This comes in the way of an apology to readers outside of Trinidad and Tobago: I’ve written more in the past week about Trinidad and Tobago than I typically do and the reason behind that is simple: I felt it needed to be written. And in that, there is no real apology.
There are lessons here, though, when we look at the planet not as we see it, but for what it is – a complex network of networks that has existed before mankind and that will continue after mankind.
We live in an odd alien landscape that our senses can barely discern. We have gotten better at it, and through trial and error – arguably disastrous error – we have learned new things. If Clair Cammerson Patterson hadn’t tried to estimate the age of the Earth, he wouldn’t have ended up leading a campaign against lead poisoning, and leaded fuels. So many who don’t know his name have probably had their lives saved. That’s just one example.
There have been people doing similar things around the world, opening up new perspectives on the planet by daring to look, to ask questions rather than accepting… and we take them for granted. Many of us don’t understand what they do, which makes sense, but many of us don’t try to understand.
The planet doesn’t care about our effective collective apathy.
That we are given pause to consider such things is not enough, that we use the pause for introspection is still not enough. The world doesn’t care about our bureaucracies, or democracies, or our economies.
Humanity, to survive, needs to be more agile in it’s adaptation to the world. The increased population certainly doesn’t help; more humans means more agriculture and farming which we clear more natural land for without truly understanding all the implications. It means increased use of all the nasty -icides we use, it means more transportation using things that cough pollutants. Our medical technology assures we live longer, our business technology allows us to profit or lose from it more rapidly, and the person who works in the hope of retiring finds themselves working longer to retire because of socioeconomic circumstance.
The planet’s governments were not designed for this level of change. They don’t scale as fast as we procreate, a problem that China was quick to deal with, making people shudder at the implementation. In this way, perhaps, the Chinese ‘solution’ kept the population growth to a speed where the governance could adapt fast enough.
I don’t know, and really, I don’t think anyone does. There are opinions, I’m sure, but I’m not sure anyone actually knows. It’s apparent that there are at least some Chinese people who are not pleased with the way things are. In time, history books will tell us the ones that survived were right.
What we do know is that we can see events in our spheres faster than we could have 20 years ago, or 40 years ago. The world is awash with would-be citizen journalists documenting themselves and what they see, interpreting their world on the fly without a few moments introspection.
Governments around the world can’t keep pace with all of this. Trinidad and Tobago, since I have been writing about Trinidad and Tobago, is slow to adapt and change. It didn’t diversify it’s economy when it could have while oil revenues were high. It had brain-drain as oligarchal systems kept people from pushing things forward, forcing them to other places to become what they would become. Corruption that paid well came from such things, creating it’s own sub-economy while effectively stalling progress.
In this, there are parallels with other developing nations. There is nothing significantly different in the corruption aspects of developing nations, but where Trinidad and Tobago is different is that it could have been developed much further along with the oil revenues it once had. Instead, politics divided and conquered as politics typically does.
Whenever administrations change, we get reorganization. Reorganization within the same cavern of methodologies doesn’t actually change as much as politicians would have people believe, largely because politicians aren’t systems thinkers outside of politics.
We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.
– Charlton Ogburn, Jr. (1911-1998), in Harper’s Magazine, “Merrill’s Marauders: The truth about an incredible adventure” (Jan 1957)
So how do we get real change? It’s simple, really – we stop playing politics. We push on fixing the things we need to – foresight – rather than getting wrapped up in a blame game that politicians play so that they can be elected or re-elected.
And when they fail, we criticize by creating.
Many individuals have thoughts on how to do things. Being an expert on something limits what can be thought of within a narrow field when all too often innovation comes from intersections across fields.
Stop wasting time on politicians. Start using time productively toward solutions. When someone has an idea, challenge it – and if it passes, share it so others can challenge it and better shape a solution.
Or you can go on depending on politics. How’s that working for you?
Clogged waterways are the obvious issue when it comes to the flooding in Trinidad and Tobago – creating a hazard that leads to disaster. That we need to rein in use of plastics is a corollary; and yet even recycling is not good enough.
Trinidad and Tobago has a problem with illegal dumping, something which I have had to deal with personally on my own land in South Oropouche, something I have dealt with, and something that is seemingly low on the priority list of the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service as they attempt to deal with more violent crimes.
