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Perry: Why natural disasters are part and parcel of our broken political system

When the 6.9 magnitude earthquake hit in mid-August this year, many were in shock; some even thought it was the end. Warnings of raging tropical storms/hurricanes largely go unnoticed in sweet T&T. Instead, we bring out the rum, puncheon and babash. Recall the road to Manzanilla was cut off not too long ago by heavy rains and incoming tide.

Flooding today is a yearly occurrence, now becoming more severe and frequent, inundating new built areas/ “developments”, creating a “national disaster” according to the Prime Minister.

Photo: Flooding victims in Trinidad this weekend.

What do all these incidents have in common apart from triggering the usual refrain of optimism, or rather delusion, that “God is a Trini”? These disasters are not followed up by strategic intervention by public authorities, policy makers or leaders.

Apart from the immediate relief supplies made available at the time of the calamity, or social welfare claims made just thereafter, there is hardly any serious follow-up. I reason this contrary to one prominent reporter’s assertion that disasters are not political, which has a feel-good, unifying ring to it especially during such an event.

They are in fact borne out of political actions or rather inaction—be it political timidity, public apathy, weak regulation, disorganised/under-resourced state and local government agencies; and ultimately, our broken corrupt political system that is run on five-year cycles.

They also have an uncanny link to how the spoils of political office are distributed after elections, when issues of national development and importance take a back seat, only to be given rhetorical or fleeting attention at expedient times. Many of these problems have a long-term orientation and require long-term planning and intervention, which appear beyond the short attention span of politicians.

While no human being can prevent a natural event occurring, we can limit or mitigate the loss to human life and/or property with appropriate measures. For instance, if we put in place and forcefully implement modern building codes to prevent construction of unplanned settlements and housing developments that are environmentally damaging to areas that destroy ecosystems such as mangroves and swamps.

Photo: An aerial view of flooding in Trinidad.

For politicians, however, restricting housing construction may deny them sufficient votes or political financing.

For a very long time, housing has been used as a means of garnering support and votes for political elites. It has also been used as a way to funnel kickbacks through hefty contracts to contractors and construction companies that financially support political parties.

While images of the prime minister, opposition leader and MPs hugging affected flood victims or distributing hampers may bring warmth to the heart or create the illusion that there is political will, the issue runs deeper. And they are part of the problem.

In addition, many well-to-do land-owners—some of whom make up the 1%—have built sprawling real estate on hillsides while not, in many instances, practicing good construction methods. These elites may be able to bypass planning permissions due to their connections with politicians; or even if such is sought, may not follow them strictly.

This, in light of a planning department that is under-resourced and understaffed to properly monitor, or not given sufficient power in law to halt such projects. Take for instance, Invaders Bay and Chaguaramas Development land leases where some of the 1% have received approval to build on sensitive lands despite it being deemed “illegal” or against the public interest.

These actions have consequences and in the face of the effects of climate change can have ripple effects by causing flooding, landslides and other environmental disasters in lower-lying areas or completely new areas.

Photo: MovieTowne in Port-of-Spain.

When was the last time you heard a minister, political leader, or MP in Parliament mention the term “climate change”? Does the public even know we have a national climate change policy?

Do you know that the country sent no representation to the 2015 Sustainable Development Summit or the 2015 Paris Summit on Climate Change, where international actions were being taken to improve the response to this global threat? A Small Island Developing country like ours cannot afford to ignore climate change.

In a country which built its fortunes on the exploitation of oil and gas, enforcing environmental laws or even taking climate change seriously, may be perceived to be affecting the bottom line of multinationals—thereby discouraging politicians from taking action against these interests.

Though multinationals may not outright say “we are not following your laws” they send signals that suggest they will do only the minimum. As many of us know, laws are not often created for the big sawatees to follow, or largely go unenforced; they’re made with you and me in mind— the so-called “buffers”.

This weekend’s severe flooding does not have a single cause. Blaming citizens for throwing plastic bottles or refuse in river ways misses the mark altogether. How do we even deal with plastic waste when the Beverage Container Bill which proposes new measures to treat with this issue and other domestic solid waste has been held up in Parliament for more than a decade?

Photo: Flooding in Trinidad.

Why? In large measure, powerful beverage manufacturers (part of the 1%) do not want it passed and have invested time, resources and effort in ensuring that it does not see the light of day because it may hurt their profits.

Finally, suggesting that we need new drainage (or “box drains”) is a cosmetic fix to a multifaceted problem when our politicians and policy makers are either too timid to face powerful interests or are in bed with them, averting any serious preventative action.

I always recall my mother saying to me as a child that “prevention is better than cure”. I think it is high time we start taking this adage seriously and instigate real change.

Change depends on collective action by citizens putting these issues as hot topics on the agenda of political parties and joining together to challenge these powerful interests. If politicians are not going to do it—as often their houses are dry, and they lose nothing—it is time we up the ante and make these issues relevant to the political hustings and everyday political discussion.

Photo: Beetham residents chase Laventille West MP Fitzgerald Hinds and councillor Akil Audain, during a walkabout in the aftermath of flooding on 14 August 2018.
(Copyright Enrique Assoon/TT Newsday)

About Keston K Perry

Keston K Perry
Keston is a PhD candidate in Development Studies at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He has 10 years' combined experience in the private, government and non-governmental sectors and international organisations.

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  1. Keston K Perry, yuh hit the nail squarely on the head!!