Jeddah floods recede, sewage lake still threatens

JEDDAH Mon Dec 7, 2009 7:07am EST

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JEDDAH (Reuters) - Standing in brown sludge outside his house in Jeddah, Qassim Mohsin still gasps at the power of the flash floods that churned through the Saudi port city on the Red Sea 10 days ago, killing at least 116 people.

"We climbed to our roof and saw things we only see on television in other countries. Cars were rolling around in the water as if they were in a blender," said the Yemeni resident of the Quwaiza district, where flood waters rose over three meters.

The torrent swept away most of Mohsin's belongings, leaving him only a useless heap of soggy furniture and electrical goods.

Saudi civil defense forces are still rummaging through the debris, tallying the damage and searching for more bodies. They say the floods damaged 8,092 homes and crushed 7,143 vehicles in the worst natural disaster anyone in Jeddah can recall.

The destructive surge of water was a swift sequel to torrential rains, rare in the desert kingdom, that hit Jeddah and the rocky mountains that fringe its coastal plain.

Now angry residents are asking who is to blame for factors that may have amplified the devastation -- such as urban sprawl in low lying areas and the absence of a city-wide drainage system.

Affordable housing is hard to find in the city of over three million. Mohsin is among hundreds of thousands of Jeddah residents living in poor, densely populated neighborhoods whose vulnerability has been cruelly exposed by the flooding.

"All the houses in this area have title deeds. The government allowed them to be built. The problem is that this area does not have a pathway for the flood water to go through," said a Quwaiza resident whose home was destroyed by the flood.

Public outrage over the disaster has spawned accusations of corruption among city officials. King Abdullah has ordered an investigation to determine those responsible and punish them.

After years of neglect, Saudi Arabia's second largest city launched a 170 billion riyal ($45 billion) overhaul earlier this year intended to turn it into a trade and tourist center to rival other Gulf Arab cities.

But the lack of an underground sewage system remains a glaring infrastructural defect. Jeddah's most urgent challenge is to relieve pressure on an artificial lake east of the city, dubbed Musk Lake, used to dump sewage for more than 10 years.

The sewage lake has risen to alarming depths of 15 meters. If its embankments were to give way, a deluge of toxic wastewater could inundate parts of the city.

Municipality officials announced projects last year to divert sewage water from the lake, but little has materialized, although 95 million riyals were allocated.

Inadequate management of Jeddah's sewage translates into health risks.

Municipal workers spray clouds of white pesticide in the streets to combat insects such as mosquitoes which carry malaria and dengue fever -- and which thrive in the environment around Musk lake and flood residue.

(Editing by Alistair Lyon and Noah Barkin)

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