Letter to the Head of State from the Leader of the Opposition
Monday, January 31, 2005

His Excellency, Bharrat Jagdeo,
Cooperative Republic of Guyana,
Office of the President,
New Garden Street,

I refer to my email to you on January 18, my follow-up letter to you on the said day and my meeting with you on January 27, a photograph of which was prominently displayed on the front page of the Government controlled Chronicle Newspaper of Saturday, January 29, 2005.

I can no longer remain silent in the midst of human suffering while you and your Government ignore every reasonable suggestion from me and many other concerned Guyanese. These suggestions have been made with the sole objective of achieving a co-ordinated approach to the present flood crisis that Guyana is experiencing. This is not, “petty politics”, as suggested to the media by your Presidential Advisor, Mr. Lumumba, but a matter which affects the survival of thousands of Guyanese who are now experiencing unprecedented hardship and severe dislocation in their lives. Consequently, as the Constitutional Leader of the Opposition and the Party that is the Elected Regional Government of Region Four, Demerara/Mahaica, I am entitled to and demand a fuller involvement in the decision making process that affects relief operations, rather than occasional briefs at my request from you, to be informed by you of unilateral decisions already taken.

I intend to make public my many suggestions to you and demand that a new and enlightened approach be adopted to save lives and facilitate the reasonable rehabilitation of the victims of the flood. I call on you to recognise your enormous responsibility as President of this Nation and disabuse yourself of the belief that you can resolve the grave problems which exist at the moment, by literally sitting on the steps of State House and determining who is or is not qualified to receive food aid in this crisis. I have also, by letter dated Friday, 28th January, 2005 to the Speaker of the National Assembly and copied to you, requested an urgent Sitting of the National Assembly of the Parliament of Guyana to discuss this matter.

I wish to bring to your attention, the following matters:

We are now eighteen days into this crisis and not a single shelter has been adequately provided for, while some, not even placed on the official list by the J.O.C., are in worse condition.

For example, there are some 58 victims housed in poor conditions at the Plaisance Community High School, which was surrounded for over ten days by four feet of floodwaters. This building is less than one hundred yards from the old railway embankment road. Not a single mattress has been provided to ease their discomfort and until two days ago no food was provided by any State Agency. Some twenty children are in need of urgent medical attention. This shelter was only listed yesterday, even though this information was provided by the PNCR to the State several days ago.

There is also the shelter at the Vryheids Lust Primary School, where some thirty-one families are housed, including more than fifty-four children between the ages of two months and eleven years. They remain in sub-standard conditions without any substantial support from the State. They began receiving two meals per day from the GDF on Friday last. Not a single mattress has been provided. They sleep on both school benches and on the floor. Despite two visits by Health Personnel, the sanitary conditions remain deplorable and, in my estimation, are a serious risk to Health. On my last visit to this Shelter on Saturday 30th of January, the occupants related some sad stories of witnessing Ministers of the Government passing by with truck-loads of dry rations and distributing these items in the nearby Better Hope Community, without any care or concern for those housed in a school surrounded by some three feet of flood waters, within thirty feet of the main road. Their existence could not be unknown as a Health Team had visited the location and deposited two 400-gallon Plastic tanks, one for the storage of water, the other for the disposal of human excreta. Yet the water tank has never been filled with any water and no arrangements have been made to dispose of garbage.

The Paradise School Shelter remains overcrowded, and along with many others, suffer the plight of having no proper arrangements in place by the State for the supply of breakfast. Lieutenant Woolford, of the GDF, who has been highly commended by the occupants of the Paradise Centre as making an excellent effort to make them comfortable, cannot be expected to perform miracles, having regard to several problems that have arisen and will continue to arise where more than three hundred men women and children are all housed together. After 18 days a proper system ought to have been put in place for managing these shelters in a professional way. 

It is true that several persons and agencies have, in an ad-hoc manner, attempted to support these centres, but this certainly could not be the proper approach to this problem. The PNCR has been supporting the provision of breakfast and other necessities to fourteen of these shelters on the East Coast and we have provided some support in the form of food, dry rations, clothes and other necessities, specifically to all of the above mentioned centres. However, I must reiterate that this is not the appropriate mechanism for dealing with such a serious situation.
What has happened to the announced receipt of food aid from other friendly countries? How is the announced G$200M. provided by the Government being spent? Where is the programme for managing these Shelters?
The announced Task Force on Shelters, led by Minister Jeffrey and Mrs Sam Hinds, and to which I named Mr. Aubrey Norton and Vincent Alexander, has never met so that a holistic approach could be adopted. The publicity being given that the GDF has been assigned responsibility to deal with shelters cannot replace the need for immediate action to deal with this matter. Instead of the Minister of Human Services parading with other Ministers distributing dry-rations, one would expect that, by now, a team of social work professionals would have been deployed to provide an evaluation of these shelters, with recommendations to relieve human suffering.
I must therefore demand that an urgent review of this situation be undertaken and this should include the active involvement of my Representatives

