Lessons from the land of many waters

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  • Picture of Alexander Alder-Westlake
    Alexander Alder-Westlake
    Strategy, Governance, and Advocacy
  • Climate change
  • Environment
  • Technology

In a time of rising sea levels and flooding threats, Alexander Alder-Westlake suggests we draw lessons from a country most of us know nothing about. With its unique geography, topography and history, Guyana has much to teach the rest of the planet.

Small countries have to fight hard to be counted with their larger peers upon the world stage. This is especially true of postcolonial nations amid a landscape of former (and current) imperial powers. The South American country of Guyana is no exception, though it does well to have any international profile at all. Still, among the many striking things about the former British colony, there is something few in other countries have any knowledge of, but which could offer the world much help in the decades ahead. I refer of course to Guyana’s unique system of water management and flood defence.

Guyana is a country that exists in spite of itself, and not just because of the unfathomable journey its history has taken. VS Naipaul was, if anything, understating the case when he described colonial Guyana as ‘a country whose geography imposes on it an administration and a programme of public works out of all proportion to its revenue and population’. The coastal strip of Guyana – which contains its capital, its industry, and almost all of its population – is land which was pulled into existence out of swamp and seawater. As Walter Rodney memorably put it: ‘The slaves moved 100 million tons of heavy, waterlogged clay with shovel in hand, while enduring conditions of perpetual mud and water. Working people continued making tremendous contributions to the humanization of the Guyanese coastal landscape.’

History lives still. Guyana today is a country whose survival is ensured by a striking system of water control. The country’s coastal lands are criss-crossed with drainage channels including canals, conservancies, gullies, trenches, and kokers, assisted by water pumps where gravity fails. The greatest defence of all is the mighty 280-mile sea wall which spans the coast, perforated by a system of sluice gates allowing water to drain out to sea at low tide. It is an impressive system, and one which requires continual maintenance: canals need dredging, trenches need clearing, the sea wall itself needs repairing and reinforcing.

Meanwhile, around the world, flood defence is becoming only more important as climate change and rising sea levels expose more areas to the threat of severe flood risk. Many regions which have not had to contend seriously with existential threats from flooding will find themselves in a difficult predicament. Simultaneously, low-lying coastal cities are at risk of bleeding away land. Britain, for instance, still faces the rising threat of flooding with a byzantine web of local internal drainage boards, stemming from mediaeval land improvement efforts. Countries that, unlike Guyana, did not have to steal their existence from amid land and water generally do not have a mentality of prioritising flood defence, let alone a vast lattice of drainage apparatus and a mighty coastal sea wall. 

Infrastructure at such scale comes at great expense, but the price of failure is higher still. After all, there is only so much one can do when the waters are already risen. The Guyanese example shows how a waterlogged country of limited means and numerous challenges can manage to hold back the waters nonetheless. For hundreds of years, when people have faced problems of flooding or of water management, they have asked the Dutch for their wisdom. Today, the challenges are not those of improving land, but of keeping the tide from our doorsteps. Perhaps, in the years of rising waters ahead, countries might look to the Guyanese example too.

 Alexander Alder-Westlake FRSA is a British charity officer and board member based in London and Devon. He was formerly a flood warden on the River Exe.

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