The recent flooding in Trinidad and Tobago has been devastating, particularly coming just a few weeks after another destructive flood.
This raises serious questions about whether anything can be done about it and, if so, why isn’t anything being done?
Simultaneously occurring with this severe flooding is the ironic situation of having no water in our taps.
In parallel, the road network in our country is deteriorating rapidly, before our very eyes, and this government is doing nothing about it.
The country is literally falling apart under PNM misgovernance and mismanagement.
The Checklist. decided to speak to some of the top professionals in our country who have been dealing with flooding, infrastructure and engineering issues for decades. (Click here to watch the full discussion.) They are Dr Allen Sammy, Chairman of the Penal/Debe Regional Corporation, Roger Ganesh, the longest-serving Director of Highways in our country’s history, and Dr. Rae Furlonge, Traffic and Transport Engineer with 34 years experience.
The Checklist. spoke to these (3) individuals in a panel discussion to ask them questions about what we can do to fix these perennial, continuous problems, in order to physically and even morally rebuild our country. These problems cannot be impossible to solve.
Human Costs Of Poor Infrastructure And Flooding
Dr. Sammy importantly observed how deeply the quality of our lives are negatively impacted by this neglect of our infrastructure. “What do people want?” he asked. “People want happiness. And how do you define happiness? They want good roads, they want good drains, they want to make sure it’s crime free, and they have water, and they have lights, and they have a job. That’s happiness.”
“They want to know they can go into a football field and play or cricket or something, or they can go to a temple or a masjid or a church and worship without fear. And I am saying if these places are riddled with potholes you can’t move effortlessly from one point to another.
So people therefore now say, ‘Look I ain’t going nah, I can’t take on that road’, or ‘I can’t take on the traffic because of the condition of the road,’ or ‘I can’t take any traffic because of the flooding in one area. So the human impact is tremendous.”
“I’m sure it can be measured because when you ask people, ‘Well, boy, why don’t you come?’ He say, ‘Nah, I can’t take on that road.’ or ‘Why don’t you go and shop in that place?’ ‘That too far, you ain’t see how bad the road is?’”
“What it means especially in social terms, in human terms, is that people now avoid roads and put more pressure on other routes that are patched more than the others. It means therefore, the deterioration has set into the point where it damages vehicles, it damages the ability of people to move from Point A to Point B in a timely manner. It affects businesses because people don’t want to stop there because it have a big pothole, ‘I can’t park there, because cars will pull on to me’. It damages the people’s ability to go into social events and people don’t understand this.”
This affects residents in the area, widely. Dr. Sammy explains, “In Penal/Debe, as you know, it’s only 90,000 people on 240 square kilometers, of which about 60 percent is either directly or indirectly affected by some form of flooding. It is not that their homes may necessarily be flooded, but they cannot access where they want to go simply because between there and that access point, it has some floods so they can’t go anywhere.”
Even on our major highway today, Dr. Furlonge laments, “You have a piece of the Solomon Hochoy highway, suddenly flooding all the time now. The opinion is that a cloud stopped there. Up to the doorway of a bus, that’s to tell you how high the water is, that lower area in Claxton Bay.”
Dr. Sammy informed us,
“Every year, we have at least three major floods in Penal/Debe; we lose millions of dollars in crops and millions of dollars in household losses because of all of this [flooding], and again you multiply that by 14.
In Penal/Debe we can tell you when it’s high tide you’re dead. Because we know what’s going to happen.”
Ganesh adds, “We have an ongoing present day problem with congestion in this country. That is affecting our GDP, that affects man hours, basically you want to spend your day doing something productively.”
Poor infrastructure can even mean the death of entire areas. This happened to many towns that were once vibrant along the old railway line, but fell into decline after its closure by the PNM in 1968.
Roger Ganesh observed this phenomenon while growing up, making him want to become involved in the field of engineering. He remembered, “A lot of my relatives came from the east, so I had an opportunity to travel to the east and always wondered why towns like Arima and even Sangre Grande died a slow death from the early 1960s, and I also wondered why no infrastructure has been done over these years.”
