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Geography and population
Guyana is located in the northern part of South America, with a
430 km Atlantic coastline and bounded by Venezuela in the northwest, Brazil in the west
and south, and Suriname in the east. Guyana with 214 970 km2, is a sparsely
populated country endowed with ample natural resources for agriculture. It is also one of
the few countries in the world where population pressure on natural resources is virtually
non-existent: 16.5 million ha of the country's territory are made up of mostly
inaccessible forests and woodlands, about 1.2 million ha are under permanent pasture and
only 0.496 million ha are cultivated land. However, despite the abundance of its
resources, Guyana is one of the poorest countries on the American continent, with an
annual per caput income in 1996 of US$ 800. For administrative purposes, the country is
divided into ten Regions.
The land comprises three main geographical zones:
- The coastal plain which occupies about 5% of the country's area and concentrates 90% of the population. The plain ranges 5 to 6 km wide along the coast.
- The white sand belt that lies south of the coastal zone. This area is 150 to 250 km wide and consists of low sandy hills interspersed with rocky outcroppings with hardwood forest and most of Guyana's mineral deposits. These sands cannot support crops and, if the trees are removed, erosion is rapid and severe.
- The interior highlands, the largest and southernmost of the three geographical zones, consisting of plateaus, flat-topped mountains, and savannahs that extend from the white sand belt to the country's southern borders.
Guyana's population rose steadily from 375 000 in 1946 to 700 000 in
1970. Yet, in recent years, the population growth rate is negative (e.g. -0.78% in 1997)
and, in addition, the net migration rate is also negative (-16.5 migrants/1000 population
in 1997). The difference in birthrates between IndoGuyanese and Afro-Guyanese women, which
as present from the 1950s to the 1980s, disappeared in the 1990s.
Guyana's economy is mainly based on exporting bauxite, sugar, rice and,
more recently, gold and forestry products. In 1996, GDP was estimated at US$ 717.1
million. Agriculture ranks as the predominant sector in the economy and accounted for
approximately 36% of the GDP in 1996. The sector employed 19% of the labour force in 1997.
Agricultural activity is concentrated along the coastal belt where most of the population
resides. During the last five years the privatization of the rice industry has resulted in
the tripling of production. The privately managed sugar industry has become more
efficient, increasing exports from 50 000 tonnes of sugar in 1985 to 3.5 million tonnes in
1995. Sugar production continues to be the most important industry in the agriculture
sector (20% of GDP in 1995) and employing some 30 000 persons.
Climate and water resources
Guyana has a tropical climate with almost uniformly high
temperatures and humidity, and much rainfall, modified slightly by trade winds along
coast. Temperatures in Georgetown are quite constant, ranging from 24░C to 32░C.
Humidity averages 70% year-round. The interior, away from the moderating influence of the
ocean, experiences slightly wider variations in daily temperature. Humidity in the
interior is also slightly lower, averaging around 60%. Guyana lies south of the path of
Caribbean hurricanes and none is known to have hit the country.
Rainfall is heaviest in the northwest and lightest in the southeast and
interior. Annual averages on the coast near the Venezuelan border are near 2 500 mm and 1
500 mm in southern Guyana's Rupununi Savannah. Although rain falls throughout the year,
about 50% of it is concentrated in the rainy season that extends from May to the end of
July along the coast and from April through September farther inland. Coastal areas have a
second rainy season from November through January. Rain generally falls in heavy afternoon
showers or thunderstorms.
Guyana is an Amerindian word reputed to mean "Land of the
Water". Numerous rivers flow into the Atlantic Ocean, generally in a northward
direction. The Essequibo, the country's major river, runs from the Brazilian border in the
south to a wide delta west of Georgetown. The rivers of eastern Guyana cut across the
coastal zone, making east-west travel difficult, but they also provide limited water
access to the interior. Waterfalls generally limit water transport to the lower reaches of
each river. Estimates of surface water resources are not available over all of Guyana:
there are data available from the main drainage basins (see Table).
Characteristics of the main river basins in Guyana.
| Drainage basin
||Surface area (km2)
The groundwater system comprises
three aquifers. The "upper" sand is the shallowest of the three aquifers and its
depth varies from 30 to 60 m, with thickness ranging from 15 to 120 m. It is not used as a
source of water because of its high iron content (>5 mg/l) and salinity (up to 1 200
mg/l). Most potable water is obtained from the two deep aquifers. The "A" sand
is typically encountered between 200 and 300 m below the surface with thickness ranging
from 15 to 60 m. Water from the "A" aquifer requires treatment for the removal
of iron. The "B" sand is found at about 300 to 400 m with thickness of between
350 and 800 m. Water from this aquifer has very little iron, a high temperature and a
trace of hydrogen sulphide which can be treated with aeration.
Lakes and dams
A small amount of the copious supplies of surface water which run
off is trapped by a long low earth embankment to form large shallow dams locally known as
"conservancies". The conservancies are located in the "backland" or
upper stream catchment areas and comprise water-retaining embankments and structures.
