It seems as soon as something goes wrong in Saudi, people are quick to point the finger of blame at the government, and allegations of corruption are born. A sudden storm last week hit the Holly City of Makkah causing flash floods and wreaked havoc throughout different parts of the city. Minutes after the downfall of rain, people took to social media and posted images of vehicles swept away by the flood waters while spectators watched helplessly. Without any real investigation and within hours of the floods, people on social media were venting their anger, quick to charge the authorities with corruption and complain about a general inability for the government to react.
The main frustration arose from not understanding how 45 minutes of rain could cause such havoc. It seems pointing the figure at the authorities is ‘fashionable’ in light of the Arab Spring, with many arguing that the authorities have steamrolled ahead with huge projects of glass skyscrapers in Makkah, which they argue have had a detrimental effect on essential infrastructure spending such as sewage system upgrades. But is this even true, or are these just baseless allegations to fuel the fire?
In a sense, people’s anger is perfectly natural considering the damage caused, especially as flash floods affects, directly and indirectly, public health. While infectious disease from flooding in the Saudi is limited, health risks from flooding include accidents and injury, significant stress and mental health impacts from the exposure to dirty, sewage and debris, contaminated water and loss of property. This has enraged portions of the Saudi community who cannot comprehend why a country with vast amounts of wealth is unable to deal adequately with prevention measures.
It seems that people were more enraged that this occurred after just 45 minutes of rainfall. However people must not forget that rain is not measured by time but rather the amount of precipitation over a set period of time. It seems people are quick to link last week’s flash flooding with the 2009, 2011, and 2012 floods of Jeddah, Tabouk and Riyadh. But we really should judge and treat every event independently.
However, I find it troubling that we find it difficult to assess the causes behind floodwater damages in a more transparent way, and it bothers me that the authorities aren’t always forthcoming with facts. What I also find difficult to understand that we have created a habit to point the finger at the authorities whenever something goes wrong. It seems some people have missed the fact that flash floods and the havoc it causes is not a phenomenon that is limited to Saudi Arabia, but a global issue that many developed and rich nations are struggling to grasp solid solutions for.
Over the last couple of years, I have visited and lived in countries that experience torrential rainfall on a regular basis. In Brazil, the 7th richest country in the world, an Amazonian country that has invested in huge sewage systems due to regular rainfall, fell on its knees only a few months ago with the death of 44 of its citizens with flash floods that also left tens of thousands homeless. In the United Kingdom, a country that has spent over $200 Billion US dollars in the last 12 years alone in sewer systems, has found it self struggling year-on-year with flash floods.
It needs to be stressed that blaming the inability of Makkah’s infrastructure to drain off floodwaters simply does not stand for three main reasons. The first being the geographical location and composition. Makkah is different to that of the costal town of Jeddah and other cities in the Kingdom that has previously been affected by floods. Essentially the Holy City of Makkah sits in a valley where water naturally drains towards the centre of the city, making it harder to shift the water fast enough. I am not saying this can’t be done, but only saying the speed in which water shifts through the pipelines out of the city has a limit.
The second essential point to be made here is the pressure to build and expand the city’s infrastructure on new land in order to accommodate over 2 million Muslims at any one time. This subsequently decreases surface areas where water can be absorbed by the soil.
The third reason behind flooding is us, and how we treat our planet. A cause we often exclude maybe because we are directly to blame. With a population of under 30 million, Saudi Arabia ranks 12th in the world based on fossil-fuel CO2 emissions, we are beaten in the list by some of the worlds most populated areas including China, the United States, India and the European Union.It is clear that the world climate system is definitely warming, and humans have influenced that climate change. But is this enough to convince an angry public? Unfortunately, I don’t think so.
Whilst I do not disagree that there could be a more transparent system of governance when it comes to government spending on infrastructure projects, I do think we need to be slightly more objective when reacting to natural disasters.