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Guyana's farmers improve drainage to avert flood damage

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 31 Jul 2013 13:44 GMT
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A section of sea wall on Guyana's eastern Demerara coast, during high tide in May 2013. PHOTO/Arian Browne
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VICTORIA, Guyana (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Worsening flooding along Guyana’s coast has driven Bonita Elias and her husband to make big changes to their lives. “The water forced us out,” said the farmer from the coastal community of Victoria.

“We lost a lot of cash crops like boulangers (eggplant) and ochros (ochra) in 2011, and this caused us to leave,” she said. They have since returned to their land, but Bonita’s husband travels every day to the capital city of Georgetown where he works to support the family.  

They still plant bora (Chinese long beans), boulangers and peppers to sell outside the community. But for now, they have opted out of livestock farming because of the losses they suffered.

Elias said the damage caused by flooding has also pushed them to prepare their land differently. “We have to make a lot of drainage…and build the banks we are planting on higher, so the water will not affect them,” she said.

Her experiences are shared by other women in Victoria, some of whom are using new farming techniques to protect their livelihood from the ravages of increasingly extreme weather and rising seas.

Much of the Caribbean coastline of Guyana, a tiny nation located in the north of South America, lies below mean sea level and suffers from flooding on a persistent basis.

It is inundated during the two annual rainy seasons, and coastal settlements suffer additional flooding during high tides or whenever there is a breach of sea defences. Both types of flooding are becoming more frequent.

When water flows over sea walls or through a gap, salt water intrusion also renders crops useless and makes farmland unsuitable for planting for some time.

Exceptionally high tides in May caused water to top sea walls, flooding many communities. The government has put a stop to the informal parties young people hold along the walls as it considers further measures to combat the problem.

GOVERNMENT ASSISTANCE

When Shanella Subner’s farm floods, she must finance replanting herself. So after the most recent flood to hit her land in 2012, she decided to try something new.

“I would break the bank of the drain in the bed, let the water out into the trench, and keep the bed free of water,” she explained. She paid others to modify her drainage system so her vegetables would be safe.

Meanwhile, other women farmers in Victoria have been working to dig drains in preparation for floods. Last year, Cheryl McCoy and her family experienced a flood that caused losses not only of farm produce and livestock, but also household furnishings.

In 2005, they were forced to evacuate their home as the floodwater rose four feet high. They lived uncomfortably for more than five weeks in a shelter until the water receded. “It affected my family a lot, because my children could not go to school,” said the single parent.

She and others have received some assistance from the government to clean out drainage canals and build higher dams so water cannot easily inundate their land.

The head of the National Drainage and Irrigation Authority, Lionel Wordsworth, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that drains, culverts and other infrastructure in Victoria and adjoining communities have been rehabilitated as part of a recent government project. While he was not aware of the women’s problems, he would investigate them, he added.

STORM DRAINS, EARLY WARNING

Better drainage - through keeping existing drains clear and building new ones - will be key to helping farmers in Guyana deal with increasingly extreme rainfall and flooding, experts say.

Lystra Fletcher-Paul, representative of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Guyana, said drains should be kept clean and clear and higher embankments constructed to stop water coming over the top. “It’s also an issue of using raised beds (for cultivation). When you have a higher bed, the chance of it being flooded is less,” she said.

The FAO official said farmers could also consider raised pens for livestock to prevent them being drowned or washed away. “These are individual things they could do - but as a group they need to be better informed and they need to work more closely with the Ministry of Agriculture and the National Drainage and Irrigation Authority,” she added.

Government engineers could give farmers better advice on drains, and may be able to help them dig out larger storm drains to better protect their fields, she said.

Farmers also need advance warning of climate-related weather events, Fletcher-Paul said.

“If you are aware that you are likely to get rainfall above a certain amount, you are more likely to take precautionary measures,” she said. “This early warning should not only start just days before the event - there are now systems in place (in other countries in the Caribbean) which allow you to predict an event months before.”

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

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