Our limited infrastructure, too, has not only been a constraint on our development, but often has cost lives. Dr. Rae Furlonge reminded us,
“I don’t know if you recall, in 1985 the Uriah Butler Highway was cut off completely for a few days. For days completely. One person died or two persons died in their vehicle.
They got afraid and they locked up their car, stayed in the car, while people got out in the water, a foot of water in some parts in the highway, some parts higher. And she suffocated. She died from carbon monoxide poisoning. But people were stuck in the traffic and could not move on the Uriah Butler. It happened more than once but in 1985 was the most disastrous. What alternative do you have for transportation mobility if the highways are unable to be penetrated?”
The poor planning of our infrastructure and transportation affects us deeply, and in many ways. Dr. Furlonge pointed to a too-often neglected issue, “There’s a big issue but gender equity where it concerns women and children. We’re not talking about traffic safety. We’re talking about safety. You know the term ‘first mile and last mile’.
To get to where they’re going to get the transport, the women are harassed. The Chaguanas maxi stand, you know where it is? It is in the middle of a drug den. Nobody could go there in the night. Is that comfortable? You know why nobody takes it on, it’s ignored? Because the decision makers jump in their car, they don’t think about the women.
I always use the example, pre-covid obviously, when the woman finishes at the casino at nine o’clock in the night and she lives Caparo or Tabaquite, and the van from the casino at Grand Bazaar drops her under the flyover in Chaguanas. How does she get to Caparo? She has to wait and hope. Where is the equity, the social equity involved in transportation provision?”
In reflecting on the human cost, Dr. Sammy continues, “There is a final one [i.e., cost] I want to talk about — the psychological damage. After a period of time, your people realise, ‘You’ll flood again, what’s the use? The potholes… what’s the use?’ And everybody’s saying ‘What’s the use?’ And there was an expression long time — ‘they just drop their hand’. They give up. They lose their will to protest. And that is a dangerous sign because then State could ride roughshod over them.”
Everything Collapsing Due To Lack Of Political Will
All our experts agree that the problem is not so much the lack of money, but the lack of political will primarily. Dr. Sammy argues,
“Everything is collapsing around us. The political will is missing. The ability to manage is missing. It is not that the public servants don’t understand, you know,because they know what to do. But the political will is absent.”
With his years of experience, Ganesh reflects, “It’s not really a rocket science, as they would say, but yes there needs to be a leadership, there needs to be a trust, there needs to be ongoing works, basically.
“What we are doing currently, for many years, we just keep doing maintenance, routine maintenance for existing water courses and drainage systems. We rarely do work to improve the capacity of the infrastructure. Very rarely you will see a project where the infrastructure would improve any capacity of the drainage systems and that is where some of the major problems are.
Like, for instance, whenever it floods in Port of Spain, you have flooding taking place downtown Port of Spain. That can be reduced significantly. We have three main rivers that run through Port of Spain: you have the Maraval river, you have the St. Ann’s river and you have the Diego Martin river. Each of these rivers, studies were done in the past, more than 10-15 years now, where retention points could have been constructed upstream to reduce the impact, reduce the energy of these waters cascading down the hills and the ranges that exist around Port of Spain. That’s just one area, but throughout the country, it’s not really expensive to implement retention ponds. It’s not really expensive to improve the capacity of drains along our highways.”
Ganesh continued, “I would say there’s a lack of will in my opinion for proper maintenance in this place. Yes, we have a poor maintenance strategy and culture in this country, we all know that. We find millions of dollars to build new capital projects, but very little money is allocated for maintenance. Why? Is there no respect for maintenance? There’s no glory in maintenance? I know there’s no cutting of ribbon in maintenance projects, but still it’s a critical component in keeping our infrastructure.
“If you don’t maintain a car, it will shut down on the highway. If you don’t maintain a plane it might crash and kill everybody. It’s just as important that highways need maintenance.
