Guyana: Paradise in Peril

In 2005, the citizens of Guyana saw the realization of what had passively been thought of as mere rhetoric. The month of January experienced seven times the average amount of rainfall seen for that period in the past 100 years. This phenomenon resulted in the country’s worst natural disaster, consuming 60% of Gross Domestic Product. At that point, it became absolutely pellucid that Guyana is indeed at serious risk of natural disasters of enormous proportions.

The main culprits of Guyana’s susceptibility to natural disasters are: a low-lying coast (1.4 meters below mean high tide levels), weak infrastructure, poverty and Climate Change. Unfortunately, these four causal agents culminate on the country’s Coastal Plain, where 90% of the population resides, including the commercial capital Georgetown. Guyana’s natural disaster risk is amplified by changes in the climate system. It is predicted that sea-levels will continue to rise and that an increase in high intensity phenomena such as rainfall and temperature will result in more floods and droughts.

In reality there are no natural disasters, only natural hazards. These hazards become disasters when people’s lives and livelihoods are destroyed. The risk of disaster is the likelihood that a disaster will occur. This risk, albeit difficult to assess, can be evaluated and analyzed so that steps can be taken to manage it (if such is deemed necessary). Overall, risk is a function of hazards, exposure and vulnerability.

Mitigation and adaptation are two key components of managing risk. Mitigation entails action aimed at reducing the magnitude of the hazards that may befall us, while adaptation involves taking steps in anticipation of unavoidable hazards to reduce our vulnerability. These two components are usually addressed in tandem, even though they can be treated as alternative strategies. They are not mutually exclusive and we are more likely to have a positive effect if we employ a balanced approach to them. Guyana is interestingly poised to actively participate in both mitigation and adaptation.

Tropical forests have been shown to take in more CO2 from the atmosphere than any other forest type. Fortunately for us, 85% of our total landmass is covered by pristine tropical rainforests, affording Guyana the opportunity to be a major player in CO2 emissions reduction and by extension, mitigation of adverse impacts due to Climate Change. Carbon sequestration is only one of the ecosystem services provided by our Tropical rainforests. Our forests also serve as water sheds and biodiversity reservoirs. Apart from forests, our peat lands (which haven’t been quantified as yet) may also be playing a major role in carbon storage.

On the adaptation side, it has been acknowledged that Guyana, like other Small Island Developing States in these parts, will inevitably be met with rising sea-levels. This is irrespective of whether the world manages to prevent global temperatures from increasing above 2 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times. Taking this into consideration, along with the unwillingness of developed countries to actively tackle Climate Change, Guyana has no choice but to adapt to Climate Change and the disasters that may ensue.

While it is necessary for Guyana to engage in mitigation and adaptation processes, it is also necessary for us to meet developmental objectives so that Guyanese can live more prosperous and comfortable lives. There are avenues that can lead to the achievement of developmental objectives which may not bode well with global efforts to combat anthropogenic Climate Change e.g. large-scale harvesting of timber. It is at this junction that it becomes necessary for us to make choices that do not treat mitigation and adaptation as steps which are exclusive and adverse to National development.

In 2006, Bharrat Jagdeo, Guyana’s President at the time, began the implementation of the Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS). This comprehensive policy seeks to achieve the following broad objectives:

  1. “Prevent pollution and ecological degradation;
  2. Promote conservation and;
  • Secure sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.”

The LCDS provides an avenue by which Guyana can achieve economic growth via a “Green” economy. Disaster risk management is closely linked to the LCDS as both share overlapping interests and factors, particularly funding opportunities. Coupling Guyana’s proposed low carbon pathway to development with its high vulnerability to Climate Change, results in Guyana becoming a likely candidate for International funding. A major example of the fruition of this possibility is the Norway-Guyana US$250M partnership.

Successful implementation of the LCDS will see Guyana striking a much needed balance between mitigation and adaptation measures and developmental objectives. At the moment, challenges to this balanced approach include:

  • Lack of local capacity: The local skills and know-how needed to adequately implement low carbon development and mitigation and adaptation measures may not be sufficient;
  • Lack of strong institutions: While capacity building inevitably leads to strengthened institutions, it is necessary for institutions such as the CDC to have carefully developed policies and mechanisms in place to ensure that they can function robustly and efficiently;
  • Lack of public awareness and education: Mitigation and adaptation measures along with developmental plans will not be successful if the general public does not understand what each entails and how they can benefit by being a part of these initiatives; and
  • Lack of resources: Financial resources and foreign assistance must be accessible if Guyana is to balance mitigation and adaptation measures with development.

The challenges mentioned above, while difficult to overcome, are easier to address through a low carbon development approach that is largely based on the REDD+ mechanism. By ensuring low carbon development, Guyana is able to access technology and funding needed to adapt and mitigate disasters through multilateral agencies such as the UNFCCC.

An intrinsic part of Climate Change and DRM, is the inevitability of sea-level rise that Guyana must face. Many have touted the notion of relocating the population to higher areas. While this idea is not without merit, there are associated factors that should be examined.

Firstly, due to its fertile soil, much of the country’s agricultural activities take place along the coastline. Agriculture forms the bedrock of our economy and moving away from it is almost unfathomable, as it will leave a huge gap in our GDP. It will not be feasible to maintain agriculture on the coast while the bulk of the population resides elsewhere. Also sea-defense and drainage infrastructure will still need to be developed on the coast if agricultural activity is to continue here. The hinterland soils will not be suitable for our conventional crops and large swaths of forest will have to be destroyed to make room for new plantations and towns, having an inverse effect on Climate Change mitigation.

Secondly, Guyana’s main port of entry (Georgetown) is located on the Coast. Moving the capital inland would make business more costly due to the longer distance goods will have to travel.

Thirdly and perhaps the main factor associated with relocating from the Coast is the feasibility. Rebuilding towns and villages in areas that did not have such infrastructure will be an enormously expensive initiative. It is unclear where Guyana will be able to access such funding and how it will repay the lavish debts which may incur.

All in all, it seems as though the better option is to remain on the coast and develop our sea-defense and drainage structures. Funding for such ventures have already started with the EU contributing billions of Guyana dollars towards enhancing sea-defense. The UNFCCC and other agencies will also play major roles in helping us strengthen our sea-defense infrastructure (this includes both grey and green infrastructure).

In addition to Structural Disaster Risk Management (SDRM) measures such as strengthening sea-defense, there are complementary Non-structural Disaster Risk Management (NSDRM) measures. These are non-physical measures which have an equally important effect as SDRM. They utilize knowledge, practice and agreements to achieve risk reduction, and include policies, laws, training, education and public awareness. NSDRM measures sometimes pre-empt SDRM measures and provide a framework to guide DRM.

Essay and poster competitions are good examples of NSDRM measures aimed at increasing public awareness. A population that is adequately educated about disaster risks is one that can take prudent steps to manage them. At the moment most of the population appears to be aware of Guyana’s vulnerability to disasters but many do not understand the seriousness of the issue. The completed Integrated Disaster Risk Management Implementation Strategy is a token example of an NSDRM measure undertaken in Guyana. As time progresses, more policies and laws may come on board to bolster Guyana’s NSDRM measures. Educated communities coupled with institutional mechanisms and policies as a result of strong NSDRM measures, will serve to ensure that communities are prepared for and adequately cope with flood hazards.

While some disasters are unavoidable, it is a grave injustice to humanity for us to recognize the potential for disaster and do nothing about it. Disaster Risk Management must be seen as a priority for Guyana. There are far too many lives at stake.

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