x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Haj begins, marred by flooding

The heaviest rainfall in years triggered flooding that wiped out bridges and streets in Mecca province, killing at least 77 people.

Pilgrims gather at Mount Arafat, south-east of Mecca, yesterday. About 1.6 million pilgrims have travelled to Saudi Arabia for this year's Haj.
Pilgrims gather at Mount Arafat, south-east of Mecca, yesterday. About 1.6 million pilgrims have travelled to Saudi Arabia for this year's Haj.

JEDDAH // The heaviest rainfall in years triggered flooding that wiped out bridges and streets in Mecca province, stranding Haj pilgrims and killing at least 77 people, none of whom were pilgrims. The deaths also increased worries about the country's infrastructure as more than a million people made their way through the port city of Jeddah, the gateway to the Haj in Mecca.

About 1.6 million pilgrims have come to Saudi Arabia from abroad for the Haj this year, the world's largest yearly religious gathering. The state-run Saudi Press Agency said Wednesday's deaths were in Jeddah, Rabigh and Mecca. The statement blamed the deaths on flooding and collapsed homes. The floods forced the closure of a motorway to Mecca, stranding pilgrims who were unable to complete their journey. A spokesman for the Saudi interior ministry, Brig Gen Mansour al-Turki, said yesterday that none of the casualties were among the millions of pilgrims.

At least 900 people had to be rescued after being stranded by the floodwaters, according to a statement by the kingdom's civil defence rescue service on Wednesday. The downpours ceased yesterday but the rescue service warned residents not to go outside today as it expects to see more rain. According to the civil defence, about 3,000 cars drifted away in the floods in Jeddah. An eyewitness said he saw at least 30 people carried away by floods in South Jeddah.

Jeddah, which saw rainfall of up to 76mm on Wednesday morning, lacks drainage systems to handle the inundation, although the government says over the past five years it has allocated billions of riyals to developing such a system. "We hear about budget allocation and we are always told that there are projects underway but in hard times we don't see anything," said Motassem al Felo, a resident of Jeddah.

"I think it's time for the municipality to take actions or allow other city planners to take them," Mr al Felo said. "Yesterday it took me more than an hour and a half to reach work. On a regular day it takes me only 20 to 25 minutes to get there," he added. In in August the interior minister and the second deputy premier, Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz, was asked by former city planner Zaki Farsi to intervene fist the environmental hazards Jeddah is facing due to the lack of appropriate infrastructure.

"Through the entire past years, only 30 per cent of the planned rainwater drain system for Jeddah was completed," said Mr Farsi in the presentation that was attended by the media and business community in Jeddah. Mr Farsi attributed the problem to the insufficient funds the city receives from the ministry of finance although the government had allocated large sums to develop its infrastructure. Mr Farsi explained to Prince Naif that Jeddah's planners have asked the government to allocate more than 12 billion Saudi riyals in 2009 to carry on with the infrastructure projects but the finance ministry only allocated 10 per cent of the requested budget.

The city also estimated the cost of cleaning up the city's beaches and developing its corniche at about 850 million Saudi riyals (Dh833m) in 2009, however, the ministry of finance only disbursed 50 million riyals. The situation in Jeddah worsened, according to Mr Farsi, after the ministry allocated only 16 per cent of the money needed to maintain and operate the infrastructure of the city. @Email:wmahdi@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press