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Raffique Shah


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Manzanilla collapse: decades of neglect

By Raffique Shah
November 23, 2014

The devastation of sections of the Manzanilla-Mayaro Road may have been triggered by an act of God, as many are wont to say when heavy rainfall wreaks havoc and they wish to cover up their complicity in the destruction—dumping debris into watercourses, interfering with drainage systems, or denuding hillsides and undertaking construction in the worst possible places.

Governments in particular find refuge behind the Big Man: how often after floods have they used God’s name to deflect their own delinquency in subjecting citizens to destruction that is sometimes avoidable? If you think about it, every government has sheltered behind God, from the monarchs in colonial times to modern day prime ministers.

And they get away with it, eh. People, the masses, actually believe that the Big Man, despite the fact that He is a Trini, sometimes gets blasted vex with us and opens up the heavens as a form of punishment. So flood waters inundate communities across the country, make people’s lives a watery hell, they suffer, often in silence, clean up, replace damaged furniture and appliances, access Government grants and accept hampers, then thank the Lord for sparing their lives, to live to endure the next deluge.

Now, in the matter of the destruction of the Manzanilla-Mayaro Road, while I accept that unduly heavy rainfall will have caused the flood, I absolutely reject the notion that elements were responsible for destroying the road. I argue that governments over the past 60 years, from colonial to republican, have, through a combination of delinquency, myopia and sheer ineptitude, misled the country to this sorry pass.

The road in question is a critical section of the main link between North Trinidad, meaning the seat of Government and centre of commerce, and highly industrialised south-eastern part of the country. Most people may be unaware that as far back as in 1902, the first commercial oil well was drilled in the forests of Guayaguayare (it produced 100 barrels a day). Several other productive wells were drilled before Randolph Rust abandoned the project because of lack of infrastructure—roads!

Fast forward to 1968 when Amoco, drilling the first well offshore the east coast, struck oil in a big way: it was the dawn of a new era in oil and gas production for Trinidad and Tobago. Oil from offshore boosted land production, much of which came from wells in the Mayaro and Guayaguayare forests.

So southeast Trinidad evolved into an energy-production hub even before the Point Lisas estate was established. Yet, there were only two public roads linking this important area to the rest of the country-the Naparima-Mayaro Road in the south, and the Manzanilla-Mayaro in the east.

Now, the latter evolved from an agricultural estate road that serviced the huge coconut estates in the southeast, and the vibrant vegetables, fruits and fishing communities that were adjacent to them. By the time the road became a public thoroughfare, its original foundation, which catered mainly for farming equipment and light vehicles, remained intact, with mostly paving and re-paving works done.

So here was a main link to the new oil-gas hub running on loose gravel, in a manner of speaking. No government between 1970 and today thought it necessary to construct a new, structurally sound road to connect Mayaro with Sangre Grande, given that heavy vehicles and equipment would use it frequently, and more importantly, it’s a lifeline of sorts to the economy.

Now that severe flooding has exposed the “track” that has been used as a main road for decades, we are still not hearing Government talk about constructing a proper road to replace the sub-standard one. They are about to spend a few million dollars to do cosmetic repairs, and talk of “major works” costing $50 million.

Hey, the San Fernando-Point Fortin highway extension will cost over seven billion dollars. While there is no need for a highway in the east, surely Government must build a first class, properly-engineered road that takes into account the Atlantic to the east and the Nariva Swamp to the west. It will take time to design and conduct other preliminary studies, which is all the more reason why the process should get underway immediately.

Simultaneously, Government should be looking to rectify weaknesses in the Naparima-Mayaro Road, which is prone to landslides and flooding from the Ortoire River in Mafeking. There are plans for a highway linking San Fernando-Princes Town-Rio Claro-Mayaro, but clearly that is not a priority item on the national agenda.

The floods that destroyed the Manzanilla-Mayaro Road and brought untold suffering to hundreds of people in the area are not something you would wish upon your enemy, far less one’s fellow citizens. But it took a disaster of this magnitude to expose decades-long Government neglect of southeast Trinidad.

As I have shown, this is all the more tragic because of the importance of those communities to the wealth of the nation that we who live far from the disaster zone enjoy. The collapse of the road must serve as a catalyst for equitable development in a country where rural and urban are inter-dependent, or, in this instance, where rural contributes more than urban.

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