And the respect for maintenance in my opinion in this country is very poor. Very, very poor. Lack of proper funding for just basic maintenance.”
Dr. Sammy reminds us of all the resources, including the human resources, that remain unused and untapped, even in the public service, which gets criticized and blamed so often. He explains, “A lot of work has been done by the public servants, you know, tremendous, and we have some excellent public servants, but I don’t believe enough recognition is given to them and the kind of stuff they have generated.”
Dr. Furlonge shows how the political directorate has failed to organize them appropriately. For instance, he pointed out, “Do you know we do not have any entity within the Ministry of Works and Transport for transportation planning? There’s no entity. It does not exist.”
“We have never collected data on freight or cargo. Now how do you plan a country that moves on any given highway, 15 to 20 percent of the traffic is truck. How can you not collect data on freight?”
PNM Excuses and Blame Game
This is not the fault of the public servants, as the PNM would have people believe, but of the Ministers, the Cabinet, and the political directorate, who have no will to effect improvement for the citizenry.
In fact, as is the PNM’s wont, they often resort to blaming citizens for their own failure. Dr. Sammy noted, “Now I see the government is using an excuse that these are the people who are causing it [i.e., people building on the river banks causing flooding]. That’s nonsense. Flooding is taking place even above them. So it is not only them. They are also contributors, but they are not the major contributors, at least not in Penal/Debe.”
“They used to tell us up to last year, a year before, ‘Well, who tell him to build in the lagoon?’ Now I had cause in another programme to say, ‘Well who tell Port of Spain to build where they build? Who tell Arima?’
All of them, you know. So clearly the lagoon is not the issue in itself, you need to look at the whole thing comprehensively.”
We Have Had Visionaries
Despite all of this, Trinidad and Tobago has had some visionaries who have seen the possibility of what our natural and built environment could be like and should be like.
John Humphrey, one of the fathers of the UNC, is widely understood to be one of these visionaries, and inspired all our panelists, particularly Dr. Sammy who lauded him as a mentor. Humphrey’s Sou-Sou lands project remains perhaps his greatest achievement. Dr. Carson Charles was also a transformative figure, with Dr. Furlonge naming Charles as his own personal mentor.
Major infrastructural work such as Point Lisas, the series of highway interchanges, and even the priority bus route have been visionary engineering projects. But these have been few and far between.
Our flooding issues, water problems and road issues can be fixed easily, with political will, creativity, and the application of scientific solutions. Our panelists outlined solutions that could be done with very little money, and simple political will. As they have repeatedly said, it is not rocket science, especially given our limited population and size.
To solve flooding, the simplest and most basic solution is to build retention and detention ponds. Dr. Sammy argues, “I don’t know why can’t people understand the importance of detention ponds? I can take you places where in Sou Sou Lands, we put one or two and they work beautifully. On the slopes, you can put catch pits which you can vegetate to trap the flow or the velocity, the volume of water coming downhill. You can do that, so it will vary from place to place.”
In Miami and throughout Florida, which is built on reclaimed swamp land, this is a common features which many Trinidadians and Tobagonians may have witnessed themselves.
Dr. Sammy explained how retention ponds can actually be used to generate revenue, provide drinking water and enhance community life and the local economy. He argued, “You utilise that water for farmers for one,
but you can use it for boating and fishing and camping and hiking and all those kinds of things. You can charge a fee. The community earns an income. So it becomes community tourism, and it can be done.
And there are cheap units abroad now. I’ve tapped into India’s site the other day about where you can buy something to purify water. You use that very water to give people for drinking.”
Dr. Furlonge reminded us that the Caroni cane lands used to provide this function previously. He explained, “We used to have detention basins all the time you know, as Allen correctly said. In the days of Caroni Limited when you had all these cane fields, where you think the water used to run? The water used to go into the cane fields and nobody would be bothered because they wouldn’t see it. They would see the cane but the water would go into the cane fields until the time when the rivers can take them and they would come along. So we had detention basins but we now have to make it practical, and then the experts, I’m no expert in it, but the experts could come and tell us where we can put those detention bases as part of development. How do we treat the water? Because you simply can’t just let the water go. Some of it you can use for drinking and so on.”
