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Worries over sewage threat in Jeddah

After flash floods devastated parts of Saudi's second city and caused dozens of deaths, residents are facing even more upheaval.

JEDDAH // Jeddah residents are worried about the future of their city, Saudi Arabia's second-largest, as concerns grow that a giant sewage lake on its outskirts may be close to flooding the city, and which could pose a greater danger than last week's floods that killed at least 105 people.

The sewage lake - sarcastically referred to by city residents as "Musk Lake" - usually holds 9.5 million cubic metres of sewage water but recent heavy rains have dangerously raised water levels and yesterday civil defence department officials began evacuating an area near the lake, according to witnesses. The department did not give any reasons for the evacuation from al Ajwad area, but residents there reported leakages in the "precautionary" dam that stands between the main dam of the lake and Jeddah.

However, Jeddah's deputy mayor for services, Hani Abu Ras, assured that the precautionary dam was intact and explained that the leakage from the sewage lake is natural because it was caused by an increase in water levels following the heavy rainfall that hit the city last Tuesday. "If the civil defence wanted to evacuate people in the area this is their call, from my side I can assure you the precautionary dam is intact," he said.

About 800 tanker trucks dump 50,000 cubic metres of sewage each day into the lake, which covers an area of 2.6 square kilometres. Local authorities have rescued hundreds of people in Gwaizah district, south of Jeddah, since last week's rain. Angry residents are demanding swift action from authorities to punish the municipality after it claimed it was not prepared for the heavy rains, which caused massive road and property damage and dozens of deaths.

"They are saying the dam is fine, but I hope they are not lying to us, like usual, and tomorrow we wake up to find other parts of Jeddah flooded with waste water," said Badar al Tassan, a Jeddah resident who lives near the dam. "Mr Abu Ras appeared yesterday on TV saying that no city in the world can manage the 3.7-inch [9.4cm] rainfall, but I've been to many countries where the rainfall doesn't stop and their drainage system still worked properly," he said.

According to the municipality, it needs at least 1.2 billion Saudi riyals (Dh1.17bn) to rebuild the flood- affected areas in the eastern and southern parts of the city. But with the current crisis, the city says it needs an extra 3bn riyals to have a well-developed drainage network. Jeddah's mayor, Adel Faqih, said in an interview on Sunday with the Okaz daily newspaper that the city's infrastructure had not been prepared to handle the almost 10 centimetres of rainfall, which was a rare occurance.

"Let me say that it was a 3.7-inch rainfall, which was a very big flow into the one-inch drainage pipes. That is four times more than the capacity of our current drainage pipes," he told Okaz. "The problem was in the flash floods coming from the valleys [surrounding the city]. Many [people] have developed land and made illegal incursions onto the drainage [system] meant for the floodwater. This had changed the direction of floodwater, causing the water to flow into the city," the mayor was quoted as saying.

Mr Faqih said the municipality has completed an emergency plan of temporary solutions, but that even if a developed drainage system had been in place, the sheer volume of the water would have been too much for it to handle. The mayor did say, however, that he has a strategic plan to develop Jeddah by 2030, which he said has lacked proper infrastructure for decades. But Ibrahim Katbkhanah, Jeddah's deputy mayor for projects, was quoted in Okaz yestereday as saying, "It [heavy rain] happens once every 100 years. It was difficult to deal with such a magnitude of water, [even by] international standards. Even if there had been a [proper] floodwater drainage network, it would have failed to contain the damage."

Saudi urban planning experts are sceptical of Mr Katbkhanah's claim that the rains were mainly a natural disaster that could not be planned for, and say it is the government's responsibility to physically modernise its cities. At least 70 per cent of Jeddah lacks a functioning drainage system, according to the municipality. "If the city lacked proper infrastructure for decades, then this is a crime by itself," said Saud Kateb, a professor at Jeddah-based King Abdul Aziz University.

"Everyone is putting the blame on nature but this is nonsense because if we had a proper infrastructure nothing wrong would have happened," Mr Kateb added. Waleed abu al Khair, a human rights lawyer, said that although the mayor attributed what happened to natural causes, the minister of finance, Ibrahim al Assaf, tacitly admitted the government's responsibility when he announced on Sunday that the ministry will pay compensation for house damage.

According to Mr Abu al Khair, in the Islamic Hanabli legal doctrine that the kingdom follows, the government is not responsible for compensation if the cause was simply a natural disaster. "The word 'compensation' is enough legal evidence for me to show that the government acknowledges that it was its fault," he said. Mr Abu al Khair plans to sue the municipality for the deaths of 105 people in the floods. Families of the dead are reported to support the lawsuit, which will allege massive mismanagement of city works construction by the municipality as a key cause for the flooding.

The head of the Supreme Judicial Council, the kingdom's highest judicial authority, Sheikh Saleh bin-Humaid, said on Sunday that all Saudi courts will hear any lawsuit against the authorities in regards to the Jeddah floods. wmahdi@thenational.ae

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