Business Page The great flood

Sunday, January 23rd, 2005







                                           four-lane Better Hope Public Road under water. (Photo by Jules Gibson)



Any attempt to draw comparisons with the Boxing Day tsunami disaster runs the risk of callously misunderstanding the scale of that disaster, which affected eleven countries in Asia and Africa and took with it a reported quarter million lives, destroying large chunks of countries, ruining industries, creating untold numbers of orphans with a future as uncertain as the weather, and once again raising the question where was God? We are fortunate that deaths and injuries from the flooding which has swathes of the East Demerara under several feet of water are so far in single digits, but in terms of the percentage of the population affected, the scale of our own flood disaster is quite substantial and will carry with it a lifetime of bad memories.

After one week of flooding in large areas of Demerara, questions of leadership, preparedness and competence are giving way to a sense of bemusement and hopelessness. The Misery Index is measured by the depth of water affecting households rather than the resulting personal losses and suffering. We respond to stories of people's plight by telling them that we have just come from an area where the water is two feet higher. In flood-stricken areas, food is being distributed by road vehicles leaving those trapped in their houses behind the public roads to fend for themselves, cut off from food, water, sanitation and communication.

Late last year, a cartoon in this newspaper had two hurricanes bypassing Guyana as they crossed the Atlantic from Africa on their way through the Caribbean towards Florida. One of those hurricanes was heard to ask about Guyana, and the response was that "they have our own man-made disasters," suggesting that we earn being spared any natural ones. The rains or the floods of 2005 have certainly put paid to the notion that nature behaves logically or has a sense of humour.

A bright start:

For many, the year started on a fairly bright note with parties galore, the Finance Minister offering the country the pleasant surprise that Budget 2005 would be laid in Parliament before the end of January, and reports that sugar and rice - two of the economy's staples - had wonderful results for 2004. In fact, the only news which appeared to interest the media was the non-offer by a regional conglomerate to take over a national icon - an issue on which the President of the country and the Leader of the Opposition found time and common ground. It seemed that the stars were finally shining for and on Guyana. That was until last Saturday, January 15.

On that morning the heavens opened and the rains came, and came and came. Within hours the Met folks were reporting record-breaking levels of rainfall and the drains, then the streets and then houses were all overflowing with water which had by then become contaminated and destructive. Pardon the pun but it all seemed to have come out of the blue. For all the media and paper experts which this country produces in abundance, no one appeared to have had a clue about the events of that day - our media are far too obsessed with murders, character assassinations, and what the President did or did not do on a particular day to bother about impending catastrophe.

Mea not culpa:

But not having done anything to alert the long-suffering population of this blessed country that that morning's flooding was not a flash in the pan, the authorities showed their unique managerial skills by doing what they do best - spin and blame. The President was most caustic - and most unfair - in his derision of the Civil Defence Commission (CDC), an (under-)funded body led by the Office of the President and headed by none other than the eloquent Dr Roger Luncheon, the Cabinet Secretary. In the private sector's response to the Grenada hurricane relief effort I worked closely with the operatives of the CDC who impressed me with their selfless commitment, competence and capacity and willingness for hard work. An apology to the CDC staff is the least to be expected and it is up to its Chairman, Dr Luncheon to ensure that justice and decency prevail.

The President himself admitted at a press conference that we are not prepared to deal with the unusual - the very nature of emergencies. One characteristic of this government's management is that no one is held responsible for acts of omission or commission, no matter how incompetent. As a result, one week after the beginning of a major disaster resulting from years of neglect and incompetence, Guyanese are in the dark as to its principal causes or how long its immediate effects are likely to last; our drainage and irrigation experts in whose hands we have placed billions of dollars and the safety and security of the country have gone silent with the face of mea not culpa; there is yet to be formulated any sensible plan to deal with the immediate and personal tragedies faced by a large body of the country's population; or to identify and cost the measures to deal with the causes and cures of the disaster; or worse still to define the costly reconstruction measures to restore normalcy and as best as possible to avoid a recurrence. Nothing has been more frustrating than to witness the slow, ponderous and ineffective response to the disaster with just about everything happening - if at all - several days later than an emergency would require.

