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Will Guyana’s capital city, Georgetown, sink by 2030?

Is Georgetown sinking by 2030 due to rising sea levels? Climate Central predicts it as one of nine cities expected to be underwater by then, urging Guyana to strengthen its sea wall.

Is Georgetown sinking by 2030 due to rising sea levels? Climate Central predicts it as one of nine cities expected to be underwater by then, urging Guyana to strengthen its sea wall.
Prolonged heavy rainfall resulted in flooding in Camp Road, Georgetown in April 2023.

Global sea levels are rising daily. In fact, it has more than doubled the pace they did in the first decade of measurements in 1993–2002. The World Meteorological Organisation said this hit a new record high last year, warning that the trend would continue for millennia.

Guyana is one of those countries most at risk of this phenomenon. Its capital, Georgetown, situated at the mouth of the Demerara River and home to nearly 90 percent of the country’s population, is about six feet below sea level. A long sea wall and an extensive network of canals keep the Atlantic Ocean at bay. But the city still faces enormous threats.

Georgetown has been identified as one of nine cities expected to be underwater by 2030 by Climate Central. The US-based nonprofit organisation that researches and reports on the science and impacts of climate change said the country will need to bolster its sea wall substantially.

Guyana suffered the worst flooding in the country’s history in 2005, with over US$500 million in damages. This represented more than half of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) at that time. The country experienced another similar flood situation in 2021, which brought back memories for citizens in every administrative region. Based on estimates, the losses were reported in the billions at the time.

There is no doubt that Georgetown faces a direct threat from the rising sea levels, City Mayor Alfred Mentore said. “The evidence is clear; as you go about the city, you can see for yourself that climate change has had and will continue to have an impact on Georgetown. Look at the seawalls; for example, the water levels are so high as compared to past years.” Mentore explained that his municipality is faced with the enormous challenge of having to respond to floods in the capital every time there is a heavy downpour or high tide.

Guyana’s drainage network of canals, dykes, polders, and kokers was originally constructed by the Dutch, as it was a Dutch colony from about 1581–1781. The coastlands are below sea level at high tide, like the Netherlands. Its drainage problems are also similar.

Flooding has been a recurrent issue not only in Georgetown but throughout Guyana, with billions having been invested over the years to address an outdated drainage and irrigation system and to invest in various sea defence initiatives. For instance, in the 2022 National Budget, some $13 billion was allocated to upgrade drainage and irrigation systems in the country, with another $5 billion earmarked to improve Guyana’s flood protection infrastructure. Additionally, the budget allocated some $1.2 billion to the National Drainage and Irrigation Authority (NDIA) in August as supplementary funds to aid ongoing works.

Is Georgetown sinking by 2030 due to rising sea levels? Climate Central predicts it as one of nine cities expected to be underwater by then, urging Guyana to strengthen its sea wall.
Waves batter a section of Guyana’s Sea Wall during a high-spring tide in 2019.

But despite these efforts, the constant floods continue to create mayhem for the commercial and business sectors. Mentore is of the view that there must be a broader and more strategic effort from both the City Council and the Central Government to develop a comprehensive plan that caters for future events like those in 2015 and 2021. “We must work together on a major plan that will cater for future floods. While the investment continues to be made in sprucing up our sea defence structures and rehabilitating the drainage and irrigation structures, we must now look at alternative measures that would ensure that business in Georgetown and people’s daily lives are not interrupted,” said Mentore.

But owing to Guyana’s low-lying northern coastal zone and the gradual rises in sea levels, and despite the government of Guyana having invested billions of dollars into shoring up Guyana’s sea defences, deficiencies still exist, and overtopping continues to occur along the coast.

In 2015, a team from the Netherlands’ called the Dutch Risk Reduction Team (DRR-Team) came to Guyana on the request of the government to collaborate with the NDIA to examine the drainage and irrigation system and produce a hydraulic model to address flooding in the country.

Seven preliminary recommendations were made. They are upgrade modelling capability; increase flood resilience of people and businesses; upgrade dredging capabilities and improve flow efficiency; develop long-term plans; develop and test a pilot project; develop and apply a life cycle approach for the drainage assets; and data management through digitization.

But aside from the high tides, Guyana has suffered from the issue of waste collection and disposal for several years. This often leads to frequent garbage overflows in Georgetown and severe environmental contamination at dumpsites. To make matters worse, there is the indiscriminate dumping of garbage in Georgetown and other parts of the country. This has largely contributed to the frequent flooding.