Roger Ganesh also spoke about the design of our built areas as being another important step to stopping the flooding situation. He explained, “There are lots of methods that can be used. Retention ponds are just one, but there are many others. For instance, there are cities right now they call it sponge cities. “Sponge city” meaning they have heavy intensive rainfall and instead of reducing the storm water it absorbs the water. So you can reduce paved areas. You can reduce a lot of areas where people normally want to have concrete and asphalt. You don’t have to have that. You don’t need it. You could have retention ponds. You could retain your water and utilize those water for other uses after.”
With regard to maintenance of our existing drainage in a time of severe shortage of funds, like today, Dr. Sammy recalled, “I don’t know if you recall in 1987 John Humphrey brought all the idle machinery capacity together and what he did is he had a per unit agreement on how many cubic you will clear, this is the price we’ll agree on. There was no public tendering, he had agreements. Now he lost his cabinet portfolio because of that subsequently, but what they did,
they cleaned all their watercourses in Trinidad and it didn’t flood for two years. So if it could be done in ‘87, through the political will, and that is missing here, totally missing, involvement of community and involvement of idle capacity of all these hundreds of excavators.
And the economy was similar in 1987 to what it is now. So it is not you cannot use those people in a creative way, agree on a payoff plan over a period of time, and people will accept that, the machines will be working, people will be employed, the water courses will be cleared.”
Ganesh argues, “What is really urgently needed in this country is a proper Flood Risk Assessment to be done. It’s affecting the lives of people too much, for more than five months every year. Every year, for as far as I can recall. People have to live in fear who live in the flood prone areas like Caroni and Kelly and St. Helena and El Carmen and those areas further down South that Dr. Sammy indicated. And if proper flood assessment management systems are done, we can plan and we could implement systems to reduce flooding in these communities, and reduce the cost of flooding. It is achievable in my opinion and could be done locally with our engineers and all the people like Dr. Sammy as well who’s been on the ground every day.”
Water supply solutions
Controlling the flood water is obviously tied to increasing our water supply. Dr. Sammy argued, “Then comes the area of rain water harvesting. Why are we allowing all the water from our roofs to go straight out into the drain? If you go to any of the islands that’s mandatory for them for them to have underground drainage. You go to BVI, you go to Grenada, etc.”
Ganesh observed, “There is enough water in this country for meet the present demand.”
Dr. Sammy continued, “There are about 20,000 structures in Penal/Debe. It could be commercial buildings, residential buildings, and so on. Can you imagine if every one of them are mandated in law to trap their rain water? “Catch rain water” as we used to say long time. Long time everybody used to catch rain water. Now people actually are not doing that, except if you are not serviced by WASA mains. We have a list of 612 houses that are not serviced by WASA mains and during the dry season we we supply them with water on a fairly regular basis over a period of three or four months. But imagine these people know that to survive in the rainy season, they need to catch their water, because we are not supplying any to them. So they catch their water. So it is not that people have not been schooled to catch their in water. They have done it historically and it can be now mandated that everybody must get their rain water.
Ganesh observed that in addition to supply, the delivery system needs to be addressed. He argued, “What also is very important, I think it’s very critical in Trinidad right now, is our supply infrastructure. Getting water into people’s taps. That seems to be the major challenge over decades now. It’s not that Trinidad doesn’t have enough water. Trinidad has enough water, in my opinion.”
The solution to our road network, similar to our water problems, can be done even in times of economic scarcity and lack of funds.
“The condition of our roads today shouldn’t be what it is from my opinion as Director of Highways for more than 10 years and Chief Construction Highway in the Highway Division for more than 11 years, it shouldn’t be that condition.
