The most precious gift that the people of Saudi Arabia can hope for after years of drought, dust storms, and thirst, is the gift of rain, regardless of the cost. It was only ten days after the Salat al Istisqa [the prayer for rain] was performed that western Saudi Arabia was flooded, with this flood soon besieging Jeddah. Jeddah is an overpopulated city that came to resemble the city of New Orleans, which was flooded by the Mississippi River [in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina]; the only difference is that there is no river in Jeddah. Although the level of rainfall that night did not exceed 72mm, more than 80 people were swept to their deaths in what, according to meteorologists, was one of the most deadly floods that Saudi Arabia has ever experienced.
This year’s Eid al Adha was accompanied by a tragic human disaster so the climate this year was a curious combination of joy and fear. The entire region, not just Saudi Arabia, has been experiencing a terrible drought, which has resulted in rivers drying up and farms depreciating, along with the worst dust storms in recent history. Therefore every drop of water from the sky is greeted with joy and gratitude.
So during this time of Eid, should people differ over whether this [rainfall] truly is a gift from God, or should we accept that natural disasters have a price that must be paid?
Of course we must accept this, but at the same time we expect there to be accountability because this six-hour rainfall would not have flooded the city in this manner had the city’s facilities been better prepared for this. Large cities should have an infrastructure in place that includes flood defenses, as well as water reservoirs that can be used during times of drought. Urban disasters are caused by overcrowding, poor planning, and the failure to solve existing problems until it is too late.
Jeddah today differs from the Jeddah of the past; the city now has a population of three million, a figure that is increasing every day, and the population has already outstripped the capacity of the city’s services. A section of the city’s population also lives on the fringes of society and is living outside the system and therefore unable to access such services; and solutions to this problem are lacking.
After the ground has dried, and the clouds have disappeared, the people of Jeddah return to their old habit of queuing up [for water rations] in front of the water tanks. Jeddah is a city of contradictions; a city where people are dying of thirst at the same time that they are being swept away by floods. Jeddah is also the home to one of the largest sewage lakes [in Saudi Arabia] which the city’s residents have given a musical name [Misk Lake]!
In fact, the truth is that despite their tragic losses, the residents of Jeddah may be lucky, for this disaster has brought them face to face with the legacy of the problems that have accumulated in Jeddah over the past twenty years. This disaster became an international story, and their need [for solutions to these problems] is finally being heard. I think they will find solutions [to these problems] if they are able to escape the danger of becoming tied up by bureaucratic red-tape. And so this crisis intensified until it reached a tipping point.
The truth is that Jeddah is a great city that has no peer in the Arab world, with its social and cultural blend, and its status as the gateway to Mecca where its airport is filled with millions of Umra and Hajj pilgrims. Jeddah is also Saudi Arabia’s haven for economic development, and the market of the Red Sea. Jeddah has a great opportunity to be an extremely special city; and the six hours of rain may mark a new beginning for a better Jeddah.