I’d write an argument saying that littering itself is a violence of sorts, the seeding of waterways as time bombs, but it’s hard to make a relevant case for that when people are getting shot just about every day. The indirect seems far removed until communities get flooded out, and even then, it’s indirect.
The CSV data for rainfall published on Data.tt is easier to work with, though it only goes to 2015. By breaking it into decades, then running an average of precipitation as well as a standard deviation on each decade for precipitation… I came up with very similar results, indicating no real increase in rainfall over decades.
That’s strange. Maybe they have other data that isn’t public, but why that would be so boggles the mind.
In the media, there has been constant mention of ‘increased rainfall’. It seems strange that the one geographic point where they publish data doesn’t seem to have that increase.
Where is the data for other parts of the country that get quoted by government offices?
Dredging of Waterways
It’s generally understood that Regional Corporations are supposed to be dredging waterways within their jurisdiction. It hasn’t been happening as often as it should. That’s something anecdotal that gets mentioned in the local media a lot, but there’s no real data to support it.
It’s difficult to have data for things that aren’t done, much less when they weren’t done. Does anyone keep track of that aside from Regional Corporations?
Unplanned Development: Public Lands
One of the main problems of flooding anywhere in Trinidad and Tobago is the unplanned development – we know it as houses simply appearing on private or public lands.
When it comes to public lands, the government is responsible for dealing with squatting, both residential and agriculture. There’s evidence that this is not being done just about everywhere. Residences appear almost randomly throughout the country, which seems to be the reason why the government of Trinidad and Tobago attempts to build and lease houses… which they, through the Housing and Development Corporation (HDC), have trouble collecting money from.
Squatting takes place all over – sometimes on lands that are safe, sometimes on lands that are not.
Real estate prices make agricultural land unattainable for many who would want to participate in agriculture, I know of many skilled farmers looking for agricultural land – but socioeconomically, and legally, leasing land privately comes with it’s own problems.
This leads to squatting on public land for agriculture – because in Trinidad and Tobago, making something illegal isn’t the same as stopping it. Farming on squatted public land is a political issue when it comes to Agriculture because no one wants to take on poor squatting farmers over this, and so the government regularizes it.
Whether right or wrong in an ethical sense is beyond me. Whether it is right or wrong in a matter of public planning to avoid flooding is an issue for The Ministry of Planning’s Town and Country Division, and it’s uncertain that it is an issue for them as far as their mandate.
There is more to the agricultural aspect – it’s addressed in a later section within this article.
Unplanned Development: Private Lands
Land owners have very few tools to stop people from building on their lands other than very heavy handed approaches, or High Court matters that run into 6 figures as a matter of course. You might think you could simply go to the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service and report someone building on your land – and you’d be right, but the Police will not be able to do anything other than tell a landowner that it’s a Civil Matter. After all, the Police are not surveyors, etc.
This works out well for lawyers, and it also clogs up the Court with matters while people continue using land in ways that the landowner cannot stop, that the Ministry of Planning’s Town and Country Division does nothing about, and which affects lands in sometimes unpredictable ways. This includes issues related to flooding and landslides.
So unplanned development on private lands through squatting is an issue – but it’s also an issue when private land owners themselves either, (1) do their own unplanned development or, (2) Allegedly bribe officials to get their plans passed regardless of what will happening about the surroundings as well.
Given how slow the wheels of the Ministry of Planning’s Town and Country Division move, it should be no surprise that people try to lubricate it. Certainly, that would have an effect on assuring quality in Town and Country, but… that, too, is anecdotal and is not something people mention in a public forum very often.
After all, they might need something passed in the future.
Planned Development: Private and Public Lands
Having already mentioned the alleged lubrication of the wheels of the Ministry of Planning’s Town and Country Division in the context of private land owners, we are left with the public through the government of Trinidad and Tobago’s many child corporations, a sometimes toxic spill of acronyms on the natural landscape of Trinidad and Tobago.
Speaking from my own experience with hands in the soil, and with dealing with significantly more experienced farmers than myself, a farmer is supposed to know his or her land, which means knowing how the water runs and planning for dry season (ponds and irrigation) and wet season (drainage and irrigation). Let’s assume that every farmer understands this – that understanding can only be implemented on the land that they are using and how it immediately impacts them.
