Why flooded the villages of Suriname for months without help?

Harry Mama Sistina will be fifty years old soon. But instead of organizing a party, he’s looking for a place to store his clothes. He has been homeless since March 17th. On that fateful day, the Suriname River overflowed its banks and inundated homes in the village of New Lumbi in central Suriname.

The Prokopondo region was hardest hit by the rains. According to the National Coordination Center for Disaster Management (NCCR), 12,000 Surinamese in 35 villages along the Suriname River have been affected by the floods. In New Lumbi, a village of about 430 inhabitants, the height of the water was in some places close to 7 metres. In Classcreek, the village on the other side of the river, boats ply the roads. There is no potable water, because the water station is flooded with water.

Mama Sistina was supposed to go to work on March 17th. He works as a mechanic for the Grassalco mining company of the Surinamese government. But things went differently. As he hastily moved his electrical appliances to a higher, dry house, water continued to flow into his house. He manages to save his clothes in time, but not his wardrobe. Mama Sistina had a small farm with thirty ducks called Dukes in Suriname. 12 of them drowned.

At the end of June, Mama Sistina’s house has been under water for three months. He hasn’t received any help yet. “A lot of people have come for an interview. They score where the water is and then go again,” says Mama Sistina, smoking a relentless cigarette. He found temporary shelter in an empty house higher up, away from the river. His clothes are in a log shed with a leaky roof and packed In black bags and sports bags worn.

waiting for help

Harry Mama Sistina

Image source:
Zoe Dekunin

The work has not started since the flood. Because of the constant rain, he keeps a close eye on his property or what’s left of it. Mama Sistina asked for help several times: from rescue workers, from the government and from Surinamese institutions known for their collection campaigns. I ordered two plastic boxes for my clothes. Instead, I received a food package from the government,” Mama Sistina says.

“We want a roof over our heads,” says Dane Funkel, Mama Sistina’s neighbor and mother of two who is pregnant with a third child. Her house was still under water in June. Houses are collapsing, see? Indicate a wooden house in the water. The boards have been damaged by water, and the support beams are dangerously tilted to the side. She was not the same at home when the river waters flowed into her house. When she returned from a family visit to the village in the late afternoon of March 17, she was still trying to salvage what could be salvaged.

I lost the freezer, TV and wall unit. Her botanical garden, which provided for her family’s basic needs, was flooded. “I grow chickpea leaves, bananas, okra, peppers, sweet cassava, sugarcane, antroua, and vegetable stew. I’ve lost it all,” she sighs. She has no business and her husband works in the gold fields and sometimes stays away from home for months. “I now live in my mom’s little house,” Funkel says. She didn’t have much before, and now she has nothing. “With what money will I fix our house?”

It took the President of Suriname three months to address the residents of Prokobondo in person

The government responded slowly to the water disaster. President Chandrikapersad Santokhi attributed the disaster to “climate change,” flew over the disaster area twice and took three months to address the residents of Prokobondo in person. Initially, only 265,000 euros were provided to the affected areas, valid for one week of aid. Only two months after the disaster, Santokhi decided to declare a state of emergency, so that Suriname could also appeal to foreign countries for emergency aid. She came from the Netherlands, China and Venezuela.

Discussion about why

In June, representatives of the affected villages submitted a petition to the Parliament of Suriname in the capital, Paramaribo. In it, they demand an emergency fund and investigate the cause of the flooding. The situation in the flooded villages is unbearable. Children cannot go to school, drinking water is scarce, the material damage is great, the psychological impact is heavy, health care is not guaranteed: many outpatient clinics are empty.

Although Santoje is calling for more support to fight climate change, the topic is not being taken seriously, according to Chiquita environmental expert Margaret Risomardoño. “There’s a lot of talk about it, but there’s still very little going on.” She herself had to look for information about the floods inland because the government and politicians did not pay much attention to it. Moreover, the discussion about the causes of floods has overshadowed the consequences of floods. Villagers and Vice President Ronnie Brunswick have publicly expressed skepticism about climate change as the cause of the floods.

Something else was happening: heavy rains in the spring caused problems for the dam in the Prokopondo region. To prevent the reservoir from rising, the dam’s owner, Staatsolie Power Company Suriname (SPCS), decided to open all water channels at the end of February. Too much water in the tank may cause the dam to rupture. But by opening the gates, the villages were flooded even more. Residents believe SPCS waited too long for the flood gates to open to generate more electricity as the water level rose.

At the end of June, SPCS shut down the dam again. As a result, in July the water receded, but a lot of waste was left behind. Healthy drinking water remains a problem because the water sources are polluted. Prokobondo residents are demanding compensation “at least” 400 million Surinamese dollars (about 18 million euros) and an independent investigation into the cause of the flooding. And also: access to drinking water and electricity. Many villages in Prokopondo will still have no electricity in 2022.

CMS Suriname Format 2

In Classcreek boats sail the roads.

Image source:
Zoe Dekunin

More flood risks

SPCS has spent five million Surinamese dollars (about 220,000 euros) on drinking water and food parcels, water tanks, public toilets, emergency schools, and logistics costs for the affected villages in Prokopondo. The company will continue to provide drinking water and food “for as long as necessary”. Eddie Frankel, director of the dam owner SPCS, says residents shouldn’t rely on compensation either. “The flood is the result of a natural (extreme) phenomenon. No guilty act can be attributed to SPCS.”

Since November last year, the Suriname Meteorological Service has known that heavy rain is imminent

The Suriname Meteorological Service has known since November last year that heavy rain is imminent. In March, Suriname recorded five times the amount of rainfall recorded by the annual average. Most of the rain fell in southern Suriname, but this water flows through rivers and streams to the reservoir at Prokopondo. “The lake was full and couldn’t handle the amount of water.” The villages on the lower reaches of the river were completely loaded.

Mama Sistina is bitter that she was not warned. “I wasn’t told there was a danger of flooding until the night before the water arrived.” Principal Frankel of the SPCS refers to the district commissioner (similar to the mayor), who, he says, was informed in time. “Apparently, the information through the administration did not reach the people.”

Environmental expert Margaret Risomardano says whether the heavy rains in March are a direct result of climate change is under investigation. In any case, Suriname must act, she says. “A lot has already been discussed, and now we have to take drastic steps. The government is too slow.” According to the Caribbean Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology, there is still a risk of flooding in Suriname until November due to heavy rainfall.

A longer version of this article previously appeared in MO* Magazine and MO.be.

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