We can become guardians of our diminishing coastline – Reel Guyana

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By Lakhram Bhagirat

Among the constants in the universe, change is a big one. Though change is most welcomed, some forms of that very change are causes to worry and among those worrying changes is perhaps the most dreaded one – climate change.

Climate change is real and is happening before our very eyes as we experience strange phenomenon in the form of higher sea levels, unpredictable weather patterns, rapidly-melting glaciers, and unprecedented changes, both on land and in the water. If these everyday experiences do not open one’s eye and motivate one to make drastic changes to everyday life, then nothing will.

The very planet, according to scientists, is in deep trouble owing to the actions of one species – humans.

Here in Guyana, we have been experiencing the effects of the rapidly-changing climate, but they have not yet caused a serious conversation about what will happen when the sea rises and encroaches on our coast – the very coast where the majority of the Guyanese population resides, works, conducts business. Our coastland is vulnerable to the domino effect of climate change, and we need to begin acting fast if we want to be able to continue residing here.

We need to first spark that serious conversation and then work on formulating plans to protect the coastland for the future generations of Guyanese.

In an effort to spark that much-needed conversation and highlight the plight of the coastland, environmental filmmaker Alex Arjoon’s Reel Guyana spent over four years documenting  what exactly was happening to our coast.

Alex Arjoon in the fields taking shots

He released a 25-minute documentary titled “Coast Land” on Friday.

Arjoon, son of environmental activist Annette Arjoon, did not envision he would be filming a documentary about the coastland, since most of his work was concentrated in the hinterland region and focused on marketing Guyana as a budding tourism destination. However, it was his mother who dragged him one day to film the progress of the mangrove restoration project and he then found out that the coast was under threat.

“So, we would always do a family trip now and again and sort of monitor the mangroves and as we did that, we started noticing the mass amount of overtopping happening all along the coast. The waves would be crashing over the seawall and flooding the road and in my travels, I noticed that it did not only happen along the East Coast (Demerara) and close to (George)town, it was essentially a problem that was happening all over as a result of our low-lying coastland,” he noted.

It was from there he started building an archive of the footage he collected. Over the years, that archive would be transformed into a library that led to the compilation and production of “Coast Land”.

The 27-year-old felt that although he had an audience, he needed to build a stronger connection with the general Guyanese population and “Coast Land” was a step in that right direction. Over the years, he has worked with various Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) as well as Government agencies and in order to get the desired output for his documentary, Arjoon capitalised on those connections.

Mangroves forming part of the natural sea defence

The production of this high-quality documentary did not come without its challenges. As one is aware, the creative industry in Guyana is perhaps one of the most neglected and this caused Arjoon to dig deep into his own pockets to finance this venture.

“Funding is always an issue. The creative industry doesn’t have a lot of support here and it is not very structured. This project specifically was a big personal and financial investment, but I think it is good in a way, because it gives me something as a filmmaker to prove. Telling a story that is honest and genuine and with the intention to bring awareness, so it is good that maybe it is on my own back. That being said, it is not sustainable and I would love for the powers or the higher powers that be to really think about putting more investments into the creative industry,” he said.

Climate change is such a worldwide issue and it really goes beyond Guyana. That being said, climate change is causing our sea level to rise and it has the potential to drastically affect the way in which we live and our development in the future. If this goes unmonitored, or if enough importance is not placed on it, then we may be in some deep trouble in the years to come.

For Arjoon, his goal is to bring awareness and he thinks now is the right time.

“This is an issue that is everybody’s problem and something we can agree on and work together. It’s how we can collectively come together and solve this. How can we, at the very least, begin a conversation on what our coast really means to us and how will we react if we are sort of affected or if our livelihoods are affected?” he questioned.

Environmental Filmmaker Alex Arjoon

“Coast Land” is an extremely informative documentary and explores the past, present, and future of the coast. Arjoon brings onboard personal experiences of those on the frontline, activists, and an expert in the person of Andrea Dutton. Dutton is based in the United States and is a sea-level rise expert, geochemist and paleoclimatologist.

With Guyana’s coastland being part of a much larger ecosystem that stretches from the mouth of the Amazon in Brazil to the Orinoco in Venezuela, there is much at risk if we do not protect it.

These rivers, according to Arjoon in “Coast Land”, play massive roles in pushing mineral-rich mud banks along the Guyanese coast from east to west like a giant wet conveyor belt. The abundance or scarcity of these mud deposits is subjected to an ebb and flow cycle lasting approximately 30 years.

“Coast Land” informs that it is estimated that roughly three times per century the coastline is subjected to severe periods of mud scarcity and erosion which allow high tides to penetrate further inland.

“These periods of erosion are followed by periods of accretion as the cycle continues. The cyclical erosion happening on Guyana’s foreshores have the potential to displace natural sea defences such as mangrove forests – which are an eco-system in itself. They act as a buffer shielding the coast from intense wave action. However, over the years, we have seen a significant decrease of mangrove forest leaving our coast directly exposed to wave impact, which is more now that temperatures around the world are rising,” Arjoon narrates at the beginning of the documentary.

