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Floods: Time To Lock Up The Lawless

November 17, 2002
By Raffique Shah

IT is human for us to sympathise with the hundreds of our fellow citizens who suffered losses in the recent floods that have become almost a fixture on this country's November weather calendar. In fact, most of us could even empathise with the victims, more so with motorists and commuters who are trapped on roads-turned-into-rivers.

Haven't we all, at some time, had to face the near trauma of parking aside for hours waiting for flooded roads to become navigable? Some years ago I was among thousands of North-South commuters who spent an entire night on the Butler Highway when the Caroni River turned the southbound lane into a swirling river. It was an experience never to be forgotten.

And while flooded roads and flood-damaged bridges are a hazard we have learnt to live with, one could only imagine the plight of people whose homes and farms have suffered damage. There is the loss of electrical appliances that is almost inevitable: invariably, it's expensive items like washing machines and fridges that bear the brunt since they cannot be easily removed to upper floors. Then, as the murky water recedes, it leaves behind slush and debris that could take weeks to be cleared. And the stink! The stench hovers around for a long time after the floods.

As for farmers, only they can understand their plight. Those who grow food crops see their projected earnings for their most lucrative season, Christmas, vanish beneath flooded farmland. Livestock farmers often fare worse. Stories abound about cattle stuck in soggy pastures as flood waters rise, eventually drowning because they cannot free themselves-nor can their owners. Small ruminants and chickens, the latter in their thousands, are swept into the swirling waters with no hope of being saved.

So floods are savage as much as they ravage property and people. And yet! Yes, yet, when we examine the causes of flooding in many areas, we see a disturbing human factor that makes you question who really are the victims, and who or what are the perpetrators? True, heavy rainfall in November is the norm, and deluges, whether they strike in March or in December, will always cause some flooding. From the political standpoint, when a party is in government, it invariably proclaims flooding as "an act of God". When in opposition, that tune changes: rain, they say, is an act of God. But flooding? That's the fault of the government!

There is some truth in both these arguments, although I would substitute "nature" for "God". For "man", though, the only substitute I can find is "jackass"-and even that I find insulting to the normally docile beast-of-burden. Starting with those in authority, meaning government and its agencies, how could they have allowed the deliberate destruction of forests and land formations that were vital to surface water control, supposedly in the name of development? Who gave approvals for sundry developers and private homeowners to bulldoze the hillsides of the Northern Range, to clear forests, to block or divert watercourses?

And if they did not grant permission, what did they do the prevent the denudation of these most important natural formations that are (or were) critical to both the rate at which surface water runs off and to the levels of our subterranean water tables? Clearly, even as we point fingers at unscrupulous developers and insensitive squatters, we should be pointing the gun or jail-cell keys at those who are being (or have been) paid by taxpayers to protect us from the kind of destruction we now face, and who have failed us.

Officials at the infamous "Town and Country"-the authority charged with granting or refusing development or building proposals-must be held culpable, at least in part, for the destruction that we face from flooding. The rape of the foothills of the Northern Range is probably the most visible part T&C's ineptitude. The truth is that all government ministries and agencies appear to have abandoned their responsibilities when it comes to preventing flooding and preserving our ecosystem.

Let me illustrate my point with instances of violations of which I am painfully aware. In the area where I live, I know of at least a dozen cases in which greedy landowners have blocked off watercourses or diverted them at the expense of their neighbours and other villagers. Reports were made to the relevant authorities, and where they did turn up to investigate, a bout of loud "cussing" from the perpetrator/s was enough to cause them to forget it. So the violators felt vindicated, the victims cheated-and all suffer the effects of the floods that flowed therefrom.

On the Southern Main Road in Chase Village, a wealthy businessman blocked off a vital stream so that he could enjoy his multi-acre spread. Ever since he did that, whenever it rains heavily, flooding makes this main road impassable. Last week, on at least two days, traffic could not pass that point. That situation has recurred for more than 10 years, one man creating havoc for thousands. But no authority touches him. Clearly, this is a case of either dereliction of duty or collaboration with the lawless.

But it gets worse. Elsewhere on the same Southern Main Road, in the Savonetta and Claxton Bay areas, people have been allowed to fill lands through which watercourses once flowed, mainly on the western side of the road. Any fool could see the danger in filling those spots-except the jokers and the Ministry of Works and the Regional Corporation. Today, if one urinates too heavily at these spots, it floods. Again, thousands of commuters are adversely affected. But who cares?

I have not forgotten our upstanding citizens who throw their garbage, especially plastic containers, in any empty plot of land, and in drains or rivers. You'd think that there is no central garbage disposal system in the country when in fact it's the only system that functions efficiently. How often have you driven behind a vehicle occupied by some be-suited person who throws out of his (or her) window empty soft drink containers, fast-foods boxes, napkins and other litter?

Before the government begins to dole out the $20 million voted for flood victims, officials charged with assessing damages and compensations should scrutinise the claimants carefully. Those who courted their own flood problems by building their homes on watercourses or by diverting or blocking streams should be struck off the list. Assistance should be given only to persons who genuinely suffered flood damage. More importantly, put handcuffs on those who have helped nature wreak havoc on the hapless.

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