From the beginning, the real professionals should have been called in, affected parts of the country should have been designated disaster areas, a state of emergency announced, an international appeal made for assistance and persons of competence appointed to head the relief efforts. A state of emergency was reported to have been declared but the effects are far from apparent, and a Joint Operations Command set up but effectively subordinated to parallel and superior political structures and authorities. We dither about appealing to the international community for assistance over a disaster of historic proportions but cannot see the inconsistency with having the IMF and the western countries in particular telling us how to run the day-to-day affairs of the country.

The time has long passed to remind us of the farce at the Georgetown City Council, but Mayor Hamilton Green or his Town Clerk can hardly be blamed for the ravages on the East Coast and West Bank Demerara. The fact is that Mayor Green and the Councillors can display their management skills to the amusement of the nation and cost to the citizenry despite the expiry of their shelf life only because of bureaucratic indecision and political incompetence. The decades- old policy to allow squatting by individuals and businesses to take place on reserves to which politicians have more often than not turned a blind eye, while those in opposition have actively and lawlessly encouraged, could not be expected to be without consequences. The destruction of democracy at the village level and the centralisation of revenues and power have meant that there are no lines of responsibility or authority in Georgetown or along the East Coast. The irresistible tendency to micro-manage and the life-tenure which ministers seem to enjoy, regardless of capability or performance are guaranteed to produce the kind of failures to which we have become accustomed and the disaster which we now face.

On a positive note, stories abound of the heroism and public spiritedness of villagers along the East Coast, and no doubt elsewhere. Many respond to the telephone numbers on their television screens offering their time, their vehicles and other resources only to find that the numbers do not work. The stoicism of the people in the face of adversity and incompetence is truly admirable. There is something about Guyanese that is special and unique. Unfortunately, however, the crisis has also brought out some of our worst qualities with numerous reports of food and foodstuff destined for the needy being diverted to friends or sold to those in desperate need. Some of the very merchants who publicly donate to telethons towards the relief efforts in other countries are exploiting the consequent shortages with greedy price gouging. Yet not a word from the Georgetown Chamber of Commerce which represents those very merchants! Sad to say but the private sector leaders have done little to enhance their reputation for imagination, planning or competence. Many of the country's leading food houses are deriving substantial business from the relief efforts. Let us hope that they are more considerate.

The economic cost:

Already Georgetown has lost one full week's work. If the word 'fortunate' is inappropriate, we can at least be thankful and must keep our fingers crossed that major sectors of the economy have not been affected. That does not mean, however, that good fortune will persist or that the cost to the economy will be negligible. Guysuco's fields on the lower East Coast are under water and the volume and quality of sugar produced by those estates are likely to be affected. And is the rice sector on the West Demerara under threat? Depending on the scope of the national response, the floods will cost the country tens of billions of scarce dollars, exacerbating an already weak economy that cannot pay public servants a decent salary, and operates huge deficits financed by borrowings.

One of the immediate casualties of the floods is the national budget which would demand radical changes in focus and a reworking of the numbers. Real growth is almost certain to be affected, and tax revenues reduced as the impact of the floods flows through to businesses' bottom line. Just as the commercial banks were recovering from the crisis of receiverships into which so many prominent companies were placed, they will now be faced with requests for write-offs, moratoria and additional funds to help their customers back on their feet. Companies like Courts, Singers and Fogarty's, which are heavily exposed to the domestic, hire-purchase borrowers will be badly hit, while the insurance companies which have suffered major losses from fires in recent years will face a number of claims. Tax revenues could be severely affected. But the real and personal losses will be felt by the hard-pressed working and unemployed class for whom recovery may seem hopeless.

Conclusion: Pretend constructively:

The tsunami-affected areas have been so devastated that they have to be rebuilt from the drawing-board. We are fortunate not to have been so badly damaged that we have to start from scratch, but let us for a change pretend constructively. Let us act as if we have been. Let us reshape the landscape as it should be. The grave infrastructural problems will not be solved by political rhetoric or fudging the issues. We are not a rich country that can succeed on an edifice of lawlessness, mismanagement and pet projects.

We are facing a crisis of management as well as nature. Floods 2005 should persuade us that we have to change personnel, to rebuild structures and capacity, to alter our mindset and do things differently - to forgo those pet projects in favour of real development, to think and act sensibly. If we do not, then we may as well prepare for disasters becoming normal occurrences in our lives.