Government neglect, climate change cause unprecedented flooding in North Lebanon

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A woman runs through a flooded street in Beirut during a massive rainstorm in November 2011. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Abdel Kafi al-Samad, Sandy Hayek

Published Monday, October 20, 2014

The catastrophe that befell the Akkar and Dinniyeh regions of north Lebanon on Friday night is unprecedented. The severe weather exposed the dismal state of infrastructure as it was unable to cope with extreme weather conditions, including floods and flash floods, showing once again how much this region of Lebanon is neglected by the Ministry of Public Works and the rest of the government departments concerned.

Extremism is not just a human phenomenon. Nature, too, is taking a turn in the direction of what climatologists call extreme climate events. Sudden heavy rains after a long drought is one of these events, which are set to increase in intensity in different regions of Lebanon. This could lead to further erosion of the soil, which is already suffering from the shrinking forest cover responsible for stabilizing the soil against heavy rains.

The infrastructure, whether in cities or in rural areas, is ill equipped to cope with this amount of rain. Meanwhile, the delays in works designed to improve, repair, and clean drainage channels by the Ministry of Public Works seem to have become an annual occurrence.

Around half past one in the morning on Saturday, Amer Zain al-Din, from the village of Qarsita in upper Dinniyeh, woke up to loud banging noises coming from the front door of his house. He rushed there quickly, but as soon as he opened the door, his house was flooded with water, mud, and stones.

Zain al-Din’s shock did not stop at this point. The floods gushing into his house threw off many of his belongings outside the house, and the bed of his 5-year-old son who was in it. Zain al-Din ran trying to save his child, struggling to make his way through a distance of more than 250 meters of floodwater. He was finally able to grab his son’s bed as he held on to a tree. Later on, the neighbors rescued the man and his son.

That night, Zain al-Din and his family did not sleep at home. Most of the village’s population, who number 4,000, did not either, because of the flooding after the severe storm forced around 50 families to leave their flooded homes. They spent the night with families and neighbors, amid a state of shock and panic among the locals.

“Never in my life have I seen anything like what I saw that night. It was unbelievable,” said Khaled Daoud, another resident of Qarsita. Daoud said the elderly in his village never saw anything like this in their lives either.

By Saturday morning, the scale of the disaster started to emerge gradually. All the roads in the village had been cut off by accumulated dirt, mud, and rocks, some piling up as high as 4 meters. Dozens of houses had been rendered uninhabitable, either because of the floods or because cracks had appeared in them, while many cars and trucks were swept away and severely damaged by the floods. Hundreds of cattle and sheep perished, with landslides reported across farmlands in the area.

Secretary-General of the High Commission for Relief, Major General Mohammed Khair, arrived in the morning in Qarsita. Once there, he was reportedly shocked by the damage that he saw. Damage from the storm did not only affect Qarsita. In the nearby village of Bait Faqs, floods cut off several neighborhoods and went into a number of homes. In the village of Ain al-Tineh, a bridge linking it to the adjacent village of Nimrine collapsed. A newly dug water well along with an electric generator recently purchased by the locals were completely ruined.

In the town of Bekaa Sefrin, landslides isolated the hills of al-Njas in the higher parts of the town, prompting families that work there to call for urgent help to open the road. In the village of Bakhoun, a sand barrier adjacent to the Bakhoun-Taran Bridge collapsed, causing the bridge to be closed for around 3 hours. During that time, more than 20 towns and villages were cut off from their surrounding, as the bridge is their main crossing to the areas further away.

The collapse of the Sfireh-Kfar Bnine Bridge also isolated six villages in the highlands nearby. The collapse was caused by “bad execution,” according to Sfireh’s mayor Hussein Harmoush. For his part, mayor of Kfar Bnine Mahmoud Ibrahim said he would be meeting soon with Public Works Minister Ghazi Zaiter to deliver a detailed damage report.

Schools in Dinniyeh, especially in the hilly regions, were closed on Saturday, as students and faculty were unable to reach them. Schools are expected to remain closed in some villages as well. Rains and flooding also damaged a large part of the drinking water grid in the area, with some villages suffering water shortages, while other villages had turbid water coming out of their faucets, as dirt seeped into the water supply.

In Akkar, heavy rains caused floods that also cut off most main and secondary roads in a large number of villages. Phone and internet networks were completely disrupted, while many motorists were trapped in their cars because of the flooding.

From 5 until 10 in the morning, the Halba region was completely cut off from its surrounding as well, as stones, rocks, and gravel piled up on the roads, blocking drainage canals. According to an official in the Halba municipality, what happened is the result of the failures of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport. The official pointed out that with the beginning of September of every year, special crews usually clean the drainage canals, but this year, these crews did not come to Akkar, despite the many requests sent to the ministry.

In Mahmara, Bibnine, Burj al-Arab, and Wadi al-Jamous, there were flash floods along the roads, carrying with them huge amounts of rocks, stones, and mud, after which a number of walls that were under construction collapsed. In Halba, terrorized schoolchildren were trapped in their schools for five hours, as floods entered their classrooms.

Said al-Halabi, mayor of Halba, declared that the catastrophe in Akkar “shows just the extent of the government’s neglect of the governorate.”

In the town of Bahsa, which Major General Khair visited and promised to pay compensation for the damage sustained, the storm overran one of the biggest agricultural nurseries there. Its owner, Mohammed Izz al-Din, was shocked by the extent of the damage sustained by his life’s work, as he described it.

In the town of Berqayel, most roads were cut off with their top asphalt layers being eroded away by rocks and stones, forcing mayor Samir Sharaf al-Din to rent special equipment to clear and reopen them. In a phone call with Al-Akhbar, Sharaf al-Din said, “It was expected for some blockage to take place in the drainage canals, since they have not been cleaned this year, but no one expected floods at this scale to take place.” He continued, “The flooding of the Nahr al-Bared irrigation project has made matters worse, as the river burst its banks by up to a meter and a half, flooding nearby villages and causing damage to crops and properties.”

In the Akkar plain, tents belonging to Syrian refugees were flooded, nearly killing a number of them. The Red Cross intervened to evacuate a large number of refugees, while the emergency department of the office of UN High Commissioner of Refugees rushed to secure safer shelters.

In the village of Fakiha, heavy rains caused sweeping floods that went over the bridge along the Baalbek-Hermel thoroughfare, carrying dirt and rocks, and reaching nearby fields and the waterways of the Orontes River in Hermel. The floods came from the eastern mountain range in the highlands of Ras Baalbek and Fakiha.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

If the catastrophe is really “unprecedented”, then it is unfair to blame the government.

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