Tragic floods of March 30
By Paramanund Soobarah
Both the Government and the Opposition are hoping that their present squabbling will divert the attention of the public from the real issues at the national level, and this constitutes what may rightly be deemed to be a case of conspiracy against the public interest
A contradiction in terms, some will say, like a square circle or a round square – an oxymoron, to give it its technical name. Conspiracies are hatched against parliaments and governments, and not by parliaments and governments. But let us see the facts of the case.
The Government, concentrating its rhetorical efforts on the Caudan and Chaussee areas, is doing its level best to pin the blame for the catastrophe of 30 March on the Opposition which has recently begun running the Municipality of Port Louis. Never mind Canal Dayot – the huge sums deployed will hopefully keep the people there quiet.
The Opposition, on the other hand, is rightly drawing attention to the omissions of the government regarding the Domah Fact-Finding Committee report, and is asking for a similar Fact-Finding Committee on the recent floods, in the hope that it will corner the government by pointing out that the blocking of drains took place mainly over the period during the Alliance partners held the reins of the Municipality. It is also hoping to have the Minister of Public Infrastructure pilloried for the events at Canal Dayot.
Both the Government and the Opposition are hoping that their present squabbling will divert the attention of the public from the real issues at the national level, and this constitutes what may rightly be deemed to be a case of conspiracy against the public interest.
The March 30 cloudburst
The sort of cloudburst that occurred on March in the Port Louis area can occur at any time anywhere in the country, and it will never be possible to predict exactly when and where it will take place, even though it might be possible to say possibly an hour in advance that a cloud developing in some locality, small or large, may develop into the sort of beast that yields a very heavy downpour, and pinpoint the locality by radar. But such short notice would hardly be of any significance in moving the public warning machinery and other essential services into taking the sort of action that might be necessary to really forestall all ill-effects.
But while it may not be possible to forecast precisely when and where such a downpour will take place with any really significant advance notice, it is certainly possible, armed with the Gibb report of 2003, to work out the effects of such a downpour over every square kilometre of the country. That is the report that neither the Government nor the Opposition wants to talk about. It does not even seem to have been brought to the attention of the Domah Fact-Finding Committee.
Floods, and other national disasters, do not distinguish between Hindu and Muslim, Chinese and Christians-other-than-Chinese-Christians1, rich and poor or black and white. We are all this together. As a citizen of this country, I am happy to note that some government in the past did think of ordering the sort of study in water drainage that was done by Gibb, but very sad that it was not followed through. The government must set up a task force to examine the consequences of unusually heavy downpours over every square kilometre of the country, not only as regards flooding but also as regards other aspects of water flow over the ground, like landslides, soil erosion in agricultural plantations, heavy erosion around buildings and all along the coastline, siltage, etc. Wherever flooding is likely to occur, the possible effects of the floodwaters downstream must be assessed and measures recommended. These things are obvious to any layman; specialists can see infinitely more. Mauritius is only a small country and this piecemeal examination should not be an impossible task.
Measures must also be formulated of how to account for possible effects of flooding on the parceling of land. A purchaser of a portion of land must be informed at the time of the purchase whether the land can under certain circumstances become subject to flooding, and the associated risks taken into account in the pricing. Those designing infrastructure projects like roads and bridges must ensure that their roads do not become conduits for floodwaters into villages (elementary, my dear Watson, but il fallait y penser).
Those who parcel out land, or design projects on such land, must take the responsibility for their actions. God will surely take responsibility for His Acts, but designers and planners must also take responsibility for their designs and plans. A minister cannot take responsibility for a bad engineering design, unless he interfered in the choice of the planners and designers (and the choice had an incidence on the catastrophe) or the execution of the plans or designs, or the priority to be given to it. If a government decides to temporarily or permanently shelve recommendations regarding the safety of the public, it must take responsibility for its action.
