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Guyana must invest against sea level rise - expert

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 17 May 2013 10:15 AM
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A construction worker mixes cement in one of Guyana's newest housing scemes - Herstelling, located on the east bank of the Demerara River. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Johann Earle
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GEORGETOWN, Guyana (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Guyana must either move its capital inland to higher ground or invest more heavily in coastal infrastructure to withstand future sea level rises, a health and engineering expert says.

Dutch civil engineer Adrianus Vlugman, who works with the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), says the government of the small South American nation must take a decision before long on one option or the other. He believes Guyana also could explore innovative solutions to the problem, such as floating villages - groups of houses built on floating platforms, with which the Netherlands has experimented.

Already, the country’s local press has carried numerous reports of waves coming over the top of Georgetown’s sea walls at high tide. As a result, the authorities have barred citizens from gathering on the sea walls, a popular place for young people to meet at weekends.

Vlugman, PAHO’s senior advisor in Guyana on sustainable development and environmental health, said sea levels are predicted to rise globally between three and seven feet (1.0 and 2.1 metres) in the next 100 years.

“If you look at a country like Guyana, you would see that a three or four foot rise in sea level will have a significant impact on the coast,” he said.

Housing projects have grown significantly along Guyana’s Caribbean coast since the early 1990s, according to the country’s housing ministry. The vast majority of the country’s new housing is being built on the coast, much of it on land converted from sugar cane cultivation. Housing also has been developed at Bartica, Linden and a few other inland sites.

Keeping housing dry in the face of rising seas will require the government looking carefully at the elevation of proposed and existing housing and also trying to improve drainage, to make sure water that enters residential areas can leave it.

“You have to ensure that the ground level of the housing areas is above potential flood zones. This means that you must develop drainage systems in these areas. You might even have to put in pumping stations to assist in drainage at times of heavy rainfall,” he said.

Georgetown, the country’s capital, is just above mean sea level, but is considered below flood level, which is one to three feet above mean sea level, Vlugman said.

NO MOVE SEEN

Officials in Guyana say they believe holding back rising seas and developing better strategies to cope with flooding threats is a better option for the country than moving the country’s capital.

Guyana's lead climate change negotiator, Andrew Bishop, believes it would be difficult to move the capital inland. Speaking at a public forum in April, he encouraged development in other parts of the country, saying this might be one practical solution, according to a report in the daily Stabroek News.

Housing growth in Guyana is expected to contribute to a flooding driven by sea level rise. When large areas are paved, rainwater runs into drainage systems rather than being absorbed in the soil, Vlugman said. This can cause flooding in the 'receiving’ rivers, he said.

To counter that would require significant civil engineering investment in better drainage and flood protection systems, he said.

Leslie Ramsammy, Guyana’s agriculture minister, said that in the last 15 or 16 years, Guyana had developed hundreds of housing schemes along the coast, ranging in size from 20 or 30 homes to several thousand, many of them on former swamps, rice fields, can fields or pasture land.

In the past, at times of heavy rainfall, places such as the Parfaite Harmonie area in West Demerara served as a reservoir for excess water. But new building now means that thousands of acres of land must be drained.

Ramsammy said that sizeable investment will be needed in permanent drainage infrastructure and pumps.

“I cannot give an estimate but it will be massive ... millions of US dollars that we have to invest in order to ensure that our housing schemes are properly drained and that our agriculture lands are properly drained and irrigated,” he said.

Asked whether the government could afford the investment needed to protect low-lying coastal land, Ramsammy said it could manage in stages, but not all at once.

“It is an investment that governments today and in the future must continue to make... It is not something that could be done in one year or five, or 10 years,” he said. He also warned that once the government has invested in permanent structures, it will have to make significant sums available to maintain them.

Public Works Minister Robeson Benn said that the government is taking account of the reduced absorptive capacity of land turned to housing “in its calculations and designs.”

Johann Earle is a Georgetown-based freelance writer with an interest in climate change issues.

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