These reservoirs are located on the Essequibo Coast Tapakuma
Conservancy (Region 2), Boerasirie (West Demerara, in Region 3), East Demerara (Region 4)
and the MMA (Region 5). The Tapakuma conservancy has been designed to provide irrigation
to about 12 000 ha, Boerasirie supports 36 000 ha, East Demerara 34 500 ha and MMA 17 500
ha. Boerasirie, Demerara and Abary conservancies are entirely covered by weeds. While in
most years water supply is ensured throughout the year, if droughts occur during the
secondary November-January wet season, these conservancies may have water shortages. Water
shortages may also occur in the Tapakuma conservancy, which is partly supplied by pumping
from the Pomeroon river.
The gross theoretical hydropower potential of Guyana is 7 607 GWh/year,
of which 7 000 GWh/year was estimated to be technically feasible. Despite the country's
large potential, there is only one hydropower plant in operation for 500 MW at Moca Moca
in Region 9.
Figure 1: Water extraction by sector in Guyana (1992). Total: 1.46 km3
No official information has been found on water withdrawal, but
estimated values by the World Resources Institute are shown in Figure 1. Irrigation has a
very large demand for water. The highest density of population, roughly 90%, is within the
coastal area and thus all residents of the coastal area depend wholly on groundwater
supply to meet their domestic needs. One exception is the Georgetown area, which utilizes
about 30% of surface water from the East-Demerara conservancy. Nationwide, water supply
facilities include about 178 groundwater wells and eight surface water sources.
While the access to potable water through house connections and public
standpipes is quite widespread, the water and sanitation sector suffers from grave
deficiencies due to the low quality of these services. There are three major water
treatment facilities to produce drinking water, in Georgetown, New Amsterdam and Guymine.
Irrigation and drainage development
The vast majority of agricultural activities takes place in the
coastal plains. For more than 8 km inland the land is below sea level at high tide.
Therefore, drainage and water control are major problems, and agricultural development has
always been tied to the defence against water intrusion from the sea and from rainwater
Drainage throughout most of Guyana is poor and river flow sluggish
because the average gradient of the main rivers is only 0.2 0/00. Drainage by gravity is
possible only when the tide is low, and this form of drainage is affected by the
ever-changing levels of the foreshore outside the sea defences. On account of this it has
been necessary in many areas to resort to the expensive method of drainage by pumps. Land
requires extensive drainage networks before it is suitable for agricultural use. Drainage
canals occupy nearly one-eighth of the area of the average sugar cane field. The total
length of the irrigation canals in Guyana is 485 km of main canals and 1 100 km of the
secondary canals. Similarly, the main drainage infrastructure is about 500 km in length
while the length of the secondary drainage system is 1 500 km.
Irrigated areas are concentrated between the mouth of the Pomeroon
river and the Corentyne river. They are located in five out of the country's ten
administrative divisions. All areas with fully developed drainage and irrigation
facilities are classified as Declared Drainage and Irrigation Areas (DDIA). In addition,
the sugar estates also have irrigation and drainage infrastructure. Figure 2 shows the
irrigated areas per region in Guyana.
The water supply for the DDIAs and sugar estates is derived from water
conservancies in Region 2, 3, 4 and 5, and from the rivers through pumping in Region 6.
Very few control structures exist along the main canals and distributor canals. Flows in
the secondary canals are controlled by headgates, and farmers derive water from secondary
canals normally by gravity. Minor drains are interspersed with secondary canals that drain
directly to the sea through sluice gates (some are associated with pumping stations) or to
a fašade drain, which drains to the sea at regular intervals. Sluice gates are open twice
a day at low tides. Irrigation canals within sugar estates have no slope and are often
used for cane transportation.
All irrigation schemes in Guyana have the same delivery arrangements.
An irrigation schedule gives the date and duration of the openings of head regulators on
secondary canals. During the alloted period, the farmers can divert water on demand. There
are no metered structures, and the entire system is operated through the concept of nearly
constant water level. The volume released at any point throughout the systems is unknown.
Most irrigation infrastruture needs extensive rehabilitation, with the
exception of some sugar estates and some infrastructure that is being maintained by
large-scale farmers. The systems' state of disrepair contributes significantly to lowering
Guyana's water use efficiency. Another important cause of poor water efficiency is
inadequate water management, a result of conflicting needs of farmers who have different
cropping calendars. While there are no recent studies measuring water use efficiency,
efficiency levels are unlikely to exceed 25%.
Crop and livestock production (except for sugar cane) are characterized
by the predominance of small farms. According to the last farm household survey, farms of
less than 6 ha accounted for about 75% of the country's 24 000 farms. It is estimated that
about 70%-80% of these small farms are geared to rice production. Many of these small
farms combine their crop production with some milk production. There are, however, several
larger agricultural operations that include private rice growers, some medium- and
large-sized forest and fishing operations, and large public-sector enterprises.
