Our Readers' Opinions
January 21, 2014
Sentiments on the tragic loss – Christmas floods in SVG

Tue Jan 21, 2013

by Oswald Fereira

It was with great sadness that we heard of the severe flooding that Vincentians experienced last Christmas Eve night. Natural disasters of this extreme are difficult at any time, but it must have been particularly difficult when all plans for the festive season, after weeks of preparation, were dashed and many families were left to cope with the loss of loved ones. My sympathy goes out to all those so affected, those left homeless and those left to mourn the dead.{{more}}

We appear to be in a very wet cycle with floods all around the globe. I remember as a child growing up in Park Hill there were regular floods and landslides, sometimes so severe that even with traffic diversions, it was not possible to get to school in Kingstown on time. The Colonarie river often flowed over the Three Rivers bridge. But that is the nature of weather and climate; it goes in cycles where floods are followed by droughts and then floods again.

I can just picture the devastation at Pasture in South Rivers where homes were flooded out. But, anyone who grew up in South Rivers knows that Pasture is an old river bed that was prone to constant flooding. It was a place to tether cows and goats, hence the name – “Pasture.” In the dry years, we could have been fooled that it was a safe place to live, but now that we appear to be in a wetter cycle the flooding has returned. I started primary school in South Rivers and I remember Pasture well. It was an old ball ground (cricket) interspersed with wild guava trees which we as school children visited constantly to reap the fruits. On one side is the Colonarie river and on the other side the Cane Hole and Questelles Piece gutters join before flowing on the other side of Pasture then joining the Colonarie river. So, Pasture is almost surrounded by water and not only was the Colonarie River a threat, but I have seen the combined Cane Hole and Questelles Piece gutters flood Pasture. Given the substantial homes that have been built there, it will be a most expensive task to relocate the community and I am not convinced that relocation will solve the issue, as once that land is vacated, people will move in again and build more homes. Perhaps the solution could be earthen berms to shore up the river and stream banks to keep the flood waters at bay and limit the damage in future.

How do we ameliorate the effects of rain?

While we cannot control when or the amount of rain we receive, we can certainly work with nature to ameliorate the effects of that rain. We did it in the past and we can do it again. How did we do it in the past? I am sure that many people will recall when our hillsides were planted in arrowroot that we had contour drains running across the hillsides. These contour drains were about four feet deep and three feet wide and the top side of the drain was planted in grass, usually Old Man’s Beard, but I recall that in the Three Rivers area, the small farmers planted Elephant Grass, as two such rows of Elephant Grass above the contour drains would help to feed a donkey, and a cow to provide milk for the family.
The bottom side of the drains were often planted in pigeon peas. So, it was a complete system where arrowroot as a ground cover crop, the rows of grass slowing and filtering the flood water, the contour drains to hold the water, all helped to manage and slow down the run- off and the many pools in the rivers would allow the water to pond and further reduce the flooding effect. The rows of Elephant Grass would be fodder for the cow and the donkey, and there was pigeon peas in abundance. This system was widespread over the entire island. There was a very visible and lovely example at Peter’s Hope, where the hillside beside the main Leeward Highway and above the arrowroot factory were beautifully contoured. It was a text book example and in fact the photograph was in my Geography text book that I used in the Sixth Form at Boys’ Grammar School.

Then came bananas, and farmers were encouraged to keep the banana fields free of grass, so no more ground cover.

The farmers filled in the contour drains and removed the rows of grass to get that extra row of bananas and the large banana leaves collected and concentrated the rain water and poured in on the bare ground below. Rain water now flowed freely over open ground from the top of the hill to the rivers and streams below, with nothing to break the speed or to slow the flow. The result is that our topsoil now sits in the bottom of the sea and our soils are poorer and it is more difficult to grow and maintain a ground cover. The deep holes in our rivers are all silted up and the flooding problems are now magnified. Repetition of these flood cycles will leave our hillsides in scrub and the end result could be desertification, where our hillsides become barren.

I visited SVG in 1995 and I went to the Colonarie river to see the many pools in which I swam as a child. I was so disappointed, as they were all silted in. The pool at Number Fourteen, above South Rivers, used to cover my head; it barely reached up to my waist. That was one pool; imagine the cumulative effect of all the lost water storage in the many other pools along the river. And I saw so much garbage strewn in the river. When people cooked at the riverside, they just threw the refuse into the river, leaving it strewn with breadfruit, plantain, bananas and ground provision peelings and sadly the river appeared to not have the force to wash them away. So, the damage had been accumulating over several years.

If we remove our forests, we destroy our watersheds

When I worked at the Agriculture Department, it was generally recognized that there should be no cultivation above the 1800 foot contour. The lands above were to be left forested to preserve the watersheds. If we remove our forests, we will destroy our watersheds and we will see degradation, desertification and encourage floods and landslides, to our detriment. Perhaps economic pressures are dictating that we crop lands above the 1800 foot contour, but perhaps those lands should be left in canopy crops, such as coffee and nutmeg under which an undercover could be encouraged. And perhaps the most under utilized use of these lands is forest production. In today’s market, hardwoods fetch premium prices.
The market for hardwoods has changed as the movement is towards veneers and laminates, so one log goes a long way. It is no longer a market of mass production, so small sawmills doing speciality woods can be very competitive. Bamboo is now very popular as a laminate flooring in Canada. Yes, bamboo! If bamboo, imagine our fiddlewood, gomea, guntark, etc. And what about teak, mahogany and Trinidad cedar for furniture? There is some unused potential, especially when we have to seek alternatives for bananas. We need not find another monoculture crop, because monocultures eventually fail and their failure can be disastrous to the economy. We saw it with cotton and bananas. If we diversify we can ride the ups and downs of the market and any disease cycles and still be viable.

Safeguarding against future flooding

So, what can we do to guard against future flooding? We have to reclaim our hillsides. As harsh as it may seem, we live in an area where rainfall is high and where heavy rains occur. We live on a mountainous island where much of our arable and cropped lands are sloping. We must control the run-off and the only way to do that is to go back to the old system of contouring. We must reconstruct those hillside drains to preserve our topsoil. We must clean up our streams and rivers to maximize their water storing capacity.
We must refrain from building in flood prone areas. If we ignore these simple facts, we will be moving from one flood disaster to the other and our productive land base will shrink dramatically. My hope is that wisdom will prevail and all necessary measures will be taken to prevent future disasters. We cannot continue to blame Mother Nature. Rather, we must respect and work with Mother Nature to soften her blows. The old ways were tried and true. We must get back to caring for the land and we must remember the words of Son Mitchell, “there is no culture without agriculture,” and successful agriculture demands good husbandry.