Diego disaster a wake-up call
Now that a figure has been put, however tentatively, on the cost incurred by last weekend's ravaging floods and landslides in Diego Martin, a whole subject area of national budgeting has been opened.
As officials expect the preliminary estimate of $100-plus million only to rise, the real implications of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar designating Diego Martin a "national disaster area" are coming to realisation. Costs are likely to accrue at local and national levels, as human resources and equipment are mobilised for clean-up, repair of roads and bridges, and compensation to citizens for loss of property and personal injury.
This means that the State will face hefty bills which Finance Minister Larry Howai, now deeply immersed in preparation of the national budget, will have to factor in. In the private sector, insurance companies are set to take a possibly unprecedented level of hits from claims by policyholders, which could lead to further inflationary effects on premiums at renewal time, and which may also have deeper economic effects due to higher perceptions of risk created by this event.
This is because mitigating floods and other natural disasters are, in the final analysis, the responsibility of the State. No private citizen or company can safeguard an entire area, although citizens and companies may well have taken actions, from littering to construction, which exacerbated the effects of the heavy rains. But, again, it is the responsibility of the State to regulate the competing interests of individuals and groups within a polity so as to maximise welfare for all.
That is why government was invented — because, if every individual sought to maximise their own self-interest, all individuals would eventually suffer as resources ran out. This is known as the "Tragedy of the Commons', and the recent flooding was a textbook case of tragedy caused by State failure.
What makes the present situation even more perilous is that states are now tightly interconnected in a globalised world, so that failures in one nation affects other countries in ways direct and otherwise. So, even as the Government of Trinidad and Tobago is interrogated for its failure to prevent flooding, the standard preventative measures may already be judged inadequate. This is because of the possibility that climate change may become an additional factor in natural disasters in the near future.
Weird weather and environmental events and outcomes in other parts of the world is not an issue that is given adequate weight in T&T. But this country cannot be spared climate change effects and, since mitigation through international carbon emission treaties has proved a non-starter, adaptation through extraordinary safeguards is the necessary alternative.
In this regard, the Diego disaster should serve as a wake-up call.