In the 1980s, sugar and rice were the primary agricultural products, as
they had been since the nineteenth century. Sugar was produced primarily for export
whereas most rice was consumed domestically. Other crops included bananas, coconuts,
coffee, cocoa and citrus fruits. Small amounts of vegetables and tobacco were also
produced. During the late 1980s, some farmers succeeded in diversifying into specialty
products such as heart-of-palm and asparagus for export to Europe. The extent of Guyana's
economic decline in the 1980s was clearly reflected in the performance of the sugar
sector. Production levels were almost halved, from 324 000 tonnes in 1978 to 168 000
tonnes in 1988. Sugar production for 1994 was 252 615 tonnes and was the major export
commodity, contributing 28% to total exports. The rice industry has been leading growth
(1993-96) with production and export earnings rising steadily. In 1995, rice production
reached 350 000 tonnes.
The present administrative organization of Guyana's water resources
has been in place for over a century. There are some fifteen agencies administering the
legislation relating to water and their functions often overlap either directly or
indirectly. The functions of the more important of these agencies are as follows:
- (a) Drinking water supply and sanitation
The Guyana Water Authority (GUYWA), under the policy direction of the
Ministry of Public Works, Communications and Regional Development, provides water supply
services for the whole country with the exception of Georgetown, New Amsterdam and Linden,
where the systems are run by municipalities. Since 1984, responsibility for provision of
water services belongs to the Regional Democratic Councils. The Ministry of Health
monitors water quality and has the responsibility for sewerage and sanitation activities.
The municipalities are responsible for the construction, operation and maintenance of
urban drainage systems.
- (b) Irrigation and drainage
Overall responsibility for drainage and irrigation in Guyana is vested
in the National Drainage and Irrigation Board (NDIB). The NDIB is mandated to provide
drainage and irrigation services in Declared Drainage and Irrigation Areas (DDIAs). All
DDIAs are administered by the Regional Democratic Boards, except the
Mahaica-Mahaicony-Abary system that is managed by an independent water authority. Regional
Democratic Boards are responsible for maintenance of the conservancies, water allocation
from the conservancies, operation of the reservoirs, and maintenance of the dams and head
regulators. The Regional Democratic Boards do not themselves collect the water users'
share of costs, this is the responsibility of the local authorities. Local authorities are
required by the Drainage and Irrigation Act to assess the level of the drainage and
irrigation rates on DDIAs and levy charges on landowners.
- (c) Other water uses
The Ministry of Public Works, Communications and Regional Development
has responsibility for establishing water sector policy.
The Hydrometeorology Department of the Ministry of Agriculture has the
responsibility for the monitoring and assessment of surface and groundwater resources and
for providing basic meteorological information.
The Guyana Electricity Corporation (GEC) is responsible for the
generation, transmission and distribution of electricity.
Development of natural resources, including mining, energy, fossil fuel
development and forestry, is the responsibility of the Guyana Natural Resources Agency.
Trends in water resources management
The challenges the Government faces in its task to support the
development of agriculture are enormous. The sector's potential relies heavily on
extensive rehabilitation of the country's deteriorated infrastructure and on technological
improvements. This task will require not only extensive public sector efforts, but
increased involvement and participation of the private sector in areas such as maintenance
of drainage and irrigation systems.
The principal options Guyana plans to pursue for further development of
the agricultural sector and achievement of improved water management are likely to
(i) increase in productivity through better seeds and agricultural
(ii) development and rehabilitation of the irrigation and sea defence
infrastructure: evidence from pilot projects on the coast shows farmers are willing to pay
rent or user fees to get better operation and maintenance services to the drainage and
irrigation systems which serve them;
(iii) promotion of privatisation through a programme of complementarity
between the Government and the private sector;
(iv) improved land tenure;
(v) crop diversification: new trends in the expansion of
non-traditional crops are expected to enhance the food security and nutritional needs of
In terms of external trade, the 1990s have seen an improvement of
competitiveness: non-traditional exports such as fruits and vegetables are being exported
in increasing quantities to the neighbouring countries. Close to 500 000 metric tons of
rice are exported to nearby Caribbean countries annually and increased demand is expected
for the medium term since the commodity is a staple of the diet. However, Guyana's food
exports depend precariously on rice and depend heavily on the policies of the European
Union in terms of rice imports.
Main sources of information
World Bank.1992. Guyana Agricultural Sector Review. Report
number 10410-GUA. Washington D.C., 32 p.
FAO-Investment Centre-Caribbean Development Bank.1997. Guyana: Poor
Rural Communities Support Services Project: Drainage and Irrigation Component. Report
number 97/064 CDB-GUY, three volumes. Roma.
World Bank.1993. Guyana: Public Sector Review. Report number
11753-GUA, Caribbean Division, two volumes. Washingtonm D.C.
Naraine, R. 1999. Water for Food: Guyana's Vision. National
Drainage and Irrigation Board, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of Guyana. Presentation
at America's Regional Roundtable Consultation on Water for Food, Montreal, Canada.