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Raffique Shah


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Steaming over the big flood

By Raffique Shah
Aug 08, 2010

Heavy 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?

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