The distribution of dry rations as flood relief to the affected areas has been at best chaotic and disorganised. The allegations of discrimination continue and these allegations are not without foundation. This is a time when all Guyanese, irrespective of political affiliation and ethnicity, etc., must be treated equally and this is also an opportunity taken to heal wounds, which have historically divided our society. Regrettably, the manner in which this exercise has been planned and executed is bound to create further tensions. The media blitz on the State controlled Television Channel 11 showing Ministers distributing food will not remove this problem. In fact, it exacerbates it, as citizens are shown food supplies going to some areas while theirs are neglected. They see Ministers in engine-propelled boats bypassing their areas and distributing to others. How can this be tolerated when food aid, intended for all Guyanese, is being provided from national resources and by donors?

One example will suffice. I visited the Better Hope South area on Friday last and travelled to the end of Graham Street to the point where only boats could traverse. Here, all the homes were still surrounded by at least five feet of water. One boat, supplied by a resident for a small fee, and several makeshift rafts are the only means of transport. The residents who met me at the edge of the water were from the Plaisance Squatting area on the Western side of Graham Street, Area JJ, Better Hope South on the Eastern side of Graham Street and the Better Hope Squatting area behind Area JJ. They all complained of seeing Minister Nokta in an engine-powered boat the day before, distributing food hampers to nearby areas and bypassing theirs. They took me around these areas in their lone boat and gave me an opportunity to speak with residents, many of whom were senior citizens trapped in the upper flats of buildings in congested conditions. It should be noted that they were providing some shelter to those residents who lived in the bottom flats that had been inundated with more than five feet of water. Recognising the need for urgent help, I arranged for 145 food hampers to be delivered by the PNCR that afternoon to all the homes in the above-mentioned Plaisance Squatting area and a section of Better Hope. On Saturday morning we continued the operation and supplied 165 more hampers to all the remaining homes in Area JJ Better Hope. This, however, is not the answer to the problem. What is required at this time is a transparent plan of action, prepared by an inclusive group the members of which know and understand the geography of the area. It certainly cannot be determined from the steps of State House.

I have noted the Government’s comments to the International Media that “some pockets of affected persons have not been reached because they are in remote areas”. I must point out that no area affected by the flood can be considered remote from the Capital City Georgetown. The furthest area can be accessed within a maximum time of forty-five minutes, once proper logistical arrangements are put in place. As a matter of fact, some areas immediately off the old railway embankment road have not received proper attention. These areas are still severely affected by high floodwaters. Only yesterday, January 30th, the PNCR, through its individual efforts, placed two boats in the North and South Vigilance areas, respectively. One week ago we delivered three boats in the North Melanie Damishana, Plaisance and New Paradise/Dazzel Housing Scheme areas. Your knowledge of our coastland would inform you that these areas are very close to Georgetown and easily accessible, albeit boats are needed to service the residents stranded in their homes.

I have travelled through the flood-hit areas daily and have seen no proper, organised action in these areas. Surely, if the appropriate Task Forces had been established, and meeting, to take organised and relevant action, the suffering of the affected persons could have been alleviated two weeks ago. In fact, except for the Medical Task Force, none of the other Task Forces identified has ever met. In this context I must condemn the misleading information provided to the International Media by the GINA and published On Line in the January 27th issue of Caribbean Graphic On Line, an extract of which I attach for your attention. The GINA release, in addition to several misrepresentations, quoted Presidential Advisor, Mr. Lumumba as stating,

“The Presidential Advisor pointed out that Government has involved the PNC/R at all levels in the flood relief effort. The Party is a part of committees set up to manage the effort. From the inception President Jagdeo invited the Opposition Leader to participate in stakeholder meetings to formulate a plan for a response to the crisis.”

You must be aware that, apart from the first meeting called on Monday 17th at 2:00 PM and the follow Up Meeting that evening at 8:00 PM, where we expected to receive the initial report of the Task Forces, I have not been invited to participate in any other meeting. When we met last Thursday at my request, I again brought to your attention my concern over the manner in which the Disaster Response was being handled and other specific matters of concern, including the abuse of the State Media. I reminded you that the Task forces were not functional and suggested that there is still the urgent need for a holistic National Disaster Response. I have also drawn to your attention, the need for a proper plan to assist in the rehabilitation of the many affected and dislocated victims who have lost personal possessions and their means of livelihood.

