Caribbean Commentary – Geopolitics of Oil and Water in Guyana: Part 2
By Ivelaw Lloyd Griffith
Americas News, WASHINGTON, DC, Mon Jun 28, 2021: The first article dealt with the geography and environmental conditions of Guyana in the context of the only petro-English-speaking state in South America. I now draw attention to the nature and impact of flooding and offer some recommendations for meeting the challenge.
Water, water everywhere
The current aquatic state of Guyana recalls the memorable line of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s classic poem, The time of the old sailor: “Water, water, everywhere. Heavy rains are expected in Guyana at this time of year, as part of the country’s rainy season in May-June. Indeed, the hydrometeorological service of the Ministry of Agriculture published its outlook for May-June-July 2021 on April 29, predicting “a slightly higher probability of wetter than usual conditions in regions 1, 2, 3 , 4, 5, 7, 8, 10 and north. 6. “The forecast also called for ‘wet as usual’ for Regions 9 and the southern part of Region 6. Yet no one had predicted the ferocity of the fall and the severity of the flooding, which suggests a danger on many fronts.
The rains were incessant and the floods catastrophic, inundating the whole country and severely affecting seven of the country’s 10 administrative regions: 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 9 and 10. Fortunately, region 4, where the capital is located. , was spared by heavy flooding. For the month of May, precipitation was recorded at 607.7 millimeters (23.9 inches), the second highest deluge since 1981. Some communities, including mountainous areas that have never experienced flooding, include are now facing. President Mohamed Irfaan Ali called the situation the worst natural disaster in the country’s history. Speaking at the commissioning of the Saipem offshore construction facility in Guyana on June 5, he drew attention to part of the human and socio-economic toll of the disaster. Later, on June 10, he issued a declaration of disaster, which triggered the activation of the National Emergency Operations Center.
It is too early to calculate the full social and economic costs of the disaster. Yet its raging impact is already evident. Nearly 30,000 households in at least 300 communities have been displaced, some surviving in less than optimal shelter conditions. Houses, roads and bridges were washed away and mudslides wreaked havoc in some mountainous areas. Food prices have increased due to shortages and access to safe drinking water has been disrupted in some places. Hundreds of farms have been destroyed and in Region 8 (Potaro-Siparuni) alone, around 360 gold mining operations have been affected.
Fortunately, no deaths have been attributed to the flooding, but there are credible concerns over malaria and water-borne illnesses and a spread of dengue fever which is already problematic in parts of the interior. In addition, the already serious situation of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to worsen as screening and vaccination campaigns have been halted in parts of the country.
The Civil Defense Commission has frantically reached across the country to provide food, health and medical relief, with considerable support from the private sector, including oil companies, civic organizations and Guyanese in the diaspora. On June 14, the National Assembly approved a supplementary budget of G $ 10 billion ($ 47.5 million) to rebuild and repair roads and bridges, and to help farmers and miners whose lives and livelihoods have been affected, among others.
In all likelihood, the additional allocation will not be sufficient to meet the different needs once the disaster impact assessment has been completed. This process will begin on June 23. There is no doubt that Guyana will need short and long term international assistance in several areas to cope with the multiplicity of current and future challenges. Indeed, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States, the European Union, Japan, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency based in Barbados, the Pan American Health Organization and the regional security are among the nations and entities that have already reached out. There is no doubt that other offers will be coming.
Face and Fixation
Even before the floodwaters recede, the gravity of the situation and the significant implications involved warrant frank reflection on the contributing factors and how some of them might be avoided or mitigated in the future. As we deduced in the first article, torrential downpours are a cardinal feature of this Amazon country and cannot be avoided. In this regard, geography and environment are not the only relevant factors. Over the years, the central government and various local government units have failed in properly maintaining the dike and the dozens of kokers and water pumps that dot communities along the coasts and riverbanks, in particularly of the Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice rivers.
