Burning up water resources

Burning up water resources

07 April 2011

published by www.newsday.co.tt

Trinidad/Tobago — I’m hoping I don’t have to explain that statement, but just in case there are some who haven’t put two and two together, what I saw, what made me feel to sit down and weep was the first big bush fire of the 2011 dry season.

It’s late, I know. Usually come April the land is parched, we’re all (that is to say farmers and environmentalists) counting the weeks, hopefully days before the rains come to fill WASA’s reservoirs and the Arena Dam with fresh water.

Why was I weeping on seeing that bush fire? Because bush fires destroy the watersheds where the rains feed the springs and streams (and aquifers) that are our water resources. Forest – bush – protects our watersheds.

What is a watershed? There are two definitions; the one that concerns us is a ridge, or raised area of land dividing two river systems. The Northern Range is one super watershed, the streams on the north draining down to rivers that end in the Caribbean Sea, on the south into the Gulf of Paria or (on the eastern end of the range) the Atlantic; in all the Northern Range has 35 separate watersheds. Before we go any further, I ask, I beg, I beseech readers to look at the photographs of the Northern Oropuche Intake.

See how clear and clean is the water; note the trees shading the river, protecting the stream from the heat of the sun, the drying effects of the wind.

It’s a fact that trees, “useless” bush are Nature’s own shock-absorbers, protecting the soils from sun and wind and rainstorms. Raindrops falling first on the leaves on the tallest forest trees become droplets falling on the leaves below then dripping or trickling down the tree stems to the cushioning leaf litter of the forest floor.

It is the leaves and branches, the forest canopy that bears the full brunt of a tropical downpour of rain. Take away the trees and land is left with no protection at all. Instead of seeping into the ground to reappear as springs to feed streams, the rainwater runs off the bare hard ground. So long as we have bush on the hills of the Northern Range, WASA will have water for our taps, for agriculture, for industry.

When some idiot with matches for whatever reason sets fire to the bush below the watershed, the fire races up the slopes – that is a fact of physics. Nothing can stop a bush fire on the steep slopes of the Northern Range (short of a water bomber that our politicians seem reluctant to buy, reckoning, perhaps that the current natural resources of water will last their political lifetime?).

And so tropical downpours wash away the soil, the rainwater runs off the land instead.

Proof, if proof were needed, that trees protect our sources of water, our springs and streams, from burning sun and drying winds, can be found in Fondes Amandes where Akila Jaramogi and her late husband and friends planted – and tend – trees on the steep St Ann’s hillside.It took a year or three (or more), toting water in the dry season, cutting fire traces to protect the young trees from bush fires, but their efforts were rewarded. The spring that very senior citizens declared existed in their young days but had since dried up reappeared.

Now I ask you to look once again at the photograph of the Caroni River by the Piarco treatment plant and compare it with the waters of the Northern Oropuche. The Caroni at Piarco is full of silt, of soil washed away from the hills by torrential rains falling on our denuded slopes, slopes that we (well, not me, and I hope not you, either) burned bare because … No, I’m sorry, I can’t spare naughty children who think lighting fires is fun. I was one myself – but in the damp climate of the UK in winter it didn’t do any lasting damage. (You think Trinbago children don’t light fires in the bush? From across the valley I’ve seen them myself and been powerless to stop them.)

And then there are the stupid, thoughtless adolescents, youths who delight setting fires – and wait from a safe distance to see the Fire Service come to “out” the fire. Or there are careless gardeners defying the ban on lighting fires in the dry season, burning trash, the fire gets out of control – and a next hillside is bared. Or fires are set by hunters who don’t check that every last spark is extinguished before they leave their camp.

Every bush fire robs us of water because it damages or destroys the bush that protects the watersheds, the soft sponges of forest and soils of leaflitter that allow rainwater to seep down to the springs the streams, the aquifers that are the water of life for everyone living in Trinidad and Tobago.

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