Looking to the future

By S.Chidambaram

A commission of inquiry would tell us what had happened but a proper investigation should focus on what to do in the future

We are all wiser after the event. This is the privilege of hindsight. Admittedly, some may have even identified several weaknesses in our existing infrastructure which may have to great extent exacerbated the problems of flooding on Saturday, but whether what happened on Saturday could have been avoided or not would continues to be debated. What is certain is that we do not lack the sophistication to be able to tackle such an unprecedented natural disaster, nor could we have anticipated that that this disaster would have hit Port Louis and a particular area in the capital.

Neither the state nor the people have the capacity to deal with such problems, mostly because they were an unprecedented flash flood. This phenomenon has also hit many countries in recent years, including the most developed countries. Because the state, and for that matter all states, have a particular approach to tackle issues or projects, which necessarily overlook critical details in their planning and their implementation, such catastrophes will keep happening.

Several reasons have been advanced for this state of affairs and go to explain why major projects had failed in the past. James Scott in his famous and original book ‘Seeing like the state’ highlighted the fact that a number of major projects in history, intended to improve the lives of people, had tragically failed and instead brought misery and disruption because they disregarded the practical knowledge of the people and communities that such projects were intended to serve.

Grand projects which failed due to this factor include the collectivization of farming in the Soviet Union, compulsory ”villagization” in Ethiopia and postcolonial Tanzania, the construction of Brasilia according to Le Corbusier’s theories of urban planning, and many more. In recent years, the World Bank and other organisations have been severely castigated for adopting an exclusively top-down approach abstracting from ground realities. Too often, we place too much confidence in the capacity of a ‘modernist ideology’ and the capacity of science and technology to improve every aspect of human life, and thus impose on people particular projects on the grounds that the approach is ‘scientific’.

The tunnels leading to the Waterfront in Port Louis have existed for a decade or more, but no one has publicly suggested that they should be strictly monitored in case of rain, notwithstanding the fact that on Saturday the tragic accidents might or might not have been avoided. Similarly, no one has in the past expressed apprehension about the riskiness of the underground car parks. No one has likewise expressed the thought that by covering the drains on Ruisseau du Pouce many years back, harmless and normal in those times, the same would have proved lethal in a period of climate change.

It was also with surprise that one learns that the covering of the drain in front of Jeetoo Hospital had made the newly-built casualty department vulnerable to the torrents gushing from the street opposite. One could also argue that the torrents of water from the motorway from Pailles or Camp Chapelon contributed to the swell at the waterfront. On the other hand, one could also argue that the areas around Camp Chapelon, Cassis and Bain des Dames might have been relatively spared from these torrents of water from the motorway. They might otherwise have been easily submerged under water, given that at Bain des Dames, in spite of the two good drains on both sides of the street, houses were inundated.

One may even ask whether the races should not have been cancelled earlier given that the Champ de Mars was becoming a lake before the eyes of all present. One may come with a number of other weaknesses in the building and maintenance of our infrastructure ranging from poor engineering design and workmanship to irresponsible ways of disposing garbage in the drains. All these pathways would have had little impact in normal times had not the source of the disaster been a sudden downpour on the central part of Port Louis within a very short time.

When one considers that Mare aux Vacoas had been filled up to 100% with the rains of the last weekend from its 75% level, an increase of 6 mm3 during that period over a 5.6 kms of surface, it is legitimate to ask what was the volume of rain water which flooded the two square kilometres of the Central Port Louis and whether all of it could have been absorbed by the sea at high tide. If Port-Louis were to face a similar disaster, the consequences would still be the same, and even much worse if the same downpour were to occur in other parts of Port Louis, in Flacq or in the northern plains which would be immediately submerged under water for days.

We have been informed that the coming weekend would be rainy. This might be an opportunity to test our capacity to predict flash floods. It would help if anyone, scientist or soothsayer, could tell us exactly, with or without the help of radar or satellite pictures, where exactly the next downpour would hit the country and with what intensity. Such precise prediction and its methodology communicated in advance would be of immense benefit and reassuring for the population while at the same time make a breakthrough in meteorology.

All countries have learnt that flash floods are inevitable and will become more frequent with time to come. No overall state plan to prevent or minimize flooding will be able to cope with such problems unless we address the issues from the viewpoints of localities and local communities at the same time. Even the proactive measures taken by Singapore have not spared Singapore last year though the risks have been considerably reduced; some are even questioning whether the Mass Rapid Transit or MRT, which is a rapid transit system forming the major component of the railway system in Singapore and spanning the entire city-state, should have been built after all.

Views and suggestions from local communities will have to be taken onboard in a future master plan to deal with such problems. Flood warning measures would have to be put in place immediately and risk areas identified. In the long term, water drainage work would have to form part of a master plan which incorporates both expert and practical local knowledge. It is going to be very costly and its proper implementation will take a long time. We may have to create two or three or more artificial lakes or ponds to capture the spill over where there is no proper outlet to rivers and the sea.

Whatever the state does or does not do, local communities will have to study their own local environments and neighbourhoods, do some hard thinking and make their own local plans to connect to the state master plan. We may have to think again about our buildings and houses, make plans for emergencies and evacuation of people and increasingly make use of waterproof doors and respect the natural topography of the island. We can minimise the risks of flood damage by attending to such matters.

A commission of inquiry would tell us what had happened but a proper investigation should focus on what to do in the future. A proper post-flood investigation, if started immediately, would be able to collect all hydro-meteorological data throughout the country, make a systematic collection of eye witness accounts, identify all risk areas, and produce a proper flood warning system as well as promote an education programme for floods and other natural disasters. Only the combined strengths of both a top-down and a bottom-up approach can lead us to a safer future.

* Published in print edition on 5 April 2013

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