JEDDAH // The Saudi government is pushing for measures to abolish practices that led to the concentration of one million people in slum areas east of Saudi's second largest city. That uncontrolled growth and the problems that came with it are considered the main culprits in the deaths of 123 people killed in the Jeddah floods on November 23. Kitabat Aadil, a government agency, has stopped registering properties in areas hit by floods to allow the Red Sea port city to restudy its planning.
An unidentified official at Kitabat Aadil said in yesterday's Al watan newspaper that the committee appointed by the Saudi king to find out who was responsible for the illegal development in low-lying areas was behind the effort. The Shoura Council, the kingdom's consultative body, is expected to debate measures today to combat the growth in slum areas, where land is often obtained illegally and houses are built without government permission.
"We cannot overlook the errors and omissions that must be dealt with firmly," King Abdullah said when ordering the committee investigation. According to a recent study by the municipality, the slums constitute 16 per cent of Jeddah's land. The municipality said in a report on its 20-year strategic plan to redevelop Jeddah that most land owners in the slum areas lack proper proof of ownership. Officials had launched an initiative in 2007 to help those living in slum areas by issuing them legal deeds to the proprieties they were living in. However, the number of properties built illegally on government-owned or private land is on the rise as more people continue migrating to Jeddah.
According to some government estimates, 80 per cent of the population, which has been growing by 3.5 per cent annually, lives in urban areas. As housing costs in central Jeddah are expensive, especially for lower-wage earners, many of them are forced to live on the outskirts, settling in valleys and low-lying areas and obstructing water passageways. "What happened in East Jeddah was an unpreventable catastrophe because it is a result of old bad planning and the greed for land ownership that affected us following the first oil boom in the 1970s when land was the major vehicle for fast wealth," said Jamal Khashoggi, editor-in-chief of Al Watan daily.
"East Jeddah is a collection of a group of valleys that never should have been developed into residential areas, but the citizen was keen back then to obtain a piece of land even by stealing government-owned land," he added. "When the local authority moved two years back to contain the problem, it was too late as these areas became the residence of hundreds of thousands of people." Prince Khalid al Faisal, the governor of the Mecca region, which includes Jeddah, said in 2007 that he would demolish all the slum areas in the city even if he had to build the entire city from scratch.
Of course, that was never possible as corruption and indifference allowed the slums to continue to grow, Khashoggi said. Prince Khalid is leading the committee's investigation. More than 30 present and former officials and contractors have been detained for questioning in the flood investigation. King Abdullah was quoted in newspapers over the weekend as saying that he would show no leniency "towards those who were negligent in carrying out their duties".