Climate Change: The New Normal

We in Mauritius must expect that we too will be impacted, with effects on infrastructure, agriculture and therefore food supply and security, energy supply…

It has been said that our destiny is geological, and events such the tsunami that caused havoc at Phuket in Thailand several years ago, a first in recent times, seem to prove the point. However, closer to us than tsunamis are the effects of climate change, which is in fact the new normal across the world, with unusual patterns of weather confirming that this is indeed the case. We in Mauritius must expect that we too will be impacted, with effects on infrastructure, agriculture and therefore food supply and security, energy supply and on a host of other sectors too. This calls for advance planning, using resources and expertise available locally along with inputs from other sources where necessary, and devising solutions adapted to our local context that should preferably be not too complex or costly so as to be sustainable over the long term.

A little historical background is necessary for us to better appreciate what is at stake. According to experts in the field, climate change is something that has been happening from geological times, occurring as a result of natural causes. We have all heard about ice ages in the past. There have also been cosmic cataclysmic events that have brought about dramatic shifts in the physical environment and the habitat, such as the wiping out of dinosaurs by a mega meteorite falling to Earth about 65 million years ago.

What is now referred to worldwide by the term climate change is the resultant of a cumulative, man-made process that begun with the advent of the industrial revolution about 200 years ago. A crucial effect of this revolution has been the production of what are known as the GHGs: Green House Gases, the main one being carbon dioxide. CHGs trap heat in the atmosphere, thus raising its temperature. Although there have been fluctuations in atmospheric temperature in the past, since the industrial revolution the atmospheric temperature has been consistently on the rise, and in terms of impact, even a rise of one degree Celsius can have significant consequences on a global scale, amongst which for example melting of the polar ice and mountain glaciers, rise in the sea level. There are also unusual patterns of climate at a regional level that lead to more frequent and out of season catastrophes which are more intense: floods, cyclones and storms, earthquakes, droughts and so on.

Although the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has from time to time been criticized by deniers of climate change, its conclusion that it is human activities that are in the main responsible for the acceleration of the latter is now no longer in dispute. As far as we in Mauritius are concerned, in practical terms of course we have to be aware of the impact of climate change overall, but at least since Alix and Carol in 1960 and the succession of cyclones that have followed since, we all know and have experienced the vagaries of the weather. Besides cyclones, which are less frequent, these include periods of dryness alternating with rainfall over several days such as we had been having prior to cyclone Berguitta. Given our weather history – as also the reality of similar events in other countries from which lessons can be drawn – over the past decades, we have no excuse for not taking measures to cope with the consequences. And this is a collective responsibility that engages all stakeholders, from the individual to the community, to the government and to the private sector.

Nowhere has this been more visible than in the laying out of infrastructure to facilitate and cater to the needs of our socioeconomic development: the extension of road networks all over the country with the parallel expansion of our vehicular fleet; the construction of buildings for industry and for the tourism sector; provision for our energy needs; constructions for housing, government administration, educational institutions and others undertaken by individuals or entities – are some of the areas that come to mind. Much of this has meant covering an increasing area of land surface by concrete, and practically all analysts have pinned down many of the woes associated with flooding to this phenomenon of galloping ‘betonisation’.

But this is not only the view of experts: even alert individuals in localities across the island from the south to the north, and in the east (the west it seems is not so much affected) have pointed out how neighbours and others have ignored building norms and have covered with concrete slabs natural drains that used to allow exit of water between houses. And we have to add to that the unacceptable habits of Mauritians of clogging up drains by throwing all manner of debris, much of which is plastic. No later, for example, than a few days after the flash floods that took place in Port Louis a few years ago, a vendor who was winding up business for the day at the Jardin de la Compagnie was seen to collect his garbage in black plastic bags and nonchalantly flung them into the canal that had just been cleaned by the authorities. Unfortunately such behavior persists all over the island despite warnings and appeals by the authorities as much as by other stakeholders concerned with this onslaught on our commons.

At the national level, deficiencies and failures in planning, commissioning, and implementation of projects and in subsequent maintenance have resulted in major problems. The glaring example is the Verdun bypass road, where the giving way of a portion of the road (NB: less than half a km out of the tens of km that were built at that time), and the falling of rocks from the surrounding hills has been causing much distress to road users for the past three years nearly. A plethora of consultants that have been called in have as yet not been able to resolve the issue, and the latest recourse to a French consultant only means that the others have failed somewhere – so that there is no guarantee that this one will succeed either. For all we know, despite the promise of a prompt solution since the crack appeared in the road, and which has not happened, it may well be that none will be found too soon either. Although we must hope against hope for the better.

It is too easy to blame the government – past or present — or the Minister, but it should be clear to any right thinking person that it is rather the contractors and their experts that should take the responsibility and any blame for such a state of affairs. The minister may be accountable to the public, but cannot be responsible for the technical issues that are the province of the experts who worked on the project. The bureaucracy or the Minister may be concerned where procurement or allocation of contract have been inappropriately done, but given the protracted stalemate on the Verdun problem, it is time to conduct to commission a thorough study so as to situate responsibilities, dereliction of which is causing not only so much distress to the population of road users, but equally is costing millions to the taxpayers. How will government recoup these millions: what will be the response of the contractors and consultants?

At the end of the day, we have to accept that the human element is the most important factor in the causation and the management of our troubles, and unless there is a willingness to work together for the national interest – with the example coming from the top – we will be failing ourselves and our future generations.

 

* Published in print edition on 19 January 2018

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