Central disaster management organisation
Floods are of course just one type of disaster. The handling of the consequences of floods must come under some central disaster management organisation, and must not be confused with flood prevention which in a country like ours must be a permanent, ongoing effort under, say, the ministry responsible for the Environment. Nor must it be confused with a disaster warning system, which must also be a separate, full-time activity within the Prime Minister’s Office always on the alert to issue warnings to the public. There must always be good coordination between the various units.
In all countries, disasters are generally handled by the Fire Services, Ambulance Services, the police, the paramilitary and the military, NGOs that specialise in certain aspects of disaster management, and any volunteers that show up. Where disaster scenes can also be considered as crime scenes, sightseers must be kept at bay to prevent evidence tampering. Once the immediate effects of the disaster have been handled, relief efforts must set in to assist those like to suffer the long-term effects of the disaster. In all self-respecting countries, catastrophes are followed by important Commissions of Enquiry, which set out to determine the causes of the disaster with a view to forestalling the recurrence of similar disasters. This is particularly true where loss of life has occurred.
The De Haviland Comet
The other day we were all proud to receive the visit of the Emirates Airbus 380 at SSR airport. This aircraft weighs more than 550 tons at take-off: to the layman it is almost a miracle that such a heavy piece of metal can fly, and be controlled in flight. As somebody who has spent more than forty years in the field of aviation safety, I can safely say that such a miracle has only become possible after of century of research in safety and the thorough investigation of every accident that has taken place. No aircraft has ever knowingly been built with some unsafe characteristic, but hundreds of accidents have taken place and thousands of lives have been lost. But every accident has served to make subsequent flights safer – by being investigated thoroughly to determine what might have caused the accident. The accidents befalling the very first passenger jet aircraft, the De Haviland Comet, provide a salutory lesson in the handling of accidents and the improvement of safety.
A couple of early relatively minor accidents to the Comet were attributed to pilot error. Then, on 2 May 1953, a BOAC Comet aircraft with 43 people on board crashed shortly after take off from Calcutta airport killing all on board; the wingless fuselage of the aircraft was seen plunging into the Indian Ocean. An enquiry was ordered by the Government of India. As the aircraft had run into a severe thunder squall on take-off, the aircraft was believed to have broken up due to severe stresses caused by the squall on certain devices of the aircraft and rectifications were recommended and implemented for them; additionally weather-radar became a standard fixture to ensure that aircraft can identify such weather systems and avoid them.
Then, on 10 January 1954, another BOAC Comet, with 35 people on board, broke up in flight 20 mins after take-off from Rome, off Elba, with the loss of all on board. There were no witnesses to the accident and radio transmissions were not readable. An enquiry was set up by the British Government (as the accident had presumably taken place over international waters). Fire was surmised as the probable cause of the accident. Comet flights, which had been grounded during the investigation, were resumed. But the prestige of the British aircraft industry and commercial pressures were also thought by some to be behind this hasty resumption of flight.
Then, on 8 April 1954, a Comet aircraft on charter to South African Airways crashed into the sea near Naples after taking off from Rome (again), killing all 21 people on board. The Comet was grounded once again, and a major investigation ordered. Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the Royal Navy to search for and recover the wreckage for investigation purposes. Additionally, another complete Comet aircraft was made available by the manufacturers, Messrs de Haviland, to the investigators who tested it to destruction in a water tank by submitting it to cycles of pressurisation and depressurisation. The phenomenon of metal fatigue, until then not fully understood, was finally determined as the cause of cracks in the aircraft body, and corrective actions undertaken.
After that, there has been no loss of aircraft due to that phenomenon. Cracking due to metal fatigue has not stopped, but it is now kept under surveillance and not allowed to exceed certain dangerous limits. Subsequent manufacturers of passenger carrying jets, like Boeing and Airbus, have benefited immensely from the results of these investigations and flying has become as safe as it is today. Without these investigations accidents would have been commonplace affairs. Nothing is gained by hiding weaknesses under the carpet.
For this reason I believe that a Commission of Enquiry with very wide terms of reference, including certainly the handling of the Gibb report of 2003 and the Domah report of 2009, will be in the national interest.
* Published in print edition on 27 April 2013