All local communities should take the initiative, form environmental groups and ensure that measures taken to deal with local issues are taken after consultation with them
By Sada Reddi
Many must have heard about inhabitants of Trois Boutiques lambasting the sugar estates for being responsible for the recent flooding in their village. One would have thought that those words came from an activist of a left-wing party or an eco-warrior shaking his fist at one of the big boys of the corporate sector threatening the environment with his so-called ‘development project’. This was the judgment of local inhabitants who had been devastated by the loss of their belongings during the recent flood. After years of patient construction of their houses and their lives, they are now back to square one.
We have not heard a whisper about the causes of the flood from other sources or even an acknowledgement followed by an apology that they might have been responsible for the disaster, nor even a plain rebuttal.
The inhabitants know better. They have lived in that village for several generations, the torrent they saw recently descending on their village from the cane fields was unprecedented. They had never seen such a thing before.
In fact, as they explained, poor land management and the levelling of cane lands for easier cultivation and harvesting have destroyed all the natural drains which in the past slowed down the flow of rain water from these fields. Irresponsibility, short sightedness or incompetence, or perhaps a combination of all these factors are responsible for the disaster.
There was a time – only a few years back – when scientists from the corporate sector had raised an alarm about the dangers of abandoning sugarcane cultivation. They argued that it would be a disaster for it would cause soil erosion which would wash away the top soil and irremediably damage our beaches and lagoons. Now that cane lands are being transformed into IRS and other property development schemes, thus increasing considerably the flow of water overland, no such voice is being heard anymore.
Yet the voices of the victims and the value of local knowledge and experience have always been ignored in our society. The absence of consultations with the local inhabitants together with the right arrogantly proclaimed by the authorities, both in the public and private sectors, that they know everything and better have always been a recipe for disaster. It’s the same scenario that happens almost everywhere: local consultation is given short shrift whether it is at Trois Boutiques, Souillac, Le Morne, Albion, Fond du Sac, Cottage and Riche Terre.
At Cottage, shortly after the floods, a board quickly announced that urgent drain works would start very soon without any formal consultation with the inhabitants and ascertaining the cause of the floods. For the inhabitants, the major cause of flooding were changes in land preparation and management on the sugar estates which also need to be addressed. The use of machinery and other vehicles on cane lands for cultivation and harvesting has compacted the soil between the rows of sugar cane plants. In the past, the soil and the ridges covered with trash, slowed the flow of water and helped the water to percolate the soil. That is no more the case.
The compacted soil causes massive rainfall run-off and speeds up the flow of water to the other sugarcane fields, which then goes to flood major roads where drains between the cane fields and the roads are inexistent. Many villages in the northern plains, which are surrounded by cane fields, remain vulnerable to floods; that is due mainly to the topography of these villages and/or the absence of drains or water ponds.
There are admittedly other man-made activities which contribute to flooding in the 40 or more villages and areas in the island. The destruction of wetlands, lack of proper planning and non-adherence to building guidelines, the mushrooring of structures which block the flow of rainwater, concrete or tarred surfaces in our own yards – all these prevent water from being absorbed into the ground.
The causes of flooding will be different in each case. For example in the area around La Louise, many of the drains which were functioning well in the past have been neglected, covered and filled up. Near the Cathedral in Port Louis, a drain made up of red bricks which carried water from the area near the citadel to the Ruisseau du Pouce has been covered and tarred over until it was discovered only recently. There must be numerous examples of drains which have been tarred over in Port-Louis. I have a vivid recollection of a few of them during my childhood days at Jemmapes Street. They were covered with iron railings, deep enough from a child’s perspective for we could never get back our marbles which accidentally fell in them. I wonder whether these still exist.
Too often we tend to look at the flooding areas and refuse to make a thorough investigation with help from the locals to identify the real sources of the floods. It is easy to identify the absence of drains or conclude that roads which slope towards particular localities are the main culprits. We should probe deeper and try to identify the local factors to explain the accumulation of rain water in the first place, for instance why it flows from one locality to another or overflows onto the roads to cause the flooding. That is the question that should be addressed first; it’s the one that underpins all others. Tough as it may seem, that is not a question that should be left only to experts.
We can only get to the beginning of an answer if we take time to consult the local inhabitants and carry out broader topographical surveys. In other words, the authorities should take a wider approach to the problem of flooding in the island and bring in all the stakeholders and the various local communities on board if we are serious about finding credible and sustainable solutions.
It should not become the new normal that the lives and properties of local inhabitants should be at risk or people should continue to experience moments of anxiety and uncertainty when there is heavy rainfall. We do not have much control over extreme weather events as a result of climate change but we can anticipate, learn from our mistakes and build our defences with regard to man-made calamities.
The flooding over the past weekend bears testimony to our failure to come with bold and creative solutions. Flooding is a multi-dimensional problem bringing in its wake new and ever-changing challenges. Our infrastructure is all connected and is always undergoing rapid changes. More often responsibility, ownership, expertise to tackle flooding are separated and dispersed so that it is difficult to get a holistic perspective of the problem.
We need immediate but also medium- and long-term solutions. But what is primordial is that at every step of the way, in all these different stages we must tap into local resources and experience to tackle the problem in a realistic way. All local communities should take the initiative, form environmental groups and ensure that measures taken to deal with local issues are taken after consultation with them and not at their expense as is presently the case.
* Published in print edition on 22 February 2019