Too big hurts

I am duty-bound to caution the authorities of this island about the dangers of big dams.

Sir Charles Williams is a formidable entrepreneur and an important employer, but his concept of creating large dams in the Scotland district is much too hazardous.

The use of reservoirs for flood control and water supply was once considered wise, but experience has proven that there are better and safer alternatives.

In 1970, when I was a young man of modest means, I bought my first house in Canada close to a river. It was affordable precisely because it came with a risk of being flooded.

Only two years later, my house was seriously damaged by a flood that did not need to happen. I was able to prove that the large flood-control dam upstream from my home had been mismanaged. Water had been let out faster than it was coming in!

The authorities failed to learn their lesson.

Two years later, there was an even bigger flood that was aggravated by improper use of flood-control dams.

After a judicial inquiry, that was the end of dam-building in my province of Canada. A new approach was adopted that is a constructive lesson for Barbados.

All new developments in Ontario are now required to make their own contribution to flood control. Every new subdivision of homes includes a stormwater management area. It is either a small gully with a type of dam that will temporarily hold a deluge of rain, or it is a large area of almost-flat parkland that is intentionally landscaped to hold a few inches of water for a short period.

Commercial developments are similarly required to hold back heavy rainfall, typically with intentionally-slow drainage from parking lots. A few inches of water poses only a minor nuisance for a few hours after a storm.

Dams in the Scotland District would be especially hazardous for the obvious reason that the soil structure is not stable. The massive weight of the stored water would have unpredictable results, and the failure of a dam could destroy lives and property in any path the water takes between the dam and the sea.

Much better for this island would be a Barbadian version of what has been done in rural areas of Canada: a thousand little dams that will slow the runoff every time a ditch or a water-course comes to a roadway. A dam only about two feet high can never have a catastrophic failure. Moreover, such dams can be built without expensive equipment by anyone capable of laying concrete blocks.

Large dams are the least desirable source of drinking water, because surface reservoirs are full of natural and man-made pollutants. Expensive treatment is required.

A thousand little dams across the interior of Barbados would hold back rainwater long enough that much of it would seep into the ground to replenish our natural reservoirs. The process of seeping through coral provides natural purification.

It is obvious that too much of God’s bounty of rainwater runs straight into the sea before it has a chance to filter into our aquifers. Barbados currently captures only half the proportion of rainwater that Canada does.

With a thousand little dams, Barbados has the potential to double its supply with high-quality water that is naturally filtered — and without any of the risks of a dam-busting disaster.

When it is completed, there is no further cost other than regular checkups to ensure that the dams are functioning properly. The Government of Barbados would not have to buy from a private dam-owner what the Lord delivers free of charge.

Building a thousand little dams will create just as many jobs as building four dangerous big ones.

I would be happy to apply my experience in civil engineering, and confer with Sir Charles and the Ministry of Drainage to help develop an effective plan of action. I would do so as a volunteer!

The low-tech solution can be implemented very quickly, and provide needed employment for many Barbadians when they are most needed — before Christmas. Large dams would require many months (maybe years) for design, environmental impact studies, and land acquisition.

— Bob Verdun

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