there were reports that the indigenous people had warned the early settlers about the River that cries rocks, and that it would return to its natural course; unfortunately no one listened. Jack Warner should not have to travel all the way to the Netherlands for advice on floods; he should probably look closer to home; the advice might also come cheaper.

  7. La Canoa can mean Canoe or it can also mean Watering Trough or River Bank; Caroni is the combination of two indigenous names for Rivers the Kuquenan and the Yuruani, both in Venezuela. So the answer to the question What’s in a name? Everything.
    To the would be recipients of those keys being handed over by PM Bisessar, I hope you speak Spanish, and a word of advice the Oropouche River, until the early 20th century was impassible. When something appears too good to be true, it usually is; here’s hoping your PM is around when Oropouche overflows and floods that brand new house.

  8. Hi Raff,
    Congrats for another sensible piece. I hope Kam reads your articles along with her ministers and advisers. I feel that sensible people like you should be hired by PP as consultants.
    Keep up the good work buddy.

  9. On a related topic:

    Newsday ran an article in May in response to a challenge by UTT professor Denyse Thompson on a need for the branding and packaging of cocoa’s lucrative revenue stream’s byproducts; or as the article was titled “Cocoa market’s higher end”

    This simple article says so much of what is wrong with our nation and indicates the failures on so many levels, of all previous administrations. How many prized cocoa land was used for T&T’s last decade of runaway residential and commercial construction. Construction provides jobs but they are temporary, whereas farming is a lifelong relationship, if it is done right. While Europeans and Asians are busy buying up all the arable land in Africa to feed their populations T&T has been squandering nature’s most precious resource. Is it any wonder that Mother is angry.

    There should be a farmers market in every community/Parish in T&T with modern facilities which are updated and retrofited as the need arises. There would be no shortage of jobs if any one of our governments had decided to invest in food processing, packaging and distribution; or are we merely capable of producing aluminium foil. Much like oil/petroleum, raw materials only garner but so much revenue and usually the costs to the provider of said raw materials are in incalculable; See Africa; its also why I’m convinced that over-drilling is producing soil liquefaction on the island.

    If recent flooding and landslides do not convince citizens and this new government to rethink the process of land use and allocation then all we have to look forward to is a complete destruction of an aging infrastructure: And that’s if we’re lucky, if we’re like Africa we might turn our island into a dustbowl like the great Sahara, or if as I suspect the soil is liquefying then we can look forward to many more sink holes like the new “Grand Canyon” in central Trinidad, except the new ones might open up under people’s homes.

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