Runoff from fertilizers, weedicides, fungicides and insecticides impacts not only the area, but areas further down the waterways – and that, in turn, impacts natural ecosystems that may have actually helped avoid flood conditions in the past.
There’s no real regulation of what fertilizers, weedicides, insecticides and fungicides are used.
A Personal Narrative On Planned Development
I was personally impacted by the Pt. Fortin Highway. The planned road reserve had been through my land for decades, so it was not a surprise when it actually began. The acquisition of my land happened quickly – but payment from NIDCO is still pending after 6 years, where the government has to pay me interest for said lands still. That’s not so much the point here, though.
The project was halted because of allegations of corruption – so it’s hard to say that the incomplete drainage adjacent to the highway on my land and the land of others was going to be addressed or not, but the fact of the matter is that it wasn’t. In fact, there seemed to be little regard for drainage.
Because of that, when I was recently invited to look over things for the Diego Martin Highway Project that NIDCO has sent out Requests For Proposals (RFPs) on, I took the opportunity to look things over better. I found the document that the Ministry of Works and Transport’s Environmental, Health and Safety Unit prepared and sent to the Environmental Management Authority and was amazed at how horrid a document it seemed to be.
Here’s what I found, and what I said in so many words at a public consultation to assure it went on record. The sections refer to the actual document (and if anyone wants a copy, contact me).
does not have a finalized design or budget, which is of great concern: How can we comment on a design that is incomplete, and how can anyone gauge whether it will have a return on investment for the taxpaying community?
claims that it will improve drainage, which is important in the context of the flooding of October, 2018, and of the previous year post-Brett — but does not demonstrate knowledge of water flow issues from the Diego Martin River and tide information. I’m certain that someone at the Ministry of Works and Transport is trained in Fluid Flow, perhaps they could add to the report?
That cites rainfall in the area for only 3 years (220.127.116.11.1), but cites wind history for over a decade (18.104.22.168.4). Why is that? And given that there is wide international acceptance related to sea levels rising and we have seen anecdotally increased rainfall since 2014, I suspect that the original plans submitted in 2015 have not been updated with the most recent data. I’m sure that the 100,000+ that have been affected by flooding this year alone might have something to say about neglecting the statistics which have so affected their lives.
Mentions that it will not involve new crossings of watercourses (4.5) . It does not mention drainage into existing water courses, which will affect flow rates out to the Gulf of Paria, tide permitting. It later says that the limits of the proposed works are, to the West, just before the Western Main Road Bridge over the Diego Martin River. In the same section (5.1), it goes on to say that the limits are preliminary; I imagine they must be because there is likely to be drainage that affects the Diego Martin River itself directly along that Western boundary. This grey area is of concern given tides, occlusion, flooding elsewhere that must flow outward, and so on.Further, in 22.214.171.124.5, the Diego Martin River is mentioned in the topography and acknowledged as an issue with devastating flooding mentioned in 2008 and 2013.
The population dynamics, Section 5.3, Table 2cites data from 1990 and 2000. My calendar indicates that as of this consultation, these figures are 28 and 38 years out of date respectively. I imagine we might have different numbers now, but lacking scientific data – as this report does – I cannot say. In the report itself, it states that there was a 2.7% decrease in population in the area between 2000 and 2011. Certainly, the area may have matured and stabilized, but there is no real data cited in the report to support the recommendation other than anecdotal evidence which would indicate that there is less need for this project.Cited vehicle registration projections do not seem to scale with local population growth, either, and their inclusion adds confusion instead of clarity within the local area.
126.96.36.199.9, Surface Water Quality, refers to a test that has no date. When was the test done? Is it still relevant? By omission, the answer should be ‘no’.
Noise and air quality studies seem to have neglected the HDC development noted in the map which, were the map updated, would be shown as ‘Victoria Keyes’. Given the nature of Victoria Keyes, a group of 3 towers of 9 story height, it would seem this might be an important site to include in such studies (188.8.131.52.10, 184.108.40.206.11), particularly since mitigation strategies(220.127.116.11, 18.104.22.168.7.1, 22.214.171.124.1.1,126.96.36.199.2, etc.) mentioned will have an inconsequential effect on these towers as they are limited to at most 2 stories. Was the HDC notified about this during the consultation in 2015, did they participate? They are presently denying it.
