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Rain of Terror, Reign of Error

IF I HAD what lawyers call, “an insurable interest” in the Trinidadian Minister of Works, I’d take out a term policy on his life. This rainy season could prove both his own guava season and proximate cause of death. Nothing can be done to stop the rain Trinidadians have, for generations, done everything possible to increase the likelihood, frequency and intensity of floods. Not even God can turn back a century of bad decisions.

As short a time as five years ago, heavy rain brought the possibility, even the probability of flooding; today, it is a certainty. It’s not that rain has got heavier, it’s not global warming and it’s not a vengeful, wrathful God. It’s the direct, predictable and unavoidable (though it could have been avoided by the right choices) result of more and more people building bigger and bigger houses higher and higher on the mountainside and in an ever-widening flood plain – with the increase in the numbers of big houses high in the mountains being a direct contributor to the flood plains widening and taking in more “residential” areas below.

Deliberate (though unplanned) land use in Trinidad has actively encouraged flooding. Class A agricultural land in Maraval, Petit Valley and Diego Martin, which, in a real country, would have been used for food production, is under housing, commerce and light industry.

In the original Paramin, high in the Maraval mountains, villagers collected and stored as much rainfall as possible for their own use, terraced land for planting (slowing water run-off), and built relatively small houses, often with steeply pitched roofs.

Compare old Paramin with the new mega-structures dominating every hillside except Laventille. Where there was once forested mountainside, there are now huge houses, with huge, relatively low-pitched roofs and large paved areas and/or driveways, which increase (geometrically) the water available for run-off and the rate of that run-off.

And all those extra households on land that should never have been used for housing, spend the entire dry season flinging their rubbish into the water courses. Every soft drink bottle and dirty disposable diaper dropped thoughtlessly on the street ends up in, and blocking, a drain. There isn’t a person who doesn’t contribute to the problem and only a handful of people worrying about solutions – and they have largely been dismissed as crackpots and “intellectuals”. (Only in Trinidad, behind the Iron Curtain and below the US Bible Belt could the word “intellectual” be an insult).

Ten years ago, an hour of rain might have raised the Maraval River level by centimetres; today, the same amount of rain transforms the river into a raging, muddy torrent; and the same thing happens, often at the same time, with the Diego Martin, St James and St Ann’s rivers. Add a high tide making it difficult for water to flow into the Gulf of Paria and heavy rain cannot help but do severe damage.

And every year, with more untrammelled hillside “development”, more topsoil is washed away, making the next year’s runoff more intense and much faster. Any Minister of Works trying to stop flooding in Trinidad is, ergo, spinning top in mud.

Given that we are unable to prevent the flooding, then, we should seek to profit from it. Here, then, are suggestions for the Minister of Industry to take the heat off his Works counterpart by turning all that raging mud into the “mor-ney” all Trinis regard as paramount.

Brown Water Boat Rides. If there’s an eco-tourist market for whitewater canoeing, there should be one for brown. Trinidad could get all those Disneyworld tourists who queue for hours to experience tame imitations. In the interest of perceived racial equality, Dr-Professor Selwyn Cudjoe would have to be retained to explore the possibility of a black water version.

Mountain-to-Valley House Relocation. With some luck, and judicious back-hoeing, downhill paths may be pre-cut and calculated to widen in such a way that, when the big houses tumble, they will surf down the channels and land on the houses of sufferers below, obliterating same. Upper Glencoe can thusly overwhelm and replace Lower Glencoe, Lady Chancellor can smother Boisseirre or Hutton Rd and so on. The problem of who will buy all the KFC can be addressed later. The channels which would remain on what would once more be clear mountainside can be used for the next moneymaking purpose, namely:

Downhill Water-Skiing. Every time it rains, superrich Trinis, impatient for winter and Aspen, will be able to ski downhill at home, out of season, slaloming to their hearts’ content; and the après-ski will include doubles. The same channels that allow downhill water-skiing can also be used for:

Hydroelectric Power Plants. Why waste all that valuable kinetic energy? Tap it and precipitate (ha!) the reverse of what normally happens in heavy rain in Trinidad now: instead of power going, it would be growing!

Smelters in the Sea. As with everything else, what was seen as sheer madness if done by the PNM was greeted as visionary under the People’s Partnership. With all the houses tumbling down the hill to be used as fill, land can be reclaimed and used for heavy industry. This also a more direct route towards that other perennial Trini preoccupation of poisoning the Gulf of Paria.

National Revival through Prayer. With more and more buildings swept away daily, the Pentecostal approach to construction will necessarily be adopted wholesale. Not just churches will be housed in tents, but schools, groceries, community centres and even hospitals (who say, “M.A.S.H. it”?). That cumbersome, expensive Red House will become the Red Tent. We can all live in tents, a natural choice for a nation of refugees.

BC Pires is listening to Weather Report. A longer, more libellous version of this column first appeared on 6 August 2010. BC wll be back live and in-person and/or living colour next Friday

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