I wish to place on record these matters, particularly in view of the photograph of us in consultation, splashed on the front page of the Government Controlled Chronicle. This was done, without any reference to my stated concerns, thus giving the impression that all was well and perhaps creating the false impression that the consultation between us amounted to an endorsement by me of the haphazard approach to this crisis.
Amidst conflicting reports from professional engineers about the causes of the floods, the solution to the problem and the anticipated time for the areas to be drained, the Task Force appointed and led by Minister Xavier has never held a meeting of that task force. An attempt by an NGO to assemble the best of Guyana’s Engineering talent, including Engineers, to conduct a joint assessment required approval of the Head of the Presidential Secretariat before the Government Engineers could attend. Had Minister Xavier done this since his task Force was appointed, instead of delivering food hampers, there would have been no need for such an initiative and Guyanese might have been in a better position to understand our predicament and what is being done to resolve the problem. This must not be allowed to continue. The responsibility of dealing with this problem is that of the Government. It cannot be hived off to any independent Group, Citizens Initiative or not. 

It is still raining and floodwaters IN SEVERAL AREAS ON THE coast are receding at an extremely slow pace. This means that thousands of persons will most likely be unable to effectively occupy their homes before another two weeks. The consequence of this is that schools are still occupied and people who have already been battered by the flood are now faced with the fact that their children are losing several weeks of structured education. What is the plan to deal with this situation? It is obvious that the already vulnerable and disadvantaged communities of our country are being made to pay the price of the chaotic and disorderly approach to the entire flood relief situation.

Instead of being directly involved in food distribution, the Minister of Education should be sharing with the Nation the plan to resolve this particular problem. Already, Officers of the Region 10 Administration, faced with the influx of almost two thousand displaced persons from flood hit areas, have used their initiative to solve this particular problem. However, this matter should not be dealt with in a haphazard manner, as there are displaced persons who have sought refuge in several other regions. What is the overall plan in this regard? For example, it has been reported in the press that an official has ordered persons from the Sophia area who have been seeking shelter at the Redeemer Primary School in Campbellville, to vacate the premises.

Where are the Ministers of Human Services and of Education? Who is conducting formal interviews with those being sheltered in schools? What field checks are being conducted to ascertain the readiness of persons to relocate to their homes, when it is widely known that many have lost all their possessions in the flood?

I visited Linden yesterday, Sunday 30th January, to make an assessment of the situation since I had been informed that there were nearly two thousand people from the flood-hit areas that had sought refuge with relatives. I visited several homes and spoke with some of the affected persons. Many have lost everything in their homes, while others have been forced to leave all their household items unprotected. They do not know what they will find when they return because, as you might have already heard, some of the persons in the nearby shelters have reported that they have found their homes vandalised on brief return visits, through the flood-waters. Some of the persons with whom I spoke during my visit to Linden are from Victoria, Liliendall, Melanie, Haslington and Enmore villages. They have expressed fears about returning to the Coast and are thinking of relocating to Linden. Some of them appear to be still traumatised by the experience and in need of counselling and other psychiatric help. What is the National Plan for this?

Fortunately, the Region Ten Administration has established an all-embracing Disaster Committee, which has been admirably dealing with some of these problems. They have established a Registration and a Relief Centre and, with donations from the Community, have been providing material and other assistance to the victims being sheltered there. The G$2M allocated by the State to purchase items from Brazil will make a significant contribution to that effort and it is hoped that those items will arrive today. However, this is certainly not the conclusion of the matter.

The dangerous situation of the Nation’s Health and the potential for an epidemic in the wake of the flood cannot be under-estimated. Anyone who has travelled throughout the flood-hit areas will observe the floating carcases of domestic animals, the fact that the water has covered pit latrines and septic tanks and the abundance of other garbage floating in the affected communities. Where is the Health Plan? Have we sought International Assistance in this matter? These are matters that the people of Guyana need to know.

Mr. President, in view of the foregoing, I again urge you to ensure that there is a well thought out, organised, and professional response, with the involvement of all, as suggested in my letter of January 18th, 2005.

It is known that a representative of the UN is in Guyana to conduct a needs assessment. No one has as yet seen it fit to speak with any Official of the PNCR that has been in the Disaster Area from Day One. I am not aware that the Regional Government of Region Four has been consulted. Any assessment done without an input from a major Party in the Parliament of Guyana is also questionable. I am not aware that any NGO can speak for the PNCR.

Be assured, however, that my support and that of my Party can be counted upon, but we can only assist to the extent we are allowed to. Many other competent Guyanese are ready and willing to assist if called upon.

Yours truly,

Robert Corbin, M. P.
Leader of the People’s National Congress Reform &
Leader of the Parliamentary Opposition