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A livestock farmer points to the watermark left behind after the spring tides while standing in her flooded yard in November 2019. Photo: Orlando Charles Photo/ Stabroek News

A crumbling coastline and rising tides place Guyana’s farmers in peril

As sea level rises, the South American country's coastal population faces unprecedented challenges.
As sea level rises, the South American country's coastal population faces unprecedented challenges.

Neil Machado stands at his home in Mahaicony, East Coast Demerara Guyana, looking over his once bountiful rice fields. 

A year ago, the lands were first flooded with saltwater from breaches in the eroding sea defence that separates the Atlantic Ocean and farmlands at this section of the Guyanese coast. Since then, Machado’s Rice lands have become barren and unsuitable to cultivate.

The flooding resulted in salinisation of the soil, making it impossible for vegetation to thrive. 

“If you look across there where it is brown; that used to be our rice lands and pasture. After the floods, the acidity of the land is too high. That makes it impossible for our crops to survive,” said Machado, pointing to the wide swathes of land that were once green but are now a dull brown, devoid of vegetation. 

Machado is one of more than 35 crop and livestock Guyanese farmers who were dislocated by the persistent flooding. Their agricultural community is located approximately 54 km away from the South American country’s capital, Georgetown.

Neil Machado. Photo: Department of Public Information

In mid-2019, farmers at Mahaicony were first hit by the flooding during an unusually high spring tide. The furious waves showed no mercy, battering and overtopping the crumbling sea defence that protected the agriculture and residential lands. 

Guyana’s Atlantic coast stretches 360 km, almost the length of Trinidad and Tobago’s entire coastline. Ninety percent of Guyana’s population lives closer to the sea, making them potential victims of coastal flooding.

The coastland is below sea level, sheltered by various forms of sea defence. A method of protection is the so-called ‘sea walls’,concrete structures built by Dutch colonists in the 1900s. These are being upgraded after decades of being battered by waves. 

Other coastland sections are protected by layers of boulders and a geotextile material called ‘rip rap’. In addition, mangrove forests and earthen embankments function as protective structures in some coastal stretches. 

In the never-ceasing battle between sea and man, crumbling sea walls are built to a height of 12 feet in order to lessen overtopping. However, unpredictable rising tides weaken efforts to stop powerful waves from leaping over the sea walls and flooding lands.

Over the past decades, the tropical country has been experiencing the effects of climate change. While Guyanese people used to experience two wet periods in May-June and December-January, this has now changed. The South American country is now recording periods of intense rainfall as well as prolonged dry seasons. 

Such variation signals changes in climate patterns. In addition, rising sea levels continue to flood low lying coastal areas such as Guyana, damaging and destroying crops and homes. By the end of this century, sea levels are expected to rise between one and three feet (between 30 and 91 cm).

In a recent report, the office of Climate Change stated that, in November-February and June-July within the last five years (2015-2020), the spring tides were higher than average. According to the report, the tidal effects impacted as far as 10 km up the Demerara River. 

Globally, climatic changes are being manifested in many developing and low coastal countries threatening their livelihoods. Rising sea levels as a result of global warming contributes to land loss and heavy inundation of low-lying coastal areas, loss of mangrove forest which act as a barrier against ferocious tides.

Countries such as Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, D.P.R Korea, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Thailand Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Bangladesh and Vietnam and others have witnessed the devastating effects of rising sea levels

Waves overtopping the eroding section of sea defence at Mahaicony in October 2019. Photo: David Papannah Photo/Stabroek News

High tide 

The Ministry of Public Works has highlighted that the already “critical” condition of the shoreline at Mahaicony “has escalated due to the impacts of the current spring tide.”

In 2019, when authorities were informed of the breach at Mahaicony, contractors were immediately dispatched to seal it. However, between 2019 and 2020, at least three new breaches have been detected. 

According to Guyana’s Chief Sea and River Defence Officer Kevin Samad, an active erosion cycle threatens the vulnerable stretch of sea defence. The mangrove fringe that once protected the earthen embankment is no more. Its absence has left the fragile sea defence exposed to violent waves.

The European Union’s development aid has provided €85m through grant funding to develop Guyana’s sea defence since the 1970s. At the end of 2020, the EU released an additional €7.9m  as budget support to Guyana. This sum will contribute to the country’s climate change adaptation programme as well as provide infrastructure for the protection of the river and sea defence.

In recent years, unusually high spring tides have become more frequent and increasingly destructive, often flooding farmlands and residential areas. With rising sea levels, it is likely that more funds will have to be directed towards building and upgrading sea defences to protect the fragile coastal strip.   

Flood Losses

The persistent flooding and saltwater intrusion has created astronomical economic challenges for dozens of farmers. 

With no land to cultivate, Machado said he and other farmers had to find alternative forms of employment. He used a portion of his savings to purchase a minibus, which he now operates for public transportation. Other farmers have opted to invest in leases of new lands for rice cultivation elsewhere.

“The change is difficult for us to adapt to, because farming is all we know. It is in our blood and this is what we were taught for generations,” Machado, who is also a community advocate, said. “The animals can’t survive in the saltwater [flooded pasture] so we had to move them because there was no food to eat and water to drink. Everyone had to move their cows and sheep,” he continued. 

Livestock farmers Lloyd Alphonso and Maniram Alves were forced to remove their cattle and sheep from their pastures as the fields were submerged in ocean saltwater. They have been suffering losses since the November 2019 flood, when calves and lambs drowned in the deep waters.

“We are farmers, this is the countryside. This is what we do for a living and our daily bread. Myself, my wife and children depend on farming, but it has not been profitable in the last months. The government does not see it appropriate to help us with any compensation or soil testing so that we know if we can start replanting. They help us with nothing,” Alphonso said.

Before the abnormally high tides wreaked havoc, the local Civil Defence Commission advised residents and farmers to take measures to avert damage

But when the sea defence crumbled, there was nothing residents could do. They watched helplessly as the saltwater flooded their farms, pastures and homes. One of the highest tides recorded saw waves reaching heights of 3.29 meters above the sea defence in November 2019. 

“We saw the water rising and by the time we tried to block it from one end, it reached into the house. It just happened so fast. We knew the tide was coming, but it was higher than the last one,” one resident recalled.

Acres of rice fields and pastures submerged in saltwater from the Atlantic in June 2020. Photo: David Papannah Photo/ Stabroek News

Former Minister David Patterson announced at the conference ‘Green Building for Resilient Future Cities’ that Guyana will need US$67m between 2020 and 2022. According to Patterson, this money is required to effect repairs on around 33 km of a coastal stretch to prevent further breaches. In Guyana’s context, this is a huge sum. It equals to almost a third of the Ministry of Public Works’ annual budget. 

Despite the lessons from the first major flooding in July 2019, the return of spring tides in November that same year came with surprises. “The pen is high but the water raised so high and quick that the birds [chickens] drowned. We couldn’t do anything. When I saw the water rising I was confused because of how fast it happened,”, poultry farmer Zanne Singh related.

Livestock farmers have reinvested but the fears of losing their money and the uncertainty of rising tides remain.