Saturday, November 05, 2011

Guyana's coastal population faces threat of sea level rise

From: Alertnet  ; By Johann Earle

A woman walks on the beach in Georgetown, Guyana in the early morning of November 26, 2010. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

MAHAICONY, Guyana (AlertNet) – Rising sea levels caused by climate change are threatening the coast of Guyana, where most of the country’s population and almost all of its economic activity are located.

Despite the presence of defensive walls, Guyana ’s coast is highly vulnerable to flooding linked to sea level rise. With the coastal population continually expanding, thousands of new homes are built on low-lying land every year.

“Here in Guyana the difficulty of planning is compounded because we are below sea level on the coast,” said Guyana ’s Minister of Housing and Water, Irfaan Ali.

“The threat of rising seas poses a difficulty, especially since a major segment of the population lives in (coastal) urban areas,” he said.

Ninety percent of this South American nation’s population of 755,000 now live within 100 km (60 miles) of the coast. More than 400,000 live in what researchers refer to as the lower elevation coastal zone, including about 240,000 residents of the capital, Georgetown .

From 2006 to 2010, over 18,000 new plots of land were allocated for housing construction in Guyana, mainly on the coast, according to the government.

HOUSES ON PILINGS?

The government and other experts are now exploring ways in which Guyanese will have to adapt to climate change if they are to continue living in coastal areas. Those may include building new homes on raised pilings, at least three feet above the ground, and improving drainage systems.

A particular problem is the urbanisation of historic flood zones, which makes the coastline and its inhabitants increasingly vulnerable to flooding and erosion, fresh water shortages and loss of coastal ecosystems.

In the once rural but now rapidly urbanising community of Mahaicony, 55 km (35 miles) southeast of Georgetown, farmers say they are losing crops and animals to increasing severe flooding.

“During the last flood (in December 2010 and January 2011) we lost 10 acres of rice, and the rice that was left was below the (normal) yield,” said Vidya Singh, who farms rice, cash crops and livestock.

Singh said many of the residents of the area would like to move but they have no means of doing so. 

“Whenever the rainy season comes we have to prepare for this. The farmers may move for a while but they do not have anything else to do so they go back,” she said.  

Kushpaul Sharma, another farmer who also raises fish, said the water “was about a foot high on my land” during the same floods, which killed two of his cows and caused extensive damage to his fish ponds.

“I lost about one million hassars,” said Sharma, referring to a fish commonly eaten in Guyana .

E. Lance Carberry, a member of the Guyanese parliament’s natural resources committee, said that those planning coastal settlements must consider the effects of rising seas.

“We obviously have to look very carefully at the question of human settlements and where they are located and at the risk of flooding and inundation,” he said.

On particular problem, he said, is the rising water table beneath coastal land. As sea level increases, “it is going to become more and more difficult to manage drainage and irrigation,” Carberry said.

He does not advocate banning construction in at-risk areas, but suggests there should be more investment in and careful management of drainage systems if construction is to continue in flood-prone areas.

RETHINKING WATER

The threat of sea level rise has big implications for coastal Guyana ’s drinking water supply, according to Ali, the housing and water minister. The ministry has embarked on building a comprehensive water resources management system that it hopes will ensure the availability of water to residents.

Rather than relying on a traditional, fragmented approach to water management, which has led to poor services and unsustainable water use, the new system is based on an ecosystem approach, in which water is seen as both a natural resource and an economic good.

It aims, through better regulation of water use, to ensure enough water is available for people, agriculture, industry and natural ecosystems. The strategy is one being adopted by a variety of Caribbean states through the Global Water Partnership, a network of organisations that work on water security.

In Georgetown, the capital, a growing number of new buildings are now being constructed on raised pilings to mitigate the threat of flooding.

The move follows a recommendation by the Central Housing and Planning Authority – following severe flooding in 2005 – that people build their houses at least three feet above ground.

Rawle Edinboro, the chief development planner at the authority, acknowledged that the recommendation was not legally enforceable, and that building on pilings was too expensive for some people.

The authority has not monitored compliance with the recommendation for raised buildings, Edinboro said, but he is confident residents are becoming more sensitive to the climate pressures and growing flooding risk.

Charles Sohan, an engineer affiliated to the Guyana Association of Professional Engineers, said while the recommendation for raised buildings is a good one, it must go hand in hand with improved drainage in the housing communities to provide faster outlets for the water.

“There must be a way for the water to be drained off the land. This is because the water will run from the raised foundations into the homes that are not raised,” he said.

Edinboro said that the Guyana National Bureau of Standards is drafting a new building code, but that it has not yet been finalized and only a few designers and architects are using it.

“The planners of new housing settlements ought to take account of what is happening on the coast,” he said.

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

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