Tragic Floods of 30 March 2013

Government in Disarray…
And guess who’s leading the charge!

By Paramanund Soobarah

Believe it or not, it’s the one man who could have done something to prevent floods, or at least to minimise them to the point of eliminating their fatal effects – not just in Port Louis, but also everywhere else in the Island. Had Hon Alan Ganoo, then Minister of Public Utilities, taken appropriate and effective action on the findings and recommendations of the Gibb report entitled “Study of Land Drainage System of Mauritius”, and dated April 2003, itself preceded by an advance instalment of the Consultant’s findings on flood prone areas, there would have been no loss of life resulting from, for instance, the torrential rains associated with the Lola cyclone weather system of 26 March 2008, and still less from the cloudburst over Port Louis on 30 March 2013. From media reports of his statements, he actually believes he deserves to be congratulated for not hiding the report in filing cabinets as is often done with reports that do not bring immediate salary increases or other benefits, and also for having “set up a committee”.

A classical way for governments around the world not to deal with things they can’t understand or which they find unpalatable is to “set up a committee”, and not infrequently that is the end of the matter as far as they are concerned. The level of seriousness accorded to the Gibb report is fully exemplified by the scant attention paid by the MMM government to the aspect of water drainage in their showpiece infrastructure project, the Cybercity of Ebène: in periods of heavy rain the parking area serving the main shopping area becomes inaccessible due to flooding (not to mention that the roads are so badly designed as to be a constant source of frustration and even danger to drivers).

The need of the hour: an overarching rainfall monitoring authority

We must learn to adapt fast to the new world that is shaping up with globalization and climate change: learn English to survive economically in this new world and also learn to cope with the changing environmental conditions. One week we can have a drought and the next a flood; a cyclone or a furious anticyclone is always around. The extent of problems said to be highlighted by Gibb in their report, if true, is such that the only way to do justice to it would have been to set up, by law, a permanent, overarching and pro-active Integrated Water Resources Management Authority (IWRMA), or perhaps an Environmental Hydrology and Hydraulics Authority (EHHA), that would oversee all rainfall water management practices over every square inch of the national territory inclusive of our coastal waters.

Such an Authority would have to be pro-active to ensure it does not become another bureaucratic hurdle in the way of the implementation of essential and well-thought-out development projects. But as such it would have enforcement powers as regards rainfall effects over local administrations (city, town, district, and village councils), over the various authorities concerned with urban and rural land use including infrastructure projects, with all land under agriculture, with all forests and other state lands and natural watercourses, with aquifers, with irrigation systems, and with such other systems that become necessary to add to this list from time to time.

The authority would also have enforcement powers regarding the proper maintenance of and improvements to historical purpose-built drainage systems and the construction of any new drainage systems that might become necessary. It would also have to work in close liaison with other authorities such as the Central Water Authority, and with authorities responsible for the prevention of soil erosion. It would above all work in very close liaison with any Central Disaster Management Centre that might exist by taking over full responsibility for issuing flood warnings using actual and forecast rainfall data provided by the Meteorological Services.

The transition from rainfall data to a flood warning requires detailed knowledge of local topography, soil condition, drainage systems and their up-to-the-minute status, etc., that a meteorologist whose work consists of the study of the movement of weather phenomena over a vast area of the Indian Ocean cannot be expected to possess.

Such an Authority will require a substantial complement of highly trained and highly motivated staff, and would surely take a few years to become fully operational. Even so, it would have been able to attend to the most pressing danger points fairly quickly, particularly those identified in the advance section of the report dealing with flood-prone areas, and it would have been able to alert whatever hazardous phenomena warning machinery that might have been in existence in March 2008 in a timely manner and the loss life during the flood caused by the torrential rain of 26 March that same year might possibly have been averted.

The Justice Domah Fact-Finding Committee

On that day, that is on 26 March 2008, there was yet another threat. It had started raining after all children had already departed their homes and had probably already reached school. Therefore the threat that we saw hovering over their safety during daytime and during their return would still have occurred, because government ministries find it very difficult to handle new situations. Out of the box thinking is out of the question. No precedent equals no action, and that’s that! So a post-facto Fact-Finding and Problem Solving Committee would still have been required.

The government did act promptly in this regard. For an event that occurred on 26 March, it is remarkable that the Committee was set up on 30 March – in just four days, complete with a Chairman (Justice S.B. Domah) and two assessors (one of them being Mr R. Vagjhee, a meteorologist, and the other Mr J. Rosalie, an administrator) and with terms of reference. Perhaps one can deplore the absence of a specialist in the field of water flow on even and uneven ground, ideally a hydraulic engineer – maybe it was not thought necessary to have one, for I have found no evidence online that the Fact-Finding Committee had been apprised of the existence or the relevance of the Gibb 2003 report.

