Trinidad and Tobago — The extreme damage from floodwaters in the north and north-west is, quite rightly, very much in the forefront of the news.
My concern is that the numerous public and private debates are focusing almost entirely on quarries, or the neglectful planning and construction practices by developers, private homeowners and squatters.
These are, without doubt, a major contributing factor, but few people are talking about the continued destruction of ancient watersheds and river systems caused by preventable annual fires.
Two years ago the worst fires Trinidad has experienced for many years destroyed hundreds of acres of mature forest in the Northern Range.
The present flooding is, in large part, a direct result of these fires. Virgin forest was allowed to burn for months.
To the casual observer each rainy season “fixes” everything by covering the denuded areas with green scrub and vines, but this is not so.
Thousands of trees are gone and this year’s heavy rain in particular has already created new gullies and watercourses which will widen and deepen with each successive rainy season, exacerbating the problems that are now being experienced for the first time in these urban areas.
As a hill dweller with a bird’s eye view, each year I watch with frustration as seasonal winds drive fires up into the surrounding hills out of reach of the Fire Services hoses. Over and over again I have seen one small backyard fire lead to the burning of huge areas of forest.
Astonishingly, the majority of the public believes that these annual fires are part of a natural cycle. They are not.
Most people are not even aware of the laws in place that forbid the lighting of fires during certain months.
The cost of educating the public with regular, effective campaigns and enforcing the existing legislation by having mobile fire wardens (on trail bikes perhaps) patrolling hillside communities, would ultimately be far less costly to the Trinidad and Tobago taxpayer than building and maintaining the massive, new drainage systems which are now necessary.