The HDC development (Now Victoria Keyes) impacts also will include 2 ponds, waste disposal tanks and other things not noted. Again, was the HDC consulted? They would have had to have been, but there seems to be nothing that indicates such in the report.
188.8.131.52.2, Fauna, does not note the orange winged parrots that fly over the highway, among other things, including unverified sightings of piping guan – a critical species – adjacent to Victoria Keys. Orange winged parrots are very hard to miss; they fly over the highway at dusk and at dawn, as do other species. This information, therefore, is in question – after all, it was apparently only done over a period of 1 day in 2015.A day is simply not enough to view local species, much less migratory species which would take at least a year to take into consideration if this were really related to anything about the environment.
Aside from all of this, the loop to be done adjacent to Victoria Keyes – in this outdated document, ‘HDC Development’ – there are roadworks planned within 200 feet of at least one of the towers and infrastructure, which would imply that, assuming proper roads are being done, heavy equipment would be used that close to the towers and infrastructure that could cause damage to the buildings. In 2017, the media published an estimate of $2.5m cost per unit at Victoria Keyes, which means that a tower would cost approximately $200m – that seems like an unlikely thing that the government would want to damage given the need to reimburse.
If this is an example of how a Trinidad and Tobago government project is run, if it continues without addressing these issues, how can we not expect flooding?
In all, there is a lot that everyone can do to help avoid the situation. Becoming more aware, which hopefully this article is a part of, is the first step and is not even original – much of what has been written here has been written elsewhere or said elsewhere.
As far as the government of Trinidad and Tobago – certainly, we can be critical of the response to what is classified as a Natural Hazard (flash flooding) and we have seen more than once as a disaster, but are we ready yet to start discussing the preventative measures that the Government is seemingly failing to do through the shell game of government corporations?
Spread the word. Share this, or talk to people you know about it.
In Part I related to the 2018 flooding in Trinidad and Tobago, I was very upbeat about how the community was handling things, and here, now, I will be less upbeat – but not as a matter of politics. The government response is a symptom of a lack of preparedness for a disaster at this scale.
When I write of ‘this scale’, too, this is not as large a disaster as we have seen in the past internationally with earthquakes or hurricanes or tsunamis or typhoons or… and yet, the reality is that for anyone affected or responding to any disaster, it’s huge. It’s emotional, it’s frustrating, and well intentioned people want to do more and expect governments to do more.
In essence, a flood of aid might be wasted, and the sane thing to do is to hold off on asking for assistance until what is needed is actually identified. This is common sense, but it’s common sense that leaves people when they are flooded with imagery of homes underwater, of people who have lost all but the love of their brothers and sisters.
In the end, while unpopular, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago was honest about the capacity of government to handle the situation – something which has been neglected for decades. People have been uttering, “God is a Trini” for as long as I can remember, a testament to faith that Trinidad and Tobago alone had some form of relationship with a superior being. God simply doesn’t handle logistics when the… water… hits the fan.
It’s getting worse – scientists agree on climate change though politicians do not; the complexity of climate change is lost on many. Sea levels are rising. We’ve been seeing increased rainfall in parts of the world, droughts in others.
Systems do not change quickly. When I wrote about Brett last year in Trinidad and Tobago, I didn’t expect an immediate change – but I did expect at least a few things to change. The ODPM still has a useless app, it’s still ponderously slow to respond for such a small organization in a small country… it’s a bit like a mouse that lacks agility, slamming into walls with the precision of a meteorite. And it’s a symptom of larger issues that plague Trinidad and Tobago.
So no, the government of Trinidad and Tobago doesn’t get a free pass, but the present government needs to turn decades of lack of exercise of this arm of government to deal with things – as well as other things, which I’ll get to in a later post.
The global economy isn’t waiting for Trinidad and Tobago.
The Trinidad and Tobago community rose to the challenge even while government seemed as overwhelmed as the flooding victims. Emotional postings on social media are ubiquitous – the best of humanity shown by everyone from the individual to the non-profits that were quick to respond, and as the scale of it became more understood, the corporations lent a hand.