When icebergs, snow, and ice sheets melt, and they are doing so at an alarming rate, that water is deposited into the oceans which means that its level rises. With parts of Guyana’s coast sitting 19.7 inches (0.5 metre) to 39.4 inches (1 metre) below sea level, it means every time the level of the sea rises we should have cause to worry.

It is estimated that global sea levels are predicted to rise  one to four  feet by the end of this century and Arjoon posits with every millimetre Guyana’s  watery border approaches a point of irreversible collapse.

“In the last few years, Guyana has witnessed and felt the physical effects of rising sea levels and overtopping. Coastal communities have felt this devastation as their open backyards have become one with the ocean. These harsh realities are only being felt when we are directly affected, when in fact we should be working to combat it every day. With the collaborative effort with civil society and public institutions, we can combat the issue of rising sea levels and overtopping, and become the guardians of our coastland communities,” he notes.

In “Coast Land”, we hear Dutton speak of the possible effects of rising sea levels as well as give recommendations on what needs to be done to preserve the ever-changing coastline.

She noted that one of the things that really affect the shape and position of a coastline is really how much sediment is getting delivered there or being eroded away, adding that many people there were aware of changes over time.

Within human lifetimes you can see some big changes depending on how much mud is coming out of the rivers, how it is getting transported along and so there is already a lot of variability in that system that creates for a very dynamic coastline in that region, she explained.

“Places with low-lying topography are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise as that occurs. Places that are already vulnerable are getting flooded and will be flooded more frequent.  So, as the background level of sea level goes up, you’re getting an increasing frequency of these high flooding events that will affect the communities and that’s really how it’s going to be felt. More than a gradual change, there will be those extreme events which will become even more extreme and more frequent,” Dutton relates in the documentary.

One of the glaring facts is the majority of Guyana’s coast is being protected by manmade sea walls and while this may seem as though it is a long-lasting solution, Dutton explains that it only presents itself as a scary one. She notes it is a fact that the coastline will retreat owing to higher sea levels and erosion, and explains why she thinks seawalls are not the ideal solution.

“Seawalls are a scary solution because if you build a wall in one place, water has to go somewhere, so if it’s not getting in from that wall it makes the flooding even worse in someplace else. The other thing in building seawalls, I think it builds in complacency for the communities who live behind them, because they feel as though they have addressed the problem and they are safe which makes them all the more vulnerable because at some point that wall will fail and then they will not be prepared at all,” Dutton informed.

Flooding due to overtopping

Speaking on the topic of a silver lining among all the expected worry, Dutton said at this time conversation was warranted. She urged the stimulation of conversation even if you do not have all the answers since it may be a learning experience. The expert notes that the investment in conversation will be worth the returns since it is the wish of everyone to want to stay ahead of that rising sea and not go under it.

Arjoon takes us through a four-year journey with “Coast Land”. The entire documentary is one that opens the eye of the normal person and educates them on the impending dangers if we do not act as fast as we should.

Repairing the breach at Mahaicony

Perhaps, one of the most eye-opening experiences documented was that of the farmers and residents at Mahaicony. In 2019, a breach in the sea defence was reported there and salt water invaded the farmlands, this was catastrophic for the farmers who lost millions.

Arjoon was able to capture the restoration effort and challenges encountered.

He noted that hearing the waves crashing in on the seawall invoked a very surreal feeling of vulnerability.

Breached seawall on the East Coast of Demerara

“If we look at old kokers and sluices that was where we were. That was where the seawall was. Look at where we are now. Most recently, there has been severe overtopping in other parts,  particularly on the West Demerara. Below the seawall is a bowl that is essentially waiting to be filled and once water gets in there it is not that easy to get out. When that water starts to pour in,  we are basically sitting ducks — helpless…the overtopping is one thing, but once that water gets in, all hell breaks loose,” Arjoon explained.

Turning his attention to the North-West District, particularly the Shell Beach Protected Area, Arjoon sat with his mother who spent over 30 years working there. With one of the largest mangrove forests in the country, the Shell Beach area is home to several eco-systems but it also saw the worst form of erosion.

According to Annette, the Almond Beach area was home to a large population of farmers and fisherfolk, but because of the rising sea levels, they were forced to relocate. They had to pick up their lives and restart in other parts of the country.

A section of the rapidly eroding Shell Beach Protected Area

“Shell Beach in 2012, we started to see waves and wind getting stronger. Waves becoming higher and were overtopping the beach and eroding the coconut plants that were there. It eroded so far until it forced the community to relocate to higher ground. Now there are barely about three dozen people there,” she said.

One takeaway from this documentary is the fact that we are in deep trouble unless we begin preparing for the diminishing coastlands. It means that the responsibility is everyone’s to take and we need to start that much-needed conversation. “Coast Land”, hopefully, is that conversation starter, but what we need to do is to sustain that conversation and move in the direction of tangible solutions. (Photos provided by Reel Guyana)