Justice Domah, with the assistance of his two assessors, carried out the assigned task in an exemplary manner and submitted his findings and recommendations in his report on 23 March 2009. There was unanimous, universal praise for his work – a surprising feat in a country where large sections of the media are ranged against one another on communal lines. If any committee ever deserved to be called a “Commission”, this was it. But what the government did with his report is an altogether different story – the reason, some prefer to say, for the present disarray.

When everything is said and done, one must agree that the Fact-Finding Committee did have one “grievous fault”: Justice Domah was not a Singaporean, nor was either of his two assessors. Could that have been the reason also for the cavalier manner of dealing with the Gibb report way back in 2003? However that may be, the government is now setting things right. We can expect to live in a flood-free era now onwards, assuming that the Singaporeans can compel a Mauritian government to act on their report, beyond the point, that is, of “setting up a committee.”

Mob violence surge claims its first victim

Nobody is guilty until proven so. But one great casualty in the ongoing thrust and parry game between the Government and the Opposition has already occurred: it is the early “retirement” of Mr Balraj Dunputh, till last week Director of the Meteorological Services. It is not clear whether he retired or was retired. In any case if he did seek retirement, his application was granted with exceptional speed – much faster than the four days it took to establish the Domah Fact-Finding Committee, a speed we were all euphoric about earlier.

Many, particularly in the media, will try to pin on him the responsibility for the absence of warning about, if not straight out for the occurrence of, the floods and the consequential death of eleven citizens, and a colossal amount of material loss. I am not in the business of defending Civil Servants, but I do think that great injustice has been done to Mr Dunputh: I believe he could have been persuaded to wait for the findings of any commission of enquiry that will surely be set up.

The good old SSR days

I still remember the day when, following a weather-related shipwreck in our harbour with loss of life, and the very bitter criticisms levelled in the press, particularly by l’Express, at Captain Nicolin, then Harbour Master, that followed it, Harry Tirvengadum, then head of the Ministry of Communications, had stood shoulder to shoulder with him in a press conference and refuted all the allegations made against him. In the background, of course, there hovered the large shadow of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam. In times of need your superiors stood by you.

Times have changed since those good old days, when I was also a member of the Civil Service. I receive nearly twice as much in pension every month now than as I used to receive as salary in a whole year in those days, and even pay proportionately less tax. I am of course not speaking of the great days when we were blessed with the “democratisation of the economy”, the “NRPT” and other suchlike things.

In the SSR days, we were paid a salary, and expected to devote ALL our working time to our official work. I myself went a good deal beyond and worked overnight and during weekends trying to cope with and resolve the dangers associated with the then inherently unsafe airport that had become my charge. (I knew precisely what to expect if anything untoward were to happen at the airport.) There were no such things as duty-free cars and other “fringe” benefits. No fees were paid for participating in the work of committees – weren’t we already being paid for ALL our time?

I must clarify that I am not being sarcastic at all – I believe firmly that that was, and remains, the proper way for things to go in the Civil Service. In those days Harry Tirvengadum, one of the most highly-regarded officials because of his exceptional abilities, was only a Principal Assistant Secretary, because the number of Permanent Secretaries was fixed by the Constitution to nine (if I remember rightly) and the places had already been taken by the time he arrived. I don’t know what has happened to that number these days, but I do know that there can be several Permanent Secretaries in the same ministry and there are some grades even higher than that – I am frankly not clear about the structure. Can a few hundred rupees this way or that really make you work harder, or less hard?

Dealing with the Media

One very important point about those days is that we were not authorised to speak to, or leak information to, the media or politicians, unless they happened to be the Minister in charge of your department. I do not know if the regulations have changed, but I actually welcome the change that allows the media to have more information about improper functioning of our services out in public – it is certainly a step in the right direction for the development of our democracy. But such information should not come from officials who are at work at their desks: those who question them from the media are experts at their jobs and past masters at putting words in the mouths of untrained, unsuspecting people – just as however bright one deems oneself to be, one seeks the assistance of a barrister to answer interrogations in a court case.

The government must recognise the new trend in our democratic system and appoint trained Public Relations Officers in all departments to answer queries from the media. This inquisition of civil servants by the media must stop. At the same time, every misdeed brought to attention must be investigated thoroughly and expeditiously in a transparent manner and culprits, if any, punished appropriately. Nobody should be allowed to get away, for instance, because he is connected to people in authority (though, sadly, even that does not seem to have saved Mr Dunputh!).

At this stage of the game the best thing to do is to turn our backs on the bickering and just wait. We have a duty to offer all the help within our means to persons afflicted or otherwise affected by the flooding, and to any commission of enquiry that may look for such help. We should also cooperate with the Singapore team of experts if such cooperation is requested from the public.

* Published in print edition on 12 April 2013

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