Between the Sea and the Flood
by Rakesh Rampertab

“The whole of this land is formed by the mud which has been brought down by these great rivers…”
—Anthony Trollope, 19C English travel writer

“From Pakaraimas’ peaks of power…”
—Guyana National Song

The Management of Mud

After centuries, the Amerindians are still correct. Guyana is a “land of many water” that was created, if only partially, out of the ocean and its brown Amazonian rivers. For centuries, it or its coastal plain has been described in relation to water. The English historian, James Rodway, speaks of cultivated land as being “the scene of a struggle with the sea in front and the flood behind.” And in the same late nineteenth century, Anthony Trollope, the English writer tells us in his West Indies and the Spanish Main of its hospitable peoples and large sugar industry, in great contrast to the villainous reputation Guiana had earned for herself; “There never was a land so ill spoken of…,” a land apparently described as a “low, swampy, muddy strip of alluvial soil, infested with rattlesnakes…” He also writes of the mosquitoes and marabuntas, and of the flatness of the country; “The country certainly is flat…the eye meets no rising. Everything stands on the same level.”

When the Dutch and British first began to cultivate the verdant coastal strip of Guiana, the task of resisting the sea from the front and the flood water from behind was a task to contend with. In a book that was written under the auspices of Forbes Burnham, the Guyanese historian and old school master, Mr. Vere T. Daly, writes in A Short History of the Guyanese People that these early settler-planters “inherited not a stable situation but a very unstable and complex one.” The resulting plan to manage this “unstable” situation involving arable lands amounted to “a sea-wall at the front to keep out the sea at high tides, a dam at the other end to keep out swamp-water…with a sluice to permit of the discharge of accumulated rain water into the sea at low tide if necessary” (Raymond T. Smith, historian and sociologist, British Guiana, p 6).

Guyana today is the result of thousands of years of erosion, soil attrition, and invasion of the sea into land. The original remains of Guyana exist in the hinterland in the ancient mountain ranges such as the Pakaraimas and Kanuku. Erosion of these ranges have led to the white sand now common in places as far out as Timehri. The mud, however, upon which civilizations have now lived and farmed, was dragged by the rivers from the hinterland as well as pushed up from the sea, by both water and wind.

Guyana, more or less, belongs to the ocean and the rivers and this is why the Amerindians were correct in naming this dangerous locale. The ocean refuses to renounce the area, flooding it at high tides throughout the centuries (such as in 1855, swamping the Kingston area, and along the East Coast in 1934), constantly eroding the shoreline. A look at any old map from as late as two hundred years ago will show a coastline that once protruded into the ocean (see left). It is this extended landmass, under the pressure of the ocean that the Dutch attempted to rescue with their extraordinary engineering. Where the Romans departed with aqueduct, the Dutch constructed sea-walls.
Old map showing a protruding G/town coastline.

Today, the melting of the colossal ice masses in temperate world regions and global warming resulting in unusually unpredictable weather patterns, add unprecedented pressure to this flat alluvia coastal landscape. And these, in addition to neglect and improper drainage and maintenance, primarily under local village councils, are essential parts of the story of the January 2005 flood.

Irrigation and Distrust

The safety of the land was always paramount as is the industry it fostered. But it was never enough, according to historian Smith, to merely cultivate free of the “benefits of a highly scientific agriculture” community, including apt land irrigation. Before the arrival of the draglines, the “shovel men” kept trenches and other waterways clean—under the tutelage of estate management from Bookers to Guysuco. Unfortunately, the closure of several estates nationwide has left villages (e.g., Leonora and Diamond) vulnerable to their sprawling networks of canals (see photo) and drains clogged from vegetation and waste.

Historically, drainage maintenance was a controversial issue between plantation owners and villagers. Newly formed villages struggled to finance such extensive responsibilities. Thus, despite protests from plantation owners, this job was transferred (Ordinance of 1883) by the colony’s governor, Sir Henry Irving, to the Public Works Department, placing it directly under the British, which resulted in the East Demerara Water Conservancy (EDWC) providing water to the early East Coast villages, while some on the West Coast received water from the Boerasirie Conservancy.

