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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Lack of planning puts Jordan at greater risk from flooding

Recent deaths show regulations do not take into account climate change and geology

Floodwater surges through Petra in western Jordan on November 10, 2018. AFP
Floodwater surges through Petra in western Jordan on November 10, 2018. AFP

Torrential rains and flash floods in Jordan that killed 34 citizens, injured hundreds and stranded thousands have shown the kingdom's infrastructure to be unprepared for severe weather that experts say will become more common.

Officials deployed rescue teams, divers and helicopters to rescue more than 1,000 people caught in the flash floods that claimed 13 lived last Friday, less than two weeks after sudden flooding killed 21 in the Dead Sea area.

Yet the advanced rescue capabilities cannot make up for what experts say are shortcomings that have been years in the making.

Roads and other public projects across the kingdom are constructed without proper geological or hydrogeological feasibility studies, they say. Highways, bridges, dams, universities, hospitals, airports and other strategic installations have been built without regard to fault lines, flood-prone zones, in valleys and on ground that may be prone to landslides or sinkholes.

“Geological feasibility studies are not being implemented by large-scale projects. This key infrastructure is not protected in the long term and this might lead to a human catastrophe,” warns Jordan Geologists Association president Sakher Al Nsour.

“The construction may be using the best materials and engineers in the world, but if you are not on solid ground or working against the geology, you will lose every single time.”

Current building regulations require contractors to ensure only that the immediate bedrock and soil that they are building on can sustain their structure; they do not account for the location of nearby flood zones, valleys, fault lines or soil erosion.

Photos provided to The National by engineers and concerned citizens show that recently constructed roads and bridges, built to Jordan's architectural and safety standards, are degrading and falling apart because of unusually heavy rains and the erosion of soil beneath them.

Two bridges in the southern Dead Sea area are on the verge of collapse after the heavy rains in late October, according to officials and members of parliament who looked into the problem. Other areas near the sea are becoming prone to sink-holes because of its declining water level.

Then there is the issue of those who do not follow any building regulations at all.

“For decades land in Jordan was considered a commodity and not a resource,” says Batir Wardam, an environmental activist.

“Rapid urban planning was going to places that geographically and naturally are the best to allow access to water and allow water to move between regions, leading to building in valleys and areas that are most naturally prone to floods.”

Rather than large-scale corruption, current and former officials and observers attribute the poor planning to mismanagement, nepotism and, at times, administrative incompetence.

“Sometimes a contractor is the relative or a friend of the government official responsible of giving a permit and they give them a free pass without an inspection,” said a former planning official.

“Other times, one minister would approve a project, and then a new minister would come in and there would be no review of whether previous construction standards had been completed satisfactorily - no one carries the responsibility.”

Lack of trust

Perhaps the largest contributor to casualties in recent severe weather is a lack of trust in the government.

Two days before the Dead Sea floods, the government, the civil defence and the police issued severe weather warnings via social media, television, radio and the press. Yet many citizens - who have little faith in state media and weather forecasts - ignored them.

Despite the Dead Sea tragedy, warnings of similar weather conditions were ignored again last Friday. People went on picnics, hunting trips to the desert and drove through flood plains, leading to fatalities.

Threat to tourism

The historical city of Petra, carved into rock in a narrow gorge and valley in the south of the kingdom, was hit hard by last week’s floods yet no deaths occurred thanks to measures in place to deal with adverse weather conditions.

The Petra Tourism Region Authority, which oversee Jordan’s main tourist site that draws thousands of visitors a day, relies on a system in which rangers on mountaintops watch for potential flooding while others at the site stand ready to help tourists to safe areas.

As part of its strategy, the authority stopped admitting visitors two hours before the heavy rains were forecast to hit, and guided 3,000 tourists to higher ground and out of valleys in the 27 square km site without a single injury or incident.

We have a system here, we have all tools, an emergency plan and experience to deal with severe weather and ensure visitors’ safety,” Suleiman Farajat, chief commissioner of the Petra Authority, told The National.

“It is about getting used to the situation; we have to be more careful but we don’t want tourists to lose the opportunity to visit the site, and there is a proper balance to be made.”

Yet many of Jordan’s other natural and historic attractions lack such an emergency system, flood detection, or even sufficient understanding of how they could be affected by flood plains and torrential rains. Many sites lack even a guard to close the facility to tourists.

Members of parliament and citizens raised these questions after the ill-fated school field trip to the unregulated Zarqa Maeen valley that led to the Dead Sea tragedy. The outcry - and lack of satisfactory answers - led the tourism minister Lina Annab to resign.

“We need to know whether tourism sites have the proper warnings and precautions in place, and whether proper guides are provided to ensure tourists’ and citizens’ lives are not put in danger,” Dima Tahboub, who raised her concerns in parliament, told The National.

Measures lacking

In a 2014 study for the environment ministry, prepared for the government’s statement to the UN on climate change, climate experts projected a drop in rainfall overall but an increase in southern areas; an average temperature increase of two degrees; and the potential for increased and sudden flash floods, although the frequency and intensity was uncertain.

The report's findings were not seen as a priority.

“Because climate change was not considered an acute problem compared to the economic, terrorism or refugee challenges, it was not taken up as a major issue at ministries or the prime ministry,” says Mr Wardam, the environmentalist.

Now, with some areas receiving five days' worth of rain in a half an hour, the issue has become urgent. Yet the government still lacks a unified policy or coordinated action.

The governor of Ajloun, a hilly region 70km north-west of Amman, announced this week 160 families living near valleys and flood plains would be moved to safer areas. Yet there are hundreds, if not thousands of other families living in such areas across the country.

Experts also call for the building of more dams. Jordan receives from 5 billion to 8b cubic metres of rain a year, but the country’s 14 dams have a combined capacity of only 350 million cubic metres.

There is also yet to be proper nationwide mapping and understanding of where Jordan’s main flood zones and danger areas are, experts say. Such a study could be used to reassess infrastructure, inform the building of flood barriers and guide emergency services.

“We can’t prevent natural disasters from occurring, but what we can do is lessen the negative impact of natural disasters,” says Mr Al Nsour of the Jordan Geologists Association. “That can save lives.”