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'We should not be surprised' - Geologist laments poor behaviour, failure to use research data among causes of flooding

Published:Thursday | May 18, 2017 | 12:00 AMJovan Johnson
Mona GeoInformatics Institute map showing areas impacted by heavy rains since Saturday.
Mona GeoInformatics Institute map showing areas impacted by heavy rains since Saturday.
Dr Parris Lyew-Ayee Jr

The authorities should not be surprised at areas left devastated by floods earlier this week, argues geologist Parris Lyew-Ayee Jr, who insists that poor planning and behavioural practices, as well as the failure to use research data to inform decisions, continue to rack up billions in unnecessary loss for Jamaica.

"This shouldn't be something that we should be surprised about. And I am not being cold and callous by saying big deal," said Lyew-Ayee, the director of the Mona GeoInformatics Institute based at the University of the West Indies. "The fact is, development authorities need to actually use this information and do something about it. Instead of saying, 'Where this come from? How could this have happened? We need to do something about this. We need to do a study.' And I am asking, Why? It's been done."

"The Water Resources Authority has modelled the Rio Minho to death. We know exactly what could happen. The local government authorities know this, too. The only deficiency would be is that people need to understand this and take this more seriously."

Lyew-Ayee, who also chairs the Water Resources Authority, made the comments as he gave a breakdown of two maps developed by his institute that show areas affected by heavy rains since Saturday, which caused widespread flooding in south, central, and some eastern parishes. Bridges, roads, homes, and livestock were left destroyed.

In Clarendon, deemed the worst affected parish, the Rio Minho - which at 92.8 kilometres (57.7 miles) is Jamaica's longest river - swelled and covered some nearby streets and houses.

One of the maps has blue squares, showing areas where flooding was reported, and red triangles, highlighting landslides. The second map is a close-up of parishes affected on the southern coast. The map also shows that the affected areas mostly fit in blue zones, which Lyew-Ayee said are places that are always likely to be flooded based on historical trends.

Where the squares are not in a blue zone, he said, those floods are the result of blocked drains "or things that are not natural".

... Drains are not build-it-and-forget-it

- Lyew-Ayee Jr

Prime Minister Andrew Holness noted that Jamaica's drainage system as well as the building of homes on river banks led to some of the devastation that occurred during this week's heavy rains. His administration plans to fast-track plans to overhaul the country's drainage system.

This comes as Carvel Stewart, past president of the Incorporated Master Builders Association, said that he is ready to defend his position that Jamaica lacks proper drainage solutions. "What we have are individual areas trying to address the localised drainage requirement," he said.

Geologist Parris Lyew-Ayee Jr maintains that for a long time, the authorities have had data to act, in addition to education campaigns to influence behaviour change. Regarding the drain plans, he warns that creating suitable systems must not only focus on facilitating large volumes of water, but debris, too.

"We need to understand, drains are not build-it-and-forget-about-it things. You have to build the drains, maintain the drains, keep them clear. But drains are not just about transporting water. It's also about transporting debris," he said.

Noting the impact of changing weather patterns, Lyew-Ayee said that the drainage system is only part of a "societal system" that includes development approvals, garbage disposal, and house-building practices that must be reformed to reduce damage and loss due to events like flooding.

"We can blame the National Works Agency (NWA) all we want, but it is not NWA garbage blocking the drains. What is the source of the garbage? There's a bigger issue that we need to look at in terms of everybody doing their part and not just blaming Government," he pointed out.