But today, one hundred years later, it is still a thorny issue. Farmers on the East and West Coasts have complained bitterly against the government’s ignoring their views, and the subsequent distrust surfaced in the Mahaica-Mahaicony regions (severely flooded in 1996), after Mahaica was flooded (see photo) deliberately to reduce the dangerously high water level in the EDWC which, ordinarily, contained an unimaginable 100 billion gallons of water. [Its capacity level measuring at 57.5 GD, rose to as much a 57.9 GD or some 4-5 feet recently.] Mr. Pooran Deojohn of Little Biaboo, Mahaica noted his frustration; “I told the Minister of Agriculture, the Regional Chairman and the engineer to build a dam to protect the crops when the place was dry but only now they are trying to build the dam. That can't do anything…" (Stabroek News [SN] 2/10/2005.)

Distrust is everywhere. And while the President of Guyana and the Leader of the Opposition held hands at a prayer meeting, hands cannot suffice where trust does not exist. Despite warnings from the National Drainage and Irrigation Board (NDIB), Mahaica farmers flood water into an already swollen Mahaica creek. And while NDC chairmen defended their mandates, civilians such as the General Secretary of the Guyana Rice Producers' Association, Mr. Dharamkumar Seeraj, feels betrayed; “But they (drainage officials) are telling the president that everything is in order and working well” (SN 1/31/2005). In, parliament, the government refused calls for an inquiry into the causes of the flood, perhaps to safeguard the engineering company that was awarded a contract to repair the EDWC, and has done substandard work resulting in further destabilization of the dam.

(Above, old "Dutch" seawall at CI on the West Coast of Demerara. Photo, Rakesh Rampertab.)

Hamilton Green, the Basin Villages, and Pigs

While old Georgetown is famous for many things, new Georgetown is not the “breadbasket of the Caribbean,” but a city wrecked by election disturbances, non-working traffic lights, and swollen un-silted canals. It is a landscape rapidly degenerating under public neglect by the Mayor and City Council, headed by Mayor Hamilton Green. The city suffers as a result of division between Mr. Green and his subordinates, an overflow from PNC partisan politics in which city councilors, most of whom are PNC-affiliates, regard the former PNC leader and prime minister in contempt since his ousting from the PNC party by decease party leader, Mr. Desmond Hoyte. It is ironic that while some rightfully asked for his resignation, the mayor declares, “our maintenance programme has been found wanting, thanks to some bad attitudes at several levels” (Chronicle, 1/30/2005).

In similar vein, two weeks into the flood, government engineers remarked that the basin villages (Good Hope, Buxton, et cetera), acquire the most flood water because they are the lowest of villages. This is nothing new. The two things very common in this “basin” area are floods from rainfall, and the sighting of mud-drenched pigs. Interestingly, Mr. Hubert Harper, an elder originally from Golden Grove, noted that generations ago, “rangers [village-office] used to run the canals to ensure that they were cleared. People's pigs never used to be roaming the streets…” (Kaieteur News, late January, 2005).

The future of Guyana exists in 100 billion gallons of water, and this demands an urgency which may prove difficult if Guyanese insist on being complacent with their future. The old habits of neglect and excess will flourish, as will race-politics. The mayor of Georgetown and his councilors will remain in office fist-fighting, university students will be deprived of information for research projects, journalists will ask mundane questions without pressuring authorities, government engineers will go on ignoring local farmers, and contracted engineering companies will enjoy the luxury of millions of dollars squandered without being prosecuted in court for placing an entire nation at risk. It may only be a matter of time before that 100 billion gallons of water try to find its way back to the sea again.

[Editor's Note: Please see our Flood Page which includes a number of galleries of relevant images etc.]


February 14, 2005
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