Our Readers' Opinions
January 5, 2016
Understanding our underdevelopment

by G E M Saunders


A recent visit to SVG by a friend from the developed world brought into sharper focus the state of our development as it related specifically to our built environment. His telling observation was that after almost 50 years, the main access to Richmond and Fancy and through the interior were the same torturous roads, with only partial upgrades to the widths and surfaces. His comparison with many of our neighbours, who boasted new highways, tunnels and access to new housing and commercial developments, was also revealing.

As a practising civil engineer of over 30 years, I felt an obligation to remind him about some of the challenges of being a small island developing state (SIDS), including remoteness, brought about by limited international air access, limited resources, and a small resource and population base coupled with steadily increasing economic demands. To those I added our susceptibility to natural disasters, our vulnerability to external shocks, and our heavy dependence on both international trade and foreign aid.

I also explained that SVG’s challenges were made greater in many respects because of its inherent geography, including loose volcanic soils and rugged topography that left us with less than 20 per cent of our land mass being ideal for mass agriculture, housing and infrastructure development. I also reminded him that SVG is located within the hurricane and earthquake belts, all realities that significantly increase our vulnerability to the negative effects of extreme weather events. It was only then that he began to appreciate the difficulty of maintaining our infrastructure and in particular, the road network in such a challenging environment.

He also appreciated that as engineers, we are often faced with varying challenges related in particular to the design and construction of roads and that very often, financial constraints resulted in the ‘best” compromise. This was clearly evident when we observed that substantial portions of our existing roadways still required slope reduction and stabilization, cut and fill, drainage and erosion control; all factors that are not nearly as prevalent in the flat and gently rolling terrain of many other developing and developed countries.

I explained that the present state of our roads was not entirely a reflection of our capacity to plan and design, but largely a result of having to divert scarce development funds to repairs and rehabilitation after extreme weather events. I also explained that although one-third of this country’s capital budget is devoted to roads and the transportation sector, a large portion of that is spent on rehabilitation projects, including repairs and replacement of old, damaged or undersized infrastructure.

We also became mindful of the increasing frequency or worldwide droughts and flooding and painfully recalled our own recent series of extreme weather events that together have set us back on our developmental path.

The series began with Hurricane Tomas in late 2010, which caused devastation to agriculture, roads and housing; this was followed by the 2010-2011 drought, which again set back our agriculture and which came to an abrupt end with the unseasonal and unprecedented rainfall event of April 2011, that saw 11 inches of rain in six hours being dumped on the interior, resulting in extensive losses to agriculture and infrastructure. Twenty months later we experienced the deadly and destructive Christmas floods arising from another record rainfall event of 12 inches of rainfall in just five hours. Dominica also recently had one-half of its GDP wiped out in just one day by Erika’s unprecedented rainfall intensity of 12.5 inches in 12 hours.

In addressing the issue of climate change last September, Pope Francis, in referring to the Catholic Church’s doctrine of the environment, encouraged especially the rich developed countries to be “noble stewards” and not “masters” of the environment. His plea was for us to stop our plunder of the environment and represented what many now see as the gradual acquiescence of the world to the realities of climate change and an acknowledgement that there was always a trade-off between human well-being and environmental stress.

The reality is that fossil fuel electricity generation used by the developed and industrialized world in pursuit of a superior quality of life for their citizens has created rapid expansions in the transportation, manufacturing, agriculture and residential sectors and has now has placed many developed countries including China, USA, Canada, Australia, the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and some of Europe at the top of the list of highest emitters of the destructive greenhouse gases.

We then concluded that whenever our governments embark on a foreign policy that targets our more developed partners with investment offers, development aid and soft loans, we are not to be regarded as “begging” for handouts. What we are in fact doing is choosing instead to negotiate in the absence of any claim of tort against countries who may be viewed as having enriched themselves and their citizens unjustly at the expense of poor, vulnerable nations and in the face of decades of evidence of the harmful effects of excessive carbon emissions.

Our apparent underdevelopment must therefore not be viewed solely from the historical perspective, but from an equally important geographical one. The world, however, demands that while we now understand our rate of development, we must not accept it. As we stake our claim to our development partners, we must highlight our decades of use of alternative energy sources and the supply of water in the absence of electricity. Above all, our development agenda must acknowledge the effects of climate change and demonstrate that we care for the environment and are willing practitioners of sustainable and resilient development.