Ill-prepared Suriname faces worsening flooding

by Marvin Hokstam | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 14 June 2013 11:30 GMT

A cow stands in floodwaters in the municipality of Lenguazaque, near Bogota, Colombia, on May 19, 2011. REUTERS/John Vizcaino

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Trash-choked waterways and development in low-lying areas is combining with more extreme rainfall to drive flooding

PARAMARIBO, Suriname (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Trash-clogged drainage canals, growing development in low-lying areas and increasingly extreme weather are adding up to worsening flooding in Suriname.

Last month, Suriname was lashed by heavy rains – nearly double the usual rainfall for the period - that led to evacuations and crop and livestock losses as floodwater rapidly overflowed the country’s waterways.

Officials blamed the crisis in part on failure to prepare for the growing risks.

“We’re noticing that the weather patterns are changing and we ratify all those climate change resolutions, but do we really follow through? As long as we don’t, we’ll be mopping up while the water is running,” said Patrick Kensenhuis, a member of parliament for hard-hit Para district.

In Paramaribo, the capital, several residential areas were flooded. In Saramacca district in the west, poultry and vegetable farmers faced heavy losses when the Saramacca River and other waterways proved unable to handle the overflow.

One distraught farmer told the media that he had only been able to save a few of his chickens when the rainwater reached a height of 30 cm (12 inches) inside his coops. “It happened so fast,” he said.  Other farmers reported losing all their crops to the floods.

The last time such bad weather hit the country was in June 2006, when more than 450 mm of rain caused rivers in the hinterlands to burst their banks, flooding around 100 villages, killing three people and forcing hundreds to be relocated. This year there were no deaths.

In Para district, which is usually dry, some cassava farmers have lost their entire year’s harvest. Kensenhuis, an area member of parliament, said the weather was a blow to an ongoing effort to establish a cassava meal industry in the district. Cassava is widely considered a climate-resilient crop.

 “There are about 70 farmers here who took part in this programme and sowed an average of 3 hectares (about 7 acres),” Kensenhuis said. “They invested thousands of their own money in hopes of making profits.”

He said that 20 of the farmers had lost all their crop, and estimated that the rains may have cost some of them in excess of 50,000 Surinamese dollars (about US $15,000). Some cattle farmers, meanwhile, have suffered losses close to 500,000 dollars ($153,000).

Some 300 people from five communities in Marowijne district, in the east of the country, were relocated when the Cottica River overflowed, reaching up to one metre in depth in their villages.

“All we can do is express solidarity and look for ways to prevent this from happening again in the future,” said Marinus Bee, a member of parliament who led a parliamentary delegation to the area along with President Desi Bouterse.

GARBAGE PROBLEM

But Para District Commissioner Jerry Miranda wrote to the president suggesting that the state get tougher on people who dump garbage.

“We need to get Suriname cleaner. The problem is indeed that we get excessive rains, but the true culprit is the garbage that is dumped on the roadsides and in our canals,” Miranda said in an interview.

“Ironically it’s those same environmental barbarians who dump the garbage who complain later when they’re flooded,” he said. He called for steep fines for anyone caught dumping garbage.

Kensenhuis agreed that dumping is a problem. “Many important canals are indeed clogged. I know the Ministry of Public Works is paying contractors to maintain the canals, but if that work had been done and monitored properly, why are we having this problem with flooding now?” he asked.

He said residents of the affected areas needed better education about steps they could take to mitigate their risks from extreme weather.

According to Sieuwnath Naipal, a hydrologist at the University of Suriname, cleaning and maintaining canals will not by itself solve the problem of flooding.

“This is not one problem, but a combination of many,” which vary by area, Naipal stated in an e-mail.

He noted that the traditional practice of building on higher ground and leaving lower-lying areas for agriculture has changed as the country’s population (currently just over half a million) has grown. Infrastructure and residential developments have moved to coastal areas, and newer canals have smaller gradients, slowing the flow of water.

“Our coastal areas are very fertile, so weeds in the canals grow fast and irrigation is hampered. On top of that there is little to no control on the canals, which are a dumping ground for plastic bottles and other refuse,” Naipal said.

He agreed that the problem is worse because rains have intensified as a result of climate change, including rising seas along Suriname’s coastline.

“Because of the rise of the sea level our rivers are not able to fully handle the overflow that comes from the canals,” he said. Another problem is that “we still continue to parcel out (land) in the coastal areas that used to be under water.”

 “Under these circumstances it will be impossible to hold off this problem that returns every year,” Naipal said.

Marvin Hokstam is a freelance writer based in Suriname.