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Holding back the waves in Guyana
Attempts to protect low-lying Guyana from the sea

Written by Tim

Global sea level rise poses a big challenge for the small country of Guyana. The 320km coastal zone, a fertile agricultural belt, where 90% of Guyana’s 800,000 population live already lies between 50cm and 1metre below sea level. And between 1955 and 2005 Guyana recorded a rise in relative sea level of 17cm, approximately twice the global average.

One theory put forward for the large relative rise is that alluvial deposits from the Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo rivers are forcing the coastline to sink. The flood risk is exacerbated by Guyana’s high levels of rainfall, which in cricketing terms means that Guyana has not hosted one test match in 100 years unaffected by rain. 

But Guyana has been defending itself against the sea for centuries and the stilted houses which line the shore are an example of this tradition of adaptation. The Dutch built an elaborate system of dykes and ditches in the eighteenth century which were extended during the British period of rule. But during the Burnham government in the 1970s and 80s the infrastructure was neglected.

In 2005 and 2006 Guyana experienced severe flooding. Heavy rains caused the rivers to flood and high tides prevented the opening of the sluice gates. Parts of Georgetown, the capital, were under water for more than a month. Libraries and museums were destroyed and with them part of the national memory and knowledge base lost. DfID and the Red Cross launched appeals at the time to come to Guyana’s support. 

Today the European Union, Caribbean Development Bank and InterAmerican Bank are contributing funds for sea defences. Chris Ingelbrecht, Head of the Technical Section of the EU’s programme in Guyana, is leading a programme to recover critical parts of the defence infrastructure. “The government has a sea defence programme which is emergency rather than maintenance-based”, he said.

The budget of €80million over 25 years is being used to conduct concrete repair work as well as building new rip rap boulder defences. But artificial defences are expensive and the work is being complemented with a mangrove planting programme which Ingelbrecht described as much more cost-effective. 

“Sea defences built to last 50 or 60 years” he said, “must today be built assuming a sea level rise which has a cost associated with it. Thank heavens we are not in the hurricane zone here.”

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