Enact and enforce new land use policy
The Express ran the first in a series of weekly columns submitted by the Fishermen and Friends of the Sea (FFOS) on January 19. These articles seek to highlight not just local environmental issues but those which affect the population on a global scale. Questions and comments can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org
The devastating floods that affected the Diego Martin, Petit Valley, Glencoe and Maraval areas have left entire communities traumatised.
The race is on to ascribe blame for what has been described as "an act of God". Felled trees and other debris blocked rivers and waterways with silt-laden water and rocks spilling onto the roads and into people's yards. Two people died when their homes were washed away in the raging floodwaters. Bridges were destroyed, cutting off access to homes, while roads were damaged and cars and other objects floated away.
It seems that every rainy season we have flooding with the attendant destruction to lives, property and infrastructure. The immediately identified culprit was hillside development, as it has been said time and time again that removing vegetation and topsoil from hillsides results in rapid rain run-off leading to floods.
Since the 1970s, hillside development or construction has been prohibited above the 100-metre or 300-foot contour line. These guidelines were reviewed and, in 1988, the Northern Range Hillside Development Policy was approved.
This policy was to be used for making decisions on any issue relating to development of lands in the Northern Range.
Recently, the Express of February 9, 2012 reported on Cabinet approval of guidelines pertaining to hillside development of the Northern Range. The latest guidelines state that all areas above 700 feet (or 250-metre) contour would remain under forest cover. Areas be-tween 300 and 700 feet and with land capability classifications of six or seven, which signify steep slopes, must remain under forest cover.
Areas between 300 and 700-foot contours with land capability classifications grades one to five would be devoted to agriculture. Without a doubt, there is need to move beyond the rhetoric of hillside planning to implementation of a proper policy with strict enforcement.
However, to believe our Leader of the Opposition, hillside development is the problem and nothing else. While it is a significant contributor to the problem, there is need to assess other factors that have influenced the increase in flooding incidents in Trinidad and Tobago.
The carrying capacity of river basins and other watercourses is exceeded during the floods and waterways that are polluted by vegetation and man-made objects are unable to transport the mass of water flowing within its banks.
Every year floods occur and citizens are admonished to stop dumping refuse in our watercourses. Yet, who heeds these calls year after year after year? When are we going to ensure the integrity of our water courses not only by a regular and ordered dredging programme but by addressing the problem of indiscriminate dumping of waste in our waterways?
Additionally, while attention is being focused on hillside developments, little is being said to distinguish between legal and illegal developments. It is easy to point fingers at a certain sector of society but we have done almost nothing to deal with squatting on our mountains, in particular, in the Northern Range.
Just choose any part of the Northern Range and gaze upwards and you would see squatter homes dotting the hillside. Successive governments have refused to deal with the problem of squatting in Trinidad and Tobago and, depending on whether in Opposition or Government, a political party adopts a particular approach.
The clearing of our mountains for activities other than house construction is also a major concern. Again huge swathes of the Northern Range have been cleared for legal and illegal crops. This does not happen overnight and it is easy to see the hills being cleared for planting; yet, there is a deafening silence by those responsible for protecting our hills.
Finally, there are developments taking place at sea level that are also affecting our flood issues. People are building homes on water courses, illegal bridges and generally affecting water courses.
When the volume of water rushes down the hillside, it faces man-made constraints deliberately constructed to facilitate a low-lying development.
It would be short-sighted to adopt an approach that would seek solely to have a review of policy and legislative instruments governing hillside and other development. A comprehensive review should look at the wider issue of water course management; pollution of our waterways; squatting; and indiscriminate legal and illegal agricultural practices on hillsides.
How long must we wait for the emergence of a new land use policy together with proper enforcement of existing laws dealing with water pollution and water course management. The time for action is now.