It’s all commendable. I just want to quietly point out that the person who rips his own slice of bread to share gives more than than the person who owns the bakery and gives loaves – yet, that half a slice that comes at a higher cost to an individual is not enough on this scale. Everything, regardless of motivation, is useful and it doesn’t matter how much one gives.
I did my part as I could. There was a time not long ago that I would have been out there with a raised 4×4 myself, but I don’t have that anymore and, truth be told, I have regretted that but have found solace in not having to deal with all the little things that come with that. It’s tiring, frustrating and at times heartbreaking work to go out there and see the devastation and the human price to be paid. And, if I’m honest with myself, I loved that sort of thing even with the price it comes with – including the frustration of disaster experience that is not respected. The frustration has waned with age.
Yet I can witness. I can pay attention and try to make sense from nonsense, without the need for deadlines for tomorrow’s newspaper or video stream or the hope that my blog post will be first and therefore most popular with a clickbait headline.
That being said, I’ve been paying attention with a critical eye. I’ve felt like throwing the government under the bus more than once, and with emotional social media posts and heart-tugging headlines it’s very hard to remain objective.
A few have even taken stabs at politics during this time, perhaps because that’s the default setting of some – but the flooding wasn’t politically motivated, and politics isn’t going to solve the real issues for people on the ground. Frankly, if you have time for politics during this time, you’re value to people is dubious.
My misanthropic heart can’t help but be lifted by people doing what they do during and after any disaster, and from this new and strong bonds will be formed that will transcend much that may have helped cause this in the first place – which will be fodder for my next post(s).
Mosquito Creek, in Southwestern Trinidad, could be a comedy of errors committed by a confederacy of dunces over decades. To locals who have to trek through it daily, it is much the same without the comedy. It has moved from drama to the mundane, a tribute to how things do not get done in Trinidad and Tobago.
And recently, the flooding. In fact, I’m tired of writing about this over the years – the picture is from 2010, which is by no means when this all started – I just happened to have the picture. And the reason I write this? A video that I have been tagged in on Facebook so many times that I tire of responding to it.
The video proffers a solution to flooding on Mosquito Creek that is not expedient, that is flawed in that it doesn’t actually resolve anything other than adding a few man-made reefs to the equation. That it is so popular is a testament, I suppose, to the cultural inertia regarding projects done by any government: Plans cannot be changed.
But plans need to change. The roadway exists between marsh and sea, with the Godineaux river entering the Gulf of Paria. And flooding, dear reader, is about flow rates.
We’ve all experienced a clogged drain – where water enters by faucet faster than it can exit the drain. The sink floods. It’s this level of thinking that has people coming up with things that they think are solutions, but they don’t seem to understand the greater issues involved.
First and foremost, the road is not a natural addition. Use over the decades has compacted soil underneath, which means that water cannot naturally flow between the marsh and the sea. When it does, we call it flooding only because we built an easy road for expediency that has increasingly become more painful to use and maintain.
The right answer is to do an overpass there and allow the water to do what it does: enter and leave the mangrove. Why is this important? Because the Godineaux River cannot always push water out – it’s a clogged drain – and for those of you with a fairly modern sink, you might find under your faucet the overflow. The mangrove to sea path is the natural overflow. This is just basic science applied with common sense, something that the Environmental Management Agency and Ministry of Works and Transport should have on tap through at least one person that is listened to. Lo, this is not the case.
So what happens when we get heavy rains in poorly developed areas (they are) that tries to get out to sea in that path? Blocked by the road, the water has no choice but to go onto the road. Thus, flooding.
Plus, too often do we forget that drainage in Wet Season has to be balanced by water retention during dry season. Streamlining waterways will make for drier soil during dry season, and this turns to dust and dust blows away. Soil erosion by wind, and farmers have less water for their crops.
As Trinidad and Tobago has developed haphazardly, where Town and Country operate at a pace that snails laugh at, people do their own development without thought to the bigger picture. Even with approvals, some suspected to be assisted by a bit of grease to the wheel, you’d think that the EMA and Town and Country would require retention ponds to balanced reclaimed land. One would think.