I remember very well when things were pretty bad, where oil was $9 dollars a barrel we had very little money for road maintenance, but we we improvised. We had access to other materials like oil sand. We had materials like aggregates and we had to combine those things together just to patch potholes. Patching potholes brings a lot of relief. Yes, yes, it is always good to pave highways and have it smooth, and it will save millions of dollars in the long run, but you need to look at things in a different perspective now. If you don’t have the funds to do major road maintenance, then you need to patch your roads. Because you need to drive on rural roads. You need to drive on main roads, on other secondary roads, to get to the highway. And if you can’t get to the highway, paving the highway over and over and over wouldn’t bring you the benefit that you want. So that’s one area.
“The other area is the fact that we have approximately about three thousand kilometers of paved roads in this country and about eight thousand kilometers of unpaved roads or secondary roads. So it’s not much compared to other developed countries and it shouldn’t be the condition that it is today. I remember again in the late 80s, early 90s when there were potholes throughout the whole country, all our main roads, all our highways, our secondary roads, rural roads. But we introduced a patching program that we also implemented. The local government authorities were involved in it, getting access to materials that we produced in the Ministry of Works in our own asphalt plant, getting access to their labour and their gangs and equipment and we did make a significant impact.
In fact, I remember we reached a point where we had patched almost 90 percent of the potholes throughout the complete road network of this country. And that doesn’t mean they had the money. That’s when money was scarce, just as it is now. But we had the will to get it done.
So technology exists right now to patch our potholes. We don’t need no rocket science technology with all these fancy equipment to go on highways to patch potholes.
You can employ labor just like you have CEPEP doing the grass maintenance along our roads and highways,
why can’t you have a CEPEP for patching potholes in rural areas?
Particularly in rural areas and secondary roads. Not highways — highways are risky and you need to get more qualified people to go on highways with better equipment. So the roads shouldn’t be the in condition it is today, and if people make an excuse about no material, that’s very poor. Poor, poor excuse in my opinion. You can improvise. You can get material. We have access to material in this country. Lake Asphalt, aggregates and quarries, involve the quarry owners. Quarries, they use roads to get to the quarries and their roads are in bad condition as well. They would like to see their roads repaired as well. So I would say there’s a lack of will, in my opinion.”
Ganesh observes how information and data can be used to make our existing roadways more efficient and effective. “I remember when we had congestion on the Endeavor flyover. We had congestion morning and evening, they didn’t know what to do. Then, of course, money was a bit scarce at the time, but all I did really was spend a hundred thousand dollars on new signs and new traffic regulations and traffic began flowing again. It was using data, because whatever you do must be data driven, must be engineering driven, and the institution to provide that, we see a lack and we see them falling down.”
Dr. Sammy had his own observations. “There have been Caroni roads that have been abandoned, oil field roads that have been abandoned, a lot of what we call orphan roads. So, for example, only 43 percent of the roads in Penal/Debe are vested in Penal/Debe. The others are really these orphan roads and I’m saying if you can enhance those roads, if you can improve those roads over time, then people will have another route to take, and therefore avoid the congestion on the roads which are used principally at this time.“
Dr. Furlonge put the question of public transport on the table as well, whether government-owned or privately-owned.
“We just have 600,000 odd people in this entire country needing to travel per day. That’s very easy. Very easy to manage.
We have never had it. The routes are there. The organisation, the data, put that together and call it Public Transport Development and Management. That could be easily done within the short term.”
PNM criticised UNC infrastructure drive, but this makes for civilisation
These solutions, as our expert panellists indicated over and over again, can be done right now, in the short term, simply with political will.
They have clearly shown it is possible to mitigate flood damage, provide water for all, and repair our roads, to enhance our quality of life, increase our productivity, and boost our economy. All it takes is the political will and creative imagination to get the job done. It is obvious by now that this will never come from the PNM. Historically it has always been the UNC to deliver this to Trinidad and Tobago. It will fall to the UNC to undertake the task of rebuilding and expanding our infrastructure, yet again.