The Public of T&T must Wake up and Take Responsibility for Flooding and Rapid Deterioration of Our Country’s Environment
By Carol James PhD. Chairman Guardian Life Wildlife Trust

Stop It! Citizens, stop blaming everyone else but ourselves for the state of the country’s environment.  Current floods are only the symptoms of the massive mismanagement of our islands by EVERYONE, YES, BY EVERYONE, YOU AND ME!  We have either been active participants in destruction of our country’s environment, or passive ones, but we all have contributed!  Such mismanagement has been the result of several different types of human actions in these twin islands of ours.  Let us start with land clearing.  We the citizens have been content to stand by and watch as the hills are stripped of all their life giving and flood management potential!  They bleed through gushing torrents of thick brown fluids every time it rains.

Trees and other vegetation act as nature’s regulators of water emanating from rainfall.  As rain falls, water is trapped on leaves and within soil litter, among roots and within soil and runs off at moderate rates through percolation into streams, into rivers, into aquifers, onto flood plains, through wetlands and eventually to the sea!  Any average CXC Geography or Biology student can tell his parents about this natural cycle, although sadly, he might not have been taught how to apply such knowledge to real life situations.  Stripped of trees and other vegetation, rain falls either onto bare soil, paved earth or roofs and driveways of buildings and moves rapidly to the sea eliminating the intervening water retention and percolation mechanisms of nature.  We have thus changed this natural water cycle to one in which rain falls and moves at exceedingly rapid pace to the sea BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY!  ‘Any means necessary’ translates to water passing through our homes, our factories, our roadways, our cars, through or over any structure that impedes its passage, such as inadequate drains, bridges and culverts, hence what we term flooding!  Nature produces floods occasionally especially when excessive rainfall and high tides coincide.  However, over the past few years, with every normal or slightly above normal, rainy-season rainfall in Trinidad, some part of this island floods causing severe personal and collective distress.

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Who or what is the cause of such frequent and excessive flooding in Trinidad? (not yet as bad in Tobago and hats off to citizens there).  We, the various publics must plead guilty.  At the level of the ordinary individual, unacceptable approaches to garbage disposal are widespread.  We toss everything into the environment, from candy wrappers to disposable diapers, from old cars to fridges and mattresses, from construction materials to dead animals, from disposable cups, plates and plastic bottles to garden cuttings, from fast food boxes to filled garbage bags, and the list is endless!   Additionally, at the corporate level, efficient standards of waste disposal are generally not factored into the cost of doing business so all citizens are forced to bear the costs of moving commercial wastes from off our urban streets daily (e.g., the commercial centres of Port of Spain, San Fernando, San Juan, Arima or Chaguanas every evening Monday to Saturday), or from our rural environments where industrial and agricultural waste is disposed of indiscriminately, polluting the land and blocking drainage mechanisms (see and smell dumped chicken parts, rotting market produce, shells from the lucrative coconut trade or remnants from fish catches left on beaches after only the saleable fish have been removed) .  Legitimate and illegal loggers leave remnants of their timber harvesting business strewn around on the forest floor awaiting transportation by waters from heavy rainfall to block watercourses, drainage channels and culverts.    Thus, after the slightest rainfall, logs, dead animals, furniture, appliances, food and beverage containers of all kinds can be seen in all watercourses and floating off our shores.  Citizens, check this out for yourselves.

Add to all of this the results of actions by public and private real estate developers, quarry operators, slash and burn agriculturists etc etc. and by a government bureaucracy that enables each in these categories to get away with environmental travesty on a daily basis.  Do we understand and react to the consequences described above when private land developers build houses on hillsides and other elevated land all over the country but especially in the Northern Range, on slopes that sometimes literally appear to the naked eye to be vertical in profile, i.e., on slopes greater than 1 in 4?  Personal profits and fortunes are being made at the expense of the general public who suffer the consequences of flooding.  (We have witnessed all week via our television sets and newspapers such suffering so no need to spell it out again here).  Real estate on the hillsides is either sold or rented for mega bucks so transformation of forests to the built environment is now cancerous.  In the hustle, even rivers are diverted.  Aggregate from quarries sell at astronomical rates but all of these profits go into private pockets while citizens pay in emotional and financial suffering through flooding and sometimes in lost lives (two hikers recently drowned in waters whose velocity was driven by fast run off from quarrying in the Guanapo hills…. A point not yet examined or acknowledged).

