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Friday 24 May 2019
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Building for climate change

Experts urges caution in construction in flood zones

Residents being rescued after devastating flooding in the Greenvale Park housing development in this October 20 file photo. Photo by Lincoln Holder
Residents being rescued after devastating flooding in the Greenvale Park housing development in this October 20 file photo. Photo by Lincoln Holder

THE TIME has come for TT to make greater infrastructural investments as the country braces for future extreme weather conditions, following the devastating flooding last month, Dr Trina Halfhide, lecturer in environmental science and sustainable technology, warns.

"We need to be mindful that as a small island developing state (SID), we are going to be impacted by extreme events. Climate change will only make these events worse. It is time that we make infrastructural investments and try to do our part to reduce our individual impact," Halfhide said in response to emailed questions from Business Day.

Supporting this view is Dr James Armstrong, a development planner and former independent senator. Armstrong added that people are living in many flood-prone areas without state approvals. This, he said, is a further economic burden on the state to compensate those affected.

The Greenvale, La Horquetta housing development was built on a known floodplain. Close to 500 families were affected by the October 19 flooding that saw many losing virtually all of their belongings. A month's worth of rain fell in three days, government officials said then.

Since the flooding, blame has been passed between two political parties for constructing houses in a flood-prone area.

Amid the debate, it emerged that in 2005, Town and Country Planning gave permission to the Housing Development Corporation (HDC) to develop Greenvale and work began in 2007. However, on June 26, 2009, Town and Country issued a notice of refusal on two grounds: the development was on a floodplain of the Caroni River and was in a conservation area. HDC halted construction.

Five years later, on November 17, 2014, Town and Country granted permission for the the project to continue on the condition that the HDC implement changes to mitigate flooding that included detention ponds and water pumps.

A large volume of water in the detention pond at the Greenvale Park Housing Development in this November 13 file photo. Phot by Roger Jacob

Addressing constructing houses in flood-prone areas,
Armstrong said: "That is another dilemma; the state may want to follow its own policies and advice."

Halfhide said what is needed is sustainable development. She said that it is not only possible to have development and proper environmentally consciousness but it is recommended.

"We need sustainable development, whereby economic activities consider the needs of future generations. There is a need to prioritise effective urban planning and land use. We should have more stringent land use and planning to allow for increased climate resiliency, water storage and capacity," Halfhide said adding that TT has access to development loans to facilitate these types of infrastructural changes.

Armstrong said apart from planning, enforcement of laws dealing with development is needed. He added that TT has one of the highest levels of non-compliance in the Caribbean and "we need to get serious about enforcement". The cost of public housing may increase as a result of some additional infrastructural work to treat with climate change, he said

"I don't think we are doing any set of planning taking into consideration climate change. Enforcing the requirements that are necessary to take these things into consideration is a must. The responsibility is for this generation to anticipate the changes in the environmental conditions and look out for ourselves and future generations," said Armstrong.

One major issue is balancing agriculture with development, Armstrong said. He added that the land space available for housing may not be where people will want to live but should be living. There are limited avenues for agricultural production and insufficient land for agriculture for both self-sufficiency and contribution to the economy, he said.

Halfhide said there is a need for long-term planning as certain areas are simply not suitable for residential buildings. She added that there is a need to consider investing in green infrastructure to improve the water quality.

"We have not been very effective in our planning. We have settlements in low-lying and flood-prone areas and do not have sufficient water storage and drainage capacity to deal with our everyday flash flooding. This coupled with more extreme events due to climate change, exacerbates the problem," she said.

Halfhide said part of sustainable development should include green spaces highlighting Port of Spain, as an example. This initiative will be two-fold: increase infiltration and reduce rapid run-off while improving the aesthetics of the city. She said the idea is not far-fetched.

Sustainable development will not only tackle building with natural disasters in mind but can contribute to the agriculture sector while farmers who practice agro-forestry and other environmentally conscious practices be given incentives, she observed.

"Green roofs will not solve all of our problems, but they are a great example, where the environment is considered when planning. It also demonstrates how we can use our ideas and existing capacity to start small projects. For example, why not grow some of our small plants or herbs on the roofs of government buildings and use these to supplement our government schools’ food plans? I do not personally believe that we have to choose between development and the environment," she said.

Planning Minister Camille Robinson-Regis told Business Day that government is focused on sustainable development and she chairs the Complex Development Facilitation Committee which works as a one-stop shop for all projects that exceed 10 houses. She added the committee was formed to expedite large planning projects and avoid agencies operating independently of each other forcing the developer to visit several ministries before beginning their work. Robinson-Regis added that with limited land space, a land use policy is important.

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