Friday, December 03, 2004

The Rebuilding of Montserrat, 1:
Sustainable Redevelopment?
GEM 04:12:02

Over the past month, Montserrat has gone through some truly heavy, and sustained rains -- in fact, the Geralds Heliport rain gauge measured over 12” of rains for November. As a result, some houses have suffered significant damage, two tourists were almost swept out to sea in a flash flood, and several other worrying trends have come to light:

Relocated Geralds residents had their new houses flooded, damaging not only the houses but also their possessions.

At the Port in Little Bay, a culvert under a bridge became blocked as debris washing down the ghauts in the watershed blocked the flow of water. Then, the waters surged over the bridge, floating off two cars. Several Port workers had to be lifted over the waters in the bucket of a backhoe.

Twice within a week, the Belham river valley suddenly flooded, trapping vehicles and their occupants in the act of fording over the now volcanic mudflow-filled stream-bed. In the second case, two tourists were nearly washed away in the raging waters and had to be rescued by a local hero known as “William” – who should get a medal.

Media reports say that when the Little Bay bridge was being built, local opinions about extreme weather events were ignored by the overseas-based engineers. (It is, however, material to note that the flooding started when culverts were blocked by debris, perhaps due to the bad habit of dumping refuse in the ghauts upstream.)

Similarly, in the first Belham valley flood, there had been no advance warning on ZJB, which provides the designated alert service for those who drive south into the volcano ravaged zone.
In the second instance, media reports indicated that the weather seemed to be fine, and there were no obvious signs of rain in the mountains that could trigger a flash flood or mud flow.

Last, but not least, it seems that the weekly series of volcano reports on ZJB Radio has now been brought to an end. This means that the public will not be able to track the still active volcano’s behaviour for themselves, and so form their own informed judgements. (This is happening at precisely the time when there is an emerging movement to resettle the evacuated area south of the Belham!)

Let’s connect some dots.

For, such events and trends are telling us that our “business as [nearly] usual” approach is not working, especially as it relates to the Belham valley and the adjacent zone on its south bank. (Indeed, some of us are unaware that, reportedly, many vehicle Insurance policies have a specific exception: damage in the Belham valley is “at your own risk.”)

There is a current proposal to build a Bailey Bridge over the Belham, a bit away from the current passing point. Then, it is hoped to elevate it as necessary to make up for the mud flows now gradually filling up the valley. But, what would happen in the event that the debris field at the head of the Belham were to massively avalanche into the valley? What would be the impact of such -- hopefully, unlikely! --events on the prospective resettled zone between the river and Plymouth? What of the long-standing proposal to mine the volcanic the deposits in that valley, for use in construction related industries?

Such questions are not mere alarmism. For, basic prudence tells us to think through the match between our redevelopment efforts and our environment’s possible trends. [For instance, a “100-year storm” means one that, based on past trends, has one chance in a hundred of occurring in any given year. Negligibly low? Actually not: if we build a wall that is too weak to stand such a storm, over a twenty year period that structure has better than one chance in six of being hit by such a “100 year storm”! (To see what that means, think about throwing a die. The chance that, over 20 years, our wall will be hit by a storm stronger than it is designed for is a little higher than that of rolling a six. Is that an “acceptable risk”?)

In short, the events of November are a wake-up call.

So, let us again come together as a community to consider carefully our environment and its trends, opportunities and threats: bio-physical, socio-cultural, economic. Then, in light of our findings, let us soberly reassess our community’s resources, hopes, fears, strengths and weaknesses as they impact our current re-building initiatives in the North, in the Salem region, and south of the Belham. On the current, “[near] business as usual” path, what is the range of significant possible good/bad outcomes over the next five, ten, or twenty years? Are the associated risks and possible losses acceptable, given our opportunities and likely benefits? If not, what are some more sustainable alternatives, and where would they most likely lead us under good/bad environmental scenarios?

Perhaps, the logical way to think these things through and reach a sustainable consensus would be for us to have an annual, public National Forum on the Future, through the churches, chamber of commerce and industry, NDF and other community based organizations, along with the Government. Does that make sense? Why/why not? AMEN

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