So while we complain about a major artery of traffic for South West Trinidad, the real problem is much more complex. The solutions are simple.
Sufficient retention ponds along waterways to accommodate flooding. The road on Mosquito Creek Creek should either be rerouted or made into an overpass to let things flow more naturally below the road – not that we’re particularly good at building and maintaining roads in Trinidad and Tobago. And what does this require?
It requires people with common sense and a working knowledge of science to be in the right places, focused on the greater good instead of the personal good or expedient. Ultimately, that seems to be the real failure.
This isn’t a technology post; however, it’s a post about failed systems and tangible problems here in Trinidad and Tobago.
There’s much that has been said about the ODPM, and having seen the press conference they suffered Trinidad and Tobago and the rest of the world with, I’ve decided not to throw them under the bus only because they are already under the bus. It’s not even a challenge, but I offer they are under the wrong bus and those that should be with them are not under it.
Instead, I will write perhaps what they should have said as well as what should be corrected. We have a tendency to believe that the ODPM, like any government agency, is on it’s own. When I look to criticize constructively, as someone with a technical background it is expected of me to point out the incompatible systems, the bottlenecks, and the problems with the apps and websites. Those are painfully obvious, and I have written about them before in the context of Brett. Instead, let’s look at the systems. We have a few agencies that are really involved with the flooding who are not garnering the attention they should be after these incidents – the ODPM, in this way, is a red herring offered for the masses to feed on. The real problem is deeper, and the ODPM’s failures – as real as they are – only skim the surface of the actual problem: Flooding during wet season, water retention during dry season. Environmental Management Authority Let’s talk about the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) a moment. Their corporate vision, from their website, is to be “Stewards of Trinidad and Tobago’s natural resources and environment meeting current and future human, ecological and economic needs.” I’d say that avoiding flooding is a part of current and future human, ecological and economic needs. Their mission, as they communicate it on their website, is: “We are committed to sustainably manage the natural resources and environment by providing a transparent framework to facilitate policy and decision making in development. This will be undertaken within an approved regulatory system, utilising intensive public education and a collaborative cross-sectoral approach.” So, how is it that a large amount of rainfall has created a problem that the ODPM cannot handle on more than one occasion? How is the EMA involved in that? Is it involved in that? Should it be involved in that? It sounds like it is a big part of their job to this layperson. Ministry of Planning And Development, Town And Country Division This department is one I mainly know for authorizing land development and even changing land zoning. Clearly they should be working with the EMA; what they actually do is hard to find since they have an almost random note on the Ministry of Planning and Development’s website. They clearly should be more transparent. Website, anyone?
That they are almost always ignored in land development is something that may have something to do with that, as well as what seems to be an arduous process to get anything done – so much so that illegal land development has been an underlying problem with some of the flooding. This is such a case that the Minister of Works has said he’ll be going after illegal land developers. And yet, legal land development is hardly something that information can be found for, and what can be found is typically through people who know how the system works and how it doesn’t. In some regards, this could be considered corruption, in others, it could be an inefficient bureaucracy that frustrates people to the point that they just go do their own thing. Why is the Ministry of Planning and Development, Town and Country Division, more effective in reducing the potential for flooding? You’d think that they and the EMA would be joined at the hip. Water and Sewage Authority (WASA) We’re told that WASA is responsible for all the water in Trinidad and Tobago. Though I have never see it in writing, all water on the ground in the country allegedly is WASA’s water – unless, of course, there is flooding, where not even WASA wants it. I bring them up because what we see as flooding in wet season is potential water to retain during dry season. In a country where many people still wait for pipe-borne water to fill their tanks on a daily basis, where water is almost always a problem during dry season, one has to wonder how WASA’s water retention isn’t being looked at as well. Ministry of Works and Transport Drainage Division As I regularly pass across Mosquito Creek, as many others do, we all see the problems with drainage. Flooding along any roads? Sure. The Flood of Failure. So yes, the ODPM didn’t handle the cascade of failures that creates flooding again. Sure, the Regional Corporations are also culpable at least to an extent – but with all this bureaucracy to save us from flooding, do we really want to blame the ODPM, forced to drink all this water, for wetting the bed? Clearly, the ODPM needs some work, but how much should we expect from them when much of this could be prevented?