Some mangrove forests have also been neglected, if not worse. One case last month that highlights some of the tensions between preserving the environment and meeting the needs of the oil industry was the removal of mangroves from the Versailles / Malgre Tout maritime defense on the west bank of the river. Demerara by TriStar Incorporated, as part of its preparation to build a 66-acre shore base, wharf and jetty. This action endangered the environmental safety of thousands of residents of Pouderoyen, Goed Fortuin, Phoenix Park, Plantain Walk, Vreed-en-Hoop and other villages. The National Agricultural Research and Extension Institute explains that mangroves are essential to the country’s natural defense against the sea, providing about 5 to 10 times more carbon storage than terrestrial forests.
Fortunately, criticism and activism from community residents and environmental and civil society activists helped save the day. Earlier this month, TriStar began stockpiling nearly 20,000 tonnes of steel sheet piles for the facility’s coating work. In addition, the Minister of Natural Resources, Vickram Bharrat, took advantage of his June 6 message for World Environment Day to announce the resumption of the mangrove restoration project in Guyana, initially funded by the European Union to plant , restore and protect mangrove forests. Individuals and businesses also have some responsibility in contributing to the conditions that lead to flooding, by dumping garbage into canals, trenches and koker areas, thereby hampering the efficient flow of rainwater.
Flooding in Guyana is expected to have minimal impact on offshore oil exploration and extraction operations, although it will cause disruption to onshore activities, training and government commitments. The current rainy season is not over, however. In fact, heavy showers until August have been forecast. In addition, the second rainy season – December to January – is coming. Thus, the country will face heavy downpours and flooding later this year and beyond. Interestingly – and fortunately – Guyana benefited from an environmental phenomenon originating in geographically distant Africa: gusts of Saharan dust suppressed part of the precipitation.
Investments in environmental security
The current flooding difficulties in Guyana have the characteristics of an environmental security challenge, with environmental security defined as a situation in which environmental or caused problems seriously undermine the ability of state power holders to exercise normal political, economic and military authority, which in turn undermines internal governance or the external sovereignty of the state. Needless to say, prolonged flooding portends health security challenges, especially given the country’s severely compromised healthcare operations, not to mention the economic consequences and law enforcement security.
Thus, the Facing and Fixing must be done both with a view to better rebuilding and within the framework of an Environmental Safety Infrastructure Investment Plan. Such a plan can have two components: a short-term and a long-term, transformational one. The maintenance of the dike, the clearing, lining and maintenance of the canals, as well as the repair / replacement and maintenance of the water pumps would be key aspects of the first component. The restoration and maintenance of mangrove forests and the rehabilitation and maintenance of the dike are key aspects of the second component. Still, there is an elephant in the room in relation to that: moving the capital from the low coast to the heights. It’s a sine qua non for the long-term stability and security of the country.
Guyana currently has a natural resources fund of about US $ 300 million generating interest in the Federal Reserve Bank in New York, deposited there under legislation passed under President David Granger. Earlier this year, on April 28 to be exact, President Ali announced his government’s position on funds: “We have a number of things to do in terms of setting up the Petroleum Commission. We also need to look at the SWF legislation. These are things we need to do, but at the moment we are not looking at oil revenues to cover government spending. ”
However, the current situation has created a fierce urgency, which requires rethinking here, either to accelerate action on the Petroleum Commission and the Sovereign Fund, then access the account, or obtain legislative approval to tap into the Fund Now for of environmental investments. Investments could be secured by a tripartite package involving funds from the Sovereign Fund, loans against current oil savings and future income, taking into account the country’s current debt burden and possible inflationary effects of public spending, and grants from foreign sources.
External assistance is certainly needed to help Guyana meet its current environmental security challenges. Yet it cannot rely primarily on external aid to finance its investments in environmental security infrastructure; he has to put some financial “skin” in the game, which means using some of the income from Mother Nature’s oil blessings on this Amazon land of many waters.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Professor Ivelaw Lloyd Griffith is the former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Guyana, Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies-CSIS and member of the Caribbean Policy Consortium-CPC in Washington, DC. His next book, Challenged Sovereignty, will be published by the University of Illinois Press.