Let’s be more objective about Makkah’s flash floods

By: Rafid Fatani

It seems that as soon as something goes wrong in Saudi Arabia, people are quick to point the finger of blame at the government, and allegations of corruption are born. A sudden storm that recently hit the holy city of Makkah caused flash floods and wreaked havoc throughout different parts of the city. Minutes after the downfall of rain, people took to social media and posted images of vehicles swept away by the flood waters while spectators watched helplessly. Without any real investigation and within hours of the floods, people on social media were venting their anger, quick to charge the authorities with corruption and complain about the general inability of the government to react.

The main frustration arose from not understanding how 45 minutes of rain could cause such havoc. It seems that pointing the figure at the authorities is “fashionable” in light of the Arab Spring, with many arguing that the authorities have steamrolled ahead with huge projects of glass skyscrapers in Makkah, which they argue have had a detrimental effect on essential infrastructure spending, such as sewage system upgrades. But is this even true or are these just baseless allegations to fuel the fire?

In a sense, people’s anger is perfectly natural considering the damage caused, especially as flash floods affect, directly and indirectly, public health. While infectious disease from flooding in Saudi Arabia is limited, health risks from flooding include accidents and injury, significant stress and mental health impacts from the exposure to dirty water contaminated with sewage and debris and loss of property. This has enraged portions of the Saudi community who cannot comprehend why a country with vast amounts of wealth is unable to deal adequately with prevention measures.

It seems that people were more enraged that this occurred after just 45 minutes of rainfall. However, people must not forget that rain is not measured by time but rather by the amount of precipitation over a set period of time. It seems that people are quick to link the flash flooding in Makkah with the 2009, 2011, and 2012 floods of Jeddah, Tabouk and Riyadh. But we really should judge and treat every event independently.

However, I find it troubling that we seem to have difficulty in assessing the causes behind floodwater damages in a more transparent way, and it bothers me that the authorities are not always forthcoming with facts. What I also find difficult to understand is that we have created a habit of pointing the finger at the authorities whenever something goes wrong. It seems some people have missed the fact that flash floods and the havoc they cause are not limited to Saudi Arabia, but are a global issue for which many developed and wealthy nations are struggling to find solutions.

Over the last couple of years, I have visited and lived in countries that experience torrential rainfall on a regular basis. Brazil, the seventh richest country in the world, an Amazonian country that has invested in huge sewage systems due to regular rainfall, fell on its knees only a few months ago with the death of 44 of its citizens in flash floods that also left tens of thousands homeless. The United Kingdom, a country that has spent over $200 billion in the last 12 years alone on sewer systems, has found itself struggling with flash floods.

It needs to be stressed that blaming the inability of Makkah’s infrastructure to drain away floodwaters simply does not stand for three main reasons. The first is the city’s geographical location and composition. Makkah is different from the coastal city of Jeddah and other towns and cities in the Kingdom that have previously been affected by floods. Essentially the holy city of Makkah sits in a valley where water naturally drains toward the center of the city, making it harder to shift the water fast enough. I am not saying that this cannot be done, but only that there is a limit to the speed at which water moves through the pipelines and out of the city.

The second essential point to be made here is the pressure that exists to build and expand the city’s infrastructure on new land in order to accommodate over two million Muslims at any one time. This subsequently decreases the area of the soil which can absorb water.

The third reason behind flooding is us and how we treat our planet. This is a cause we often exclude maybe because we are directly to blame. With a population of under 30 million, Saudi Arabia ranks 12th in the world based on fossil-fuel CO2 emissions. At the top of the list are some of the world’s most populated areas including China, the United States, India and the European Union. It is clear that the world climate system is definitely warming, and humans have influenced that climate change. But is this enough to convince an angry public? Unfortunately, I don’t think so.

While I do not disagree that there could be a more transparent system of governance when it comes to government spending on infrastructure projects, I do think we need to be slightly more objective when reacting to natural disasters.

Dr. Rafid Fatani is a Saudi consultant for the United Nations Internet Governance Forum and is part of an advisory committee at ICANN representing Internet users. He is the founder of Internet consultancy SASIconsult and can be contacted at: Raf@SASIconsult.com




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