In Guyana, water is the enemy
After ruinous floods that began last month, water still covers much of a coastal part of Guyana, straining people and the economy.
BY JOE MOZINGO
GEORGETOWN, Guyana - This country was born fighting against the tide.
More than half its people live on a dip of land six feet below sea level along the Atlantic coast. Their homes teeter on stilts while an old sea wall keeps the high tide at bay.
When it rains, as it does often in this slice of equatorial South America, Guyanese officials scurry to operate an intricate system of canals, dams and floodgates that drains the water and flushes it out at low tide.
It is a high-maintenance relationship with Mother Nature, and taking it casually can be devastating -- a lesson learned since last month when a high lunar tide and heavy rains combined to inundate areas occupied by nearly half the country's 706,000 people.
It was Guyana's worst natural disaster.
The flooding didn't get much attention abroad, coming soon after the cataclysmic tsunami in Asia. It didn't kill thousands or roar off the water like last year's hurricanes.
What it did was settle in, up to six feet high, for a long and unwelcome stay, generating disease, ruining crops, polluting the drinking water. It battered an already feeble economy and strained race relations in this perpetually divided nation.
One month after the first rains, residents along parts of the coast and up the Mahaica River are still slogging through knee-deep water and shoe-sucking mud. More than 20 people have died from the water-borne bacteria leptospirosis -- also known as swamp fever -- bringing the death toll from the deluge to 34.
Even in a country where everyone talks like a hydrologist and the national flower is a waterlily, residents are outraged.
''This was a man-made disaster,'' said Samdeo Singh, the owner of a small market on the Mahaica River. ``If they would have let loose the water weeks before, it wouldn't have happened.''
Although there were plenty of warnings that the vast 200-year-old drainage system had fallen into disrepair, people didn't grasp the scope of the problem until the torrential rains began Jan. 14. Within four days, 25 inches fell and quickly topped canals clogged with silt and debris. Dozens of ''kokers'' -- sluice gates that lift and drop like a guillotine -- were frozen shut by sediment.
''For many, many years, they totally ignored the canals,'' said Mike Sarhan, Guyana director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who has been involved in the relief efforts. ``Some were so filled up that people were growing crops in them. And some of the kokers hadn't been opened up in 60 years.''
The water couldn't escape, and it rose insidiously in the capital city of Georgetown and the coastal villages.
As the depth approached five feet in some places, authorities scrambled to get food and drinking water to the people affected. But their emergency management team was in disarray. The warehouse where they stored dry rations, blankets and medicines had been emptied when the government helped the island of Grenada after Hurricane Ivan. The agency had no way to deal with the disaster.
''They had one helicopter,'' Sarhan said. ``It ran out of gas when they were assessing a dam, and they had to crash-land.''
President Bharrat Jagdeo called for international help, and a U.N. disaster team arrived to assess the damage.
When the team's Dutch engineers surveyed a 187-year-old earthen dam that diverts waters flowing out of the rain-forested interior and found that it was within inches of releasing 100 billion gallons of water into the urban coastal zone, Jagdeo ordered the water released into the Mahaica River.
The U.N. team praised the decision because it might have saved lives. But the impoverished small farmers who watched the overflowing Mahaica lay waste to their rice and vegetable patches see things differently.
Sugerim Sargu, 46, sits on a dugout canoe that has become his front porch in the village of Grass Hook as the deep black water gurgles over his front yard.
Even if Sargu were promised free seeds from the government for his squash and cucumber crop, it would be weeks before he could plant.
''They promise to fix things,'' said Sargu, a father of three. ``But it's too late, like letting the horse out of the stable and then closing the door.''
His land is as flat as a pan. The river is slack, hanging vines barely tilting in the current. When the river is low, seawater drifts in.
Neighbor Cyril D. Gopaul, 69, paddles around his crops, slumped in defeat, as a chicken hawk circles above, looking for scarce prey. His passion fruits and banana plants are dead. ''They won't grow back,'' he says.
He is disappointed that visitors in a skiff are not bringing his pension check. He was once an insurance salesman. He has been out here for 26 years and never worried about his retirement plan. For the first time, he needs it. ''Every, everything, everything is destroyed,'' he said.
The country is already one of the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. The agricultural economy is propped up by remittances from nearly 700,000 Guyanese who live in the United States, Canada and Britain, as well as a growing cocaine traffic.
Authorities are scrambling to prepare for the May-June rainy season. Tractors are scooping black muck from the big canals. Workers are fixing dilapidated kokers.
Ravi Navaine, the chief executive overseeing the drainage system, concedes that it must be better maintained.
''This was a wake-up call,'' he said. ``We're going to have to fortify the area if we're going to live in it. But this is very expensive, and we're a poor country.
``If we could go back 100 years and decide where to put the capital, I don't think we would put it there.''
Guyana was first explored by Spaniards who believed that the legendary gold-rich city of El Dorado was here in the jungle between the mighty Orinoco and Amazon rivers. But the Dutch were the ones who settled the fertile land for sugar production. Using slaves, they began to reclaim the tidal flats with dikes and canals in the 1700s. Britain later took over and, after slavery was abolished, imported East Indian indentured servants to maintain the drainage and cut the cane.
After Guyana gained independence in 1966, changing its name from British Guiana, the system ''fell into disrepair, straining the system during heavy rain periods,'' said a World Bank report on the flood.
The legacy of slave labor and indentured servitude now plays into Guyana's fractious politics. Tension between the Indo-Guyanese and the Afro-Guyanese has been fierce for more than a century, recently leading to violence and clashes between the country's two political parties, both race-based.
Inevitably, even a flood becomes about race and politics.
In the poor black town of Buxton, residents seethe with anger over the slow reaction of the national government, run by the predominantly Indian People's Progressive Party.
''This was the last place still underwater,'' said Andrew Samuel, an electrician. ``And they say they were going to come with a relief truck, but the driver was scared to come to Buxton.''
In Triumph Village up the road, Indian residents suffer the same problems, but many blame the largely black People's National Congress party, which controls the regional government.
Others blame the race-infected political system as a whole.
"This is one of the most corrupt systems of government in the world," said Anthony Legall, 58, of Triumph Village. "All the relief money goes back to the parties. And they're all the damn same.''