x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Wind and rain lash the Middle East

Egypt closes airports, Lebanon braces for emergencies and experts in Syria caution against assuming that drought is over.

Lebanon received rain after months of dry spell, but strong winds wreaked havoc in the capital, Beirut, and other parts of the country. Wael Hamzeh / EPA
Lebanon received rain after months of dry spell, but strong winds wreaked havoc in the capital, Beirut, and other parts of the country. Wael Hamzeh / EPA

DAMASCUS // Strong winds and heavy rain lashed the Levant yesterday, knocking out power lines, flooding roads and delaying flights, as a long dry spell ended with a vengeance.

In Jordan, Syria and Lebanon on Friday, there had been prayers for rain, after an unusually hot summer had extended severe drought conditions throughout autumn.

That same evening a storm front that meteorologists had been forecasting all week finally arrived.

Egypt closed four of its ports on the Red Sea because of sand storms and high waves. In Israel and the Palestinian territories, power lines were damaged and trees felled by the winds.

One Russian tourist was feared dead yesterday in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya after being blown into the sea. Police were unable to deploy search teams because of the poor weather conditions.

Outbound flights from Beirut's international airport were delayed and four light training aircraft, parked on the tarmac, were damaged by winds gusting up to 120kph. Traffic jams blocked Lebanon's capital, as drivers negotiated fallen billboards and flooded roads.

"I'm happy that it's raining," said Rana Khoury, 27, who organised a ceremonial rain dance in the city on Friday, in the hope of finally bringing an end to the dry summer. Many Lebanese had been left with no alternative but to buy water on a daily basis as supplies ran low, and farmers' wheat crops have been put at risk by the drought.

"But you can't be completely happy," Ms Khoury added. "There's rain and we were expecting it but the authorities weren't ready for it". She said this even though Lebanon had been bracing for the bad weather since the start of the week.

On Wednesday, the minister of interior, Ziyad Baroud, told municipal councils, the Lebanese Internal Security Forces and the civil defence department to prepare for any emergencies resulting from the anticipated storm.

In Syria, which has been facing a fifth consecutive year of drought, the electrical storms and steady rains were greeted with relief, albeit tempered by concern about the powerful winds that accompanied them.

"It's really good news to have some rain at last, it's long overdue and we hope it will offer some respite," said Abdul Rahman Attar, president of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (Sarc). "We also hope the rains continue. We need sustained rain, not just one or two days."

Together with government agencies and the United Nations, Sarc has spearheaded an emergency drought response in Syria's eastern Jazeera region.

A devastating succession of almost rainless years have forced tens of thousands of farmers off the land, devastating what was the country's agricultural breadbasket and plunging more than 300,000 people into poverty.

Yesterday torrential rains hit Syria's west coast, with 200 millimetres falling in fewer than 24 hours in the city of Latakia. But they had still not travelled as far east as the parched Jazeera. Forecasters at Syria's national weather centre said they expected they would by today as part of a four-day period of wet weather.

But experts cautioned against assuming that the long regional drought had ended, warning that essential groundwater sources - underground reservoirs - had been depleted across the Middle East during the summer and would not easily recover.

"The rain is very welcome and it helps, but it will take more than a week or two weeks of rains to begin solving the problem of groundwater supplies," said Yousef Meslmani, an environment specialist and national project director with the United Nations Development Programme in Syria.

"We would normally see the rainy season start in September, but this is the first real rain we have seen. It is three months late," he said. "There have been major shifts in weather patterns as a result of climate change. But I hope there will be continued rain, and that we have a wet winter."

It may already have come too late for Syria's farmers, many of whom have already made their decisions about what crops to plant for this season. Those who have planted crops may also not see any respite, with heavy downpours and high winds causing as much damage to fragile plants as water shortages.



* Don Duncan reported from Beirut; with additional reporting by AFP and The Associated Press