Despite having a leading role in the formation of the Escazú Agreement, the first regional environmental treaty for Latin America and the Caribbean for environmental protection and human rights, Trinidad and Tobago has yet to ratify the legal instrument.
And coming from a year in which this country experienced unprecedented flooding resulting in millions in damages, and even the loss of life, the Escazú Agreement is a tool that is deeply needed in the bid to mitigate and adapt to climate change and its effects.
The aim of the Agreement is to guarantee the full and effective implementation in the region of the rights of access to environmental information, public participation in the environmental decision-making process, and access to justice in environmental matters.
In November, after over a week of continuous rain, this country experienced flooding at an unprecedented level. Flood waters rose as high as 10 feet (three metres) in some areas, proving challenging for disaster relief crews trying to reach those affected, and in the hardest hit areas, like Mafeking, a community in the south-eastern side of the country near Mayaro. Officers from the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard and Defence Force called in boats and heavy-duty trucks in order to render aid and reach the most affected citizens.
On November 29, official government reports through the Ministry of Rural Development and Local Government indicated that there had been over 30 flood incidents, over 51 landslides and four reports of damaged structures across 12 administrative districts. While the adverse weather alerts were discontinued that afternoon, the Riverine Flooding Alert remained effective at Orange Level (High Risk) and was extended until two days later.
For another five days, approximately 100,000 people remained affected by the flooding and remained under threat and at risk from further rainfall events.
Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley described the event as ‘a weather emergency’, and the made it known that the Cabinet had authorized the release of TT$150 million to help repair roads, clean rivers and compensate farmers and homeowners who fell victim to floods.
A total of TT$100 million was allocated for urgent repair work on roads damaged by floods and landslides, TT$40 million for a national flood relief programme and TT$10 million for farmers who lost their crops in flooded fields.
The intensity of these floods was described as ‘unprecedented’ by the Opposition, who even noted that the last major flooding event in 2018 was less impactful as flood waters receded quickly and clean-up efforts were swift.
This flooding event was prolonged with communities being submerged for days. While much of the national infrastructure was intact, several rural communities experienced the destruction of their road networks.
Questions naturally arose as to what would lead to such an event taking place. Weather anomalies aside, which are the result of climate change, many persons also pointed to the fact that the country was a victim of itself, with several construction projects not adhering to national infrastructural standards and being built in low-lying areas.
Dr Don Samuel, a civil engineer and lecturer, spoke with TV6 in December about the devastating floods and said that the country is suffering from an ‘infrastructural crisis’.
It was pointed out that this country did not adhere to proper drainage systems, and maintenance of said systems. It was also noted that a major contributor would be various housing projects that are being built on low-lying areas, without proper approval.
“Are the designs that are approved and are they sufficient and are the contractors or developers doing something other than what is approved? Because approval is just one stage you will need building inspectors to ensure that there is the monitoring of the works. So, you will have Town and Country, and the Drainage Development, who would grant certain approvals, and I want to be clear, I’m not blaming contractors, but I think that what we need to look at is if the designs are being adhered to,” Samuel said.
At the time, then-acting Commissioner of Police McDonald Jacob noted that in addition to this, there were issues with illegal quarries in the country which he believed could also be having a serious effect on the flooding being experienced.
Speaking with the Express last week, Nicole Leotaud, Executive Director of the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI) explained that the Escazú Agreement has been commended both regionally and internationally for its strength in terms of its regulatory and policy mechanisms.
“The Escazú Agreement would be a key step forward for environmental conservation in our country, helping us to combat key issues such as climate change and reduce socio-environmental conflict. It would strengthen environmental policies and projects through greater transparency and citizen voice in decision-making. The Escazú Agreement would also support a greater role for civil society as key advocates and partners in a whole-of-society approach to sustainable development,” Leotaud explained.
As a result, she called on the State to ratify the agreement.
She noted that in September 2019, CANARI was one of 60 civil society organizations working across Trinidad and Tobago that sent an open letter to Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley calling on the Government to sign and ratify the Escazú Agreement.
“We noted that Trinidad and Tobago had played a leading role in the negotiations of the Escazú Agreement and was widely commended for having strong legal, regulatory and policy mechanisms in place to support the implementation of this internationally ground-breaking treaty. The Ministry of Planning and Development responded in October 2019 advising that the issue of the signing and ratification of the Escazú Agreement was under active consideration by the Cabinet. However, we are not aware that any decision has yet been made by Cabinet on this matter,” Leotaud said.
It was noted that with this tool, citizens will be able to access information on the state of the environment and how it may be impacted by particular projects; be consulted and participate in decisions that could affect our environment; and even seek reparations in the courts if the environment is adversely affected, or if their views are not considered.
This story was originally published by the Trinidad and Tobago Express, through the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.