The natural synergies between hills and wetlands have been totally disrupted in Trinidad.  In natural systems, hillside runoff from forested slopes, is further held in floodplains where aquifers are recharged, and during excessive rainfall and storms, mangroves play their roles in managing water flow.  However, the artificially fast rate of runoff from cleared hillsides forces water to pass through non-existent floodplains and non-existent wetlands into coastlines altered and extended through land filling, and rushes around other parts of the coastlines causing unprecedented erosion.  Thus, marine life is also affected.  Did we ever grasp this link between deforestation and fishing?  Do we appreciate the fact that the quarry operator, the real estate developer or the timber harvester, through their personal commercial actions, have such far reaching impacts?  Can each be held accountable?  No, because it is difficult to prove such causal relationships; which specific clearance caused what specific result?  This conundrum will never be solved.  So prevention is the only recourse.  All hillsides above a certain slope, river reserves and mangroves, must be left as GREENBELTS to enable the country to benefit from the ecological and social attributes of intact forests, rivers and wetlands.

When will this current state of madness stop?  Look at every valley of the Northern Range over the past 15 years!  Every one is scarred through quarrying, logging and clearing for housing developments:   From Maraval to Morne Coco, from Santa Cruz to Maracas, from Caura to Guanapo, from Arima Blanchisseuse to Matura.  Does anyone care? Do we individually care?  No, we turn blind eyes as it does not affect us directly!  Not YET anyway!  But indirectly it does.  We pay in taxes or lost opportunities for sustainable development of our country through better use of public funds currently spent on flood cleanup, furniture and appliance replacement, food provisioning, and lost crops, every time it rains now.  We even pay with our lives.    But the real estate developer , logger or the quarry operator is never held responsible!  His profits are sacrosanct!  He makes his money and moves on!  This is excused by the opinion that he has moved the country forward because we are now more ‘developed’, many more beautiful buildings are evident all around the country!  Have we agitated and demanded that his cost of doing business must include moneys spent on addressing the consequences of his ‘development’?  I am not in a position to include considerations here about the effects of loss of biodiversity and what species loss can do to human wellbeing and the economy as this will take a whole other article.  But when included, what is likely to emerge is that we might have regressed rather than develop to our potential.

As I write this a politician is on the radio blaming God for the current spate of flooding!  Unusually heavy rains he says but he also grudgingly conceded that the pace of development is a factor, as existing drainage cannot cope with the heavier runoff from such development.  As the country ‘develops’ rapidly, he implies, flooding is a logical consequence.  His solution, build more drains.  But remember that water will run to the sea by any means necessary!  Will such new drainage take this into account when natural flood plains of rivers have been ‘developed’?  Witness nearly every river with its narrowed water courses where home owners, business places or farmers surreptitiously gain more land by filling in and in many cases paving or building retaining walls along riverbanks then ‘developing’ these new areas.  Do the research yourself citizen.  Roll down your car windows and look around you! 

Have you noticed also that low lying lands are being filled in all over the country?  Natural flood plains of major rivers, mangrove lands, the coastline, nothing has escaped.  There is rampant filling of such land throughout Trinidad.  Indeed, owners of such land invite persons to dump discarded construction concrete or steel to “fill up” such land to create artificial islands or coastlines that will not flood.  Again, personal benefit over public good predominates.  Examples; low lying land in Aranguez, Caroni, Oropouche, Nariva, St. Augustine South, Carapo and western peninsular coastlines are being transformed by such indiscriminate filling in.  So the country’s natural water cycling and beach maintenance processes are being impacted.  But nature will inevitably prevail and water will adjust its flow regardless of human interference.  Then we the public, will complain about flooding and officialdom will come obligingly along placing “band aid on the sores” every rainy season, appearing inadequate and spending our money badly!  When will the causal factors be examined and corrective official policy and implementation action be taken to halt the decline in the state of our environment?!  No, it is far easier to blame someone, anyone, anything; political foes, government officials, even God and point to the fact that other countries suffer worst floods than us.  But do we take the time to examine and apply where feasible, what other countries have done to address land and water management issues, even those that lie below sea level such as the Scandinavian countries?  Development is necessary and there are sustainable means of achieving this in our country.  However the current approach is not working towards the public good.

Let us wake up before we become accustomed to life in the quagmire of a despoiled environment and the resulting floods every rainy season henceforth.  Demand change and intervention at every level of bureaucracy but especially at local government levels.