As for Andrea Williams, a vendor who ply’s here trade on Water Street, Georgetown, the flood situation is one that can be controlled if both the Central Government and City Council work together to ensure the drains are cleaned frequently and the kokers are opened timely.

“I have been selling in GT (Georgetown) for many years and I have seen the best and worst days out here. There were times when my entire business was affected due to flooding. Some days we would be selling with water above my ankle; and there have been other times when we would get flooded out, our items damaged, and we couldn’t sell.”

Williams said things have improved in the past few years, but given the unpredictable weather patterns, this could change suddenly. The vendor admits that some of her colleagues also contribute to the flooding because of how they dispose of garbage. Often, she explained, vagrants and homeless people are hired to dump excess waste, which often find their way in the alleyways and cause clogged canals.

A woman who has been selling pastries, local juices, and other food items for the past twenty years in the heart of Georgetown, Stabroek Market, Shareen Ali, recalled having to close her business premises on multiple occasions over the years, whenever there was a high tide, since the entire market would be inundated, causing damage to goods. High-tide flooding describes increasingly common flooding conditions along the coast due to rising sea levels, among others.

Ali said, “I think if we desilt this Demerara River mouth more often, the water level, and even if rain falls more than the limit, we will be able to drain that off quickly, but when the river is full and we have people dumping garbage and blocking the drains too, then we will continue to have this problem. Every time it rains, we are left to worry.”

Amid these difficulties faced by both vendors and residents in the city and the potential damage the sinking of the country’s capital city could have on the local populace, the government of Guyana has taken steps to ensure that a new city is built.

The current president, Mohamed Irfaan Ali, has announced plans to build this new city. Dubbed Silica City, this modern city will be developed on 12,100 acres of land in the Yarrowkabra and Kuru Kuru communities, located in the sandy and hilly region of Guyana.

The intention behind this project is to create an urban centre that would supplement Georgetown. Silica City is envisaged to tackle the issue of non-coastal urban settlement development and the challenges of climate change and rising sea levels. The development of this city is being aggressively pursued by the Ministry of Housing and Water in Guyana.

“We have initiated discussions on having a new area—a secondary city—developed… Now we must think about the future, think about the floodplain, think about a natural expansion of the city, and think about the industrialization that will take place,” President Ali said after revealing plans to start work on Silica City in 2020, just after being elected to office.

Is Georgetown sinking by 2030 due to rising sea levels? Climate Central predicts it as one of nine cities expected to be underwater by then, urging Guyana to strengthen its sea wall.
Works ongoing at Guyana’s first smart urban centre located along the Soesdyke-Linden, Silica City.

The first phase of development in the city is expected to feature several commercial and industrial developments and hospitals. Around 3,000 acres of land are available for this phase. While these plans are in motion, land acquisition for phase two is also in progress through collaborative efforts with the Guyana Lands and Surveys Commission.

Silica City is intended to be a smart city, powered by renewable energy, and developed with the Administration’s revised LCDS, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and goal 11 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which speaks to building sustainable cities and communities, in mind.

Silica City will initially cater to just over 3000 households in the first five years and eventually grow to house more than 12,500 households when completed.

The government is looking to its foreign partners for help in realising the plan to develop this new city. A team from the University of Miami and other stakeholders involved in the development of Silica City visited this week, where the master plan for the project and areas of academic development for Guyana were discussed. Plans are also in the pipeline to have Indian experts come to Guyana to assist with the urban planning of the project.

Georgetown was built in the 18th century, originally under the administration of the Dutch, and remains intact to date. All government offices, including the President and Prime Minister’s Office, the Parliament, and the Judiciary, are situated in this town. It also serves as the main port for goods and services and as the commercial district of the country. While work is accelerating on the construction of the new Silica City, this could take as many years as possible to materialize. With most of the population located in this city, it will not only require far more substantial investments but also be convincing for people to relocate. Whether this new city, being built in the hilly region of Guyana, will finish before 2030 is yet to be seen.

This story was published by Caribbean News Service with the support of the Caribbean Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship, which is a joint venture between Climate Tracker and Open Society Foundations.


Picture of Samuel Sukhnandan

Samuel Sukhnandan

Samuel is a Guyanese journalist, news anchor, and editor, who has worked in broadcast, print, and online journalism for over a decade. During this time, he has covered several important beats including politics, economics/finance, parliamentary affairs, and energy, among others. Samuel also had stints working in two other Caribbean countries, namely St. Lucia and the British Virgin Islands. He is a Thomson Reuters Foundation alum, and currently a student in creative writing at IGNOU.

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