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Climate, Flooding and You

Mary Hospedales discusses the anthropogenic (human-induced) causes of extreme flooding, including deforestation, slash and burn farming, unregulated development and littering

15 December 2018

In October of 2018, the twin island republic of Trinidad and Tobago experienced a month’s worth of rainfall in three days. The unprecedented amount of rain, a result of accelerating climate change, caused devastating flooding across the islands, particularly in the Central and South parts of Trinidad. Though there was minimal loss of life, thousands of houses were swamped and belongings were swept away by the rushing floodwater. Wild animals like caimans, anacondas and otters flushed out of their natural habitats found their way into homes and into the streets. People and animals alike sought refuge on the roofs of homes, though they were exposed to the elements, and many communities rallied to save those trapped using boats, jetskis, or anything that would float. 

Scenes of devastation played in a loop on every media outlet. Rivers broke their banks, the elderly struggled, chest-deep, to boats, plastic bottles and solid waste flew past, borne along on a tide of brown, foaming water, cars, buses and trucks, were submerged and irretrievable and perhaps saddest of all were the children and animals bewildered, terrified and calling for help. The government declared the event a national disaster, and recovery efforts began. Schools were set up as temporary shelters, hospitals worked overtime, and a grassroots relief effort gathered momentum. 

Two months later, the damages are not even close to being repaired, and the public screams accusations of negligence, neglect and corruption at the government. While we can certainly agree that the government is in fact responsible for some factors contributing to the flooding, we cannot place all the blame on them alone. There are many things that we, the people, have inflicted on our environment that are largely responsible for this catastrophe. Now this is not to point fingers or namecall - much of what is done to the environment is done out of ignorance rather than malice - but instead to serve as a desperately needed wake-up call to the citizens and policymakers of this beautiful nation. 

The anthropogenic (human-induced) causes of extreme flooding are many, however, deforestation, slash and burn farming, unregulated development and littering are some of the main culprits. The roots of trees and plants are like a net, or even a natural retaining wall. Intricately interlocked, they reinforce the ground, holding the soil and rocks together and preventing too much water runoff from eroding the land. When humans cut down trees and plant irresponsibly, we damage and potentially even destroy these systems that are there to preserve the integrity of the earth. Slash and burn farming is even worse, because in addition to consuming these natural systems, it also kills animals, ravages their homes and disrupts the delicate ecological balance that keeps the environment healthy. When fires are set or start in the dry season, they often spread and burn for weeks, incinerating huge swaths of forest, which is especially terrible when it happens in the hills and mountains.

Even the removal of a single species can have consequences that can change not just the creatures that live there, but the geography of the land itself. We can see these changes in real time when we look at overfishing/pollution in coral reefs and in coastal areas, but perhaps the most famous example of the drastic change a single species can make is the incredible story of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the United States. These keystone predators changed the behaviour of prey species and restored balance to the environment, eventually altering the course of the river that flows through the reserve. 

Once we have cut down the trees and burnt what remains to the ground, we often build structures that are poorly sited and which do not take into account the environmental purpose of the location. For example, it has become common in recent years to build houses without stilts on historic floodplains, or to build houses on hills after we have removed trees and plants, a practice which puts these structures squarely in harm’s way. With nothing to hold the soil in place or reduce the pressure and speed of rain runoff, when rain comes, the buildup of water becomes extremely dangerous. When we build without considering the possible problems that the site poses, we invite issues like flooding.

As if all of the practices above were not enough on their own, Trinibagonians are notorious for littering with total disregard for anything except themselves and their own convenience. In the aftermath of the flood, the people claim that our drainage systems are completely insufficient, unequal to the task of stopping flooding from happening. They rail against the government, blaming it for not doing enough, claiming that it is due to the administration’s incompetence that these tragedies continue to occur. 

But if we were to step back and think about it, we would realize that we actually have no idea whether our drainage systems are inefficient or insufficient. Why, you ask? The answer is in the way that the people dispose of their waste. If drains and rivers are clogged with rubbish - plastic, old tires, broken wood, even fridges and stoves - then when rain falls, we will see an effect like that of a glass of ice and water. When you add ice to a glass, there is less space for the water, and it will necessarily rise to the top much faster. So too we see the rivers and drains overflow with water when all of the available room is taken up with rubbish. Who is to say that the drainage capacity of our waterways is not fifty times better than what we believe it to be at present? It is quite possible that the capacity is in fact inadequate, but we will never know unless we clear the way for the water first.

So the next time you think that throwing your polystyrene box out onto the verge of the road makes no difference, think again. The next time that you see someone rolling old tires into the river merely to dispose of them, explain the consequences. We have the power to prepare for and prevent against such disasters if only we educate ourselves and share the message with the rest of our fellow citizens. We can petition our policymakers and those in government to actually enforce the laws that we currently have which protect the environment, and to implement deterrents that are stronger than the ones in place now. We must do this, because rains like the ones experienced in October are going to become heavier and far more commonplace with the worsening of climate change. Let us therefore come together to stop flooding in the future, and remember that if we treat our environment well, it will care for us in return. 

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