A disaster to weep over or an opportunity to grow up?

3/30 Flash Floods

Two hours of torrential rain poured over Port Louis and its vicinity in the afternoon of Saturday March 30th last, causing flash floods in the central and south side of the City. As in the case of many countries, Mauritius has to reckon with the caprices lashed out by global climate change. This means that chances are we could be struck again and the simple answer is a greater degree of preparedness to deal with calamities.

It is remarkable that, with whatever means they had at hand, the people and the authorities succoured the best they could all those who had been hard hit by the catastrophe. The social solidarity which manifested itself in the situation, set out to restore normalcy in those families and quarters which had been the hardest hit. A highly commendable streak of nationhood and solidarity manifested itself in the hour of need and this became a saving grace as the catastrophe rolled out on the desolate City.

Starting around 2 pm, so much rain had fallen by 3.30 pm that the Signal Mountain could no longer hold it. The water rushed down the flanks of the mountain into Ward IV and on the side of Grand River North West with unexpected force and fury. It swept into Canal Dayot, a densely inhabited area lying to the south west of the City. Despite existing water evacuation systems like the Pouce Stream, it came rushing down into the City centre, drowning the waterfront. The effect was to paralyse the North/South traffic going through Port Louis since that part of the road was under more than one metre of running water, just as it been the case barely 45 days ago on February 13th 2013, albeit with a lesser intensity.

The concerned streets of Port Louis were rapidly transformed into furious waterways of more than a metre at the height of the overflow. The down-slope of the lower part of the City nearer the sea front had the effect of increasing the force of the water current which dashed against walls, barriers, debris of all sorts during its down flow, lodging down into underground car parks when its gravitational passage was blocked. Nobody had thought that so much damage could have been wrought in so little time.

To make matters worse, huge swathes of rushing water coming down from the Pailles and Plaine Lauzun flank of the mountain swirled up on the motorway to the south – transforming it into a river bed — in front of Royal College Port Louis, causing hundreds of cars trying to get out of Port Louis at the moment to float up in the deluge. Along with the waters from Ward IV, this additional flow going in the same direction – the City centre and Caudan – was compounding the effect of the catastrophe. By the same token, the direction taken by the waters was pointing out where its natural outlet was to be found, notably the Caudan and seafront area. Only a much bigger drain than what exists on both sides of the motorway going unobstructed towards a lower point in the sea could have spared transforming the motorway into a torrent of rushing water. This was not there.

The water flow assumed such violence in the space of two hours that those who were caught up in the currents, especially in underpasses and tunnels associated with the newer constructions at the front end of the City had only death to face. Eleven died. The news of this tragedy came as a shock to the nation. It all came so suddenly that it was hard to believe that we had been caught unawares to such an extent in the face of a catastrophe. Had it been a normal working day, the death toll would have been higher since the entire place where most of the victims died is usually teeming with an even bigger regular flow of shoppers and passers-by on those days.

The 3/30 disaster will no doubt be remembered with the same emotional intensity by the new generation (and old) as the deeply distressed feelings that were aroused in the previous generation by the amount of havoc wrought in the island by the passage of two fierce cyclones in succession – Alix and Carol – in 1960. The one good thing about the Mauritian population is that we work our way up each time disaster strikes hard at our door. Resilience in the face of catastrophes has become part of our common culture and this national character must be drawing deep from our shared roots of past suffering.

We have learnt a few good lessons from this latest disaster.

First, in this age of information technology, one can gather all sorts of data – including meteorological data – more efficiently than in the past and adapt it for local more precise weather forecasting. Our weather forecasting and warning systems need to go in this direction. They should draw as much as they can from more advanced operators in the field and pass on the necessary advice for the population to be on the alert well in time. The trap in which many people suddenly found themselves Saturday last, shows that there was a serious deficit in this respect. What amount of rainfall could the mountain not absorb in a given period of time so that it would spill over on to the plains if the intensity of rainfall was too high in the given time frame? This question needs to be scientifically understood so that alerts are launched well in time before we are face-to-face with the inevitable. There must be weather forecasting skills at the Meteorological Department waiting to combine with understanding of geological characteristics so as to deliver with better precision. We need to act, fast.

Second, we may add to this the scant information communicated regarding the extent and range of the disaster to stranded road users, households in the affected areas and to the public in general at the time the disaster was spreading out. People came to know about the danger they were facing when it was already affecting them, not before it struck. This gives an idea of the serious communication deficit which cannot be allowed to carry on in future. It requires putting in place an established hierarchy of information givers to come into action promptly whenever disaster strikes. That was not the case on Saturday. Work needs to be done to make sure that this kind of shortcoming does not recur.

Third, even if relevant meteorological information and communication channels are put in place, there is little one can do to avoid disaster if the basic infrastructure is flawed or defective or if there are repetitive strikes due to the global climate change factor. Climate change or not, no construction engineer of high professional integrity forming part of the authorities’ team will be expected to give a construction permit if the contemplated construction obstructed or stood in the way of natural water evacuation systems or posed a threat to the environment. That would amount to compounding the sort of disaster we saw on Saturday last. We need to repopulate this segment of the public sector workforce with capable and competent individuals who will stand their ground no matter what the consequences for themselves. The gap is waiting to be filled, sooner rather than later.

Fourth, no one can also take it upon himself to build up an inappropriate structure even on his private property or on the drainage system in his area and not be called to account by the concerned authorities. Without delay. But many take up the law in their own hands or influence decisions only to protect their private/commercial interests by lobbying. When private profit overrides all other considerations, we are in for deep trouble. It is time the authorities, seeing things from a higher perspective, stopped all these micro intrusions and distortions which end up bringing the kind of destruction that we are seeing today. We need upright implementers of rules and regulations in the public sector to stop unwieldy private choices negatively affecting the ‘public interest’. Politicians cannot condone what defies strict norms of responsible construction and officers should be empowered to enforce the right decisions without fear or favour. Had this been the case, parts of the harbour front and Caudan constructions would not be standing in the way of efficient water evacuation today. The immediate job is to rectify all that has gone wrong in this respect.

Finally and most importantly, if we need external expertise to cope with immediate situations that have gone out of hand, let us limit this to those who are the best in the matter from across the world and those who have proven practical skills to deal with the matter. Moreover, the time has come to start relying on our own genius in several domains. Our urban planners and engineers have gone to the same universities as those of other more highly regarded countries. They apply the same rational criteria to come to conclusions, as do most of their counterparts from other countries. Our qualified cadres should be given the opportunity to formulate solutions to our problems whenever they spike up, learning from foreign experts at first but aiming to emulate such experts as soon as they can. If we follow this route, we can grow indigenous expertise which, in course of time, could be exported to other countries. Let us use the occasion to groom up the skills of our people as they will eventually master best local factors to help us deal with problems when they recur.

The time has come for action. If we don’t, we’ll be waiting for the next disaster to hit the country due to complacency on our part. It’s too high a price to pay.

* Published in print edition on 5 April 2013

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