After floods, experts say Jordan unprepared for future disasters

Jordanian experts say lack of urban planning and failed government policies gave rise to destructive flash floods.

Jordan floods
Civil protection staff work on a road that was damaged by flash floods near Madaba [Petra News agency handout/EPA-EFE]

When the skies darkened overhead, Zied Harb Hediethat al-Hamaydeh and his six daughters had been in their orchard for a while, picking olives.

As thunder rolled into the Jordanian district of Mlaih, unleashing an unrelenting torrent, there was not much time to act.

The father and four of his daughters were swept away and drowned in the flash floods that devastated parts of the country during Friday’s heavy storm.

One of the daughters, aged five, is still missing 48 hours later. Another one, an eight-year-old, was rescued and is currently in critical condition.

Overall, at least 12 people were killed and dozens wounded in the flooding, while thousands of tourists were evacuated from the ancient city of Petra and other popular tourist destinations.

Health officials at al-Nadeem hospital in Madaba, some 30km south of the capital, Amman, told Al Jazeera that the cause of death of all 11 victims brought there was drowning. 

Among them were Zied al-Saraheen, a 24-year-old shepherd also from Mlaih who was out tending his flock of sheep, and Harith Naser al-Jbour, a civil defence officer who was swept away by the surging waters while trying to save others.

The 12th victim was from the southern city of Maan.

Rescue teams looking for the missing five-year-old girl in Mlaih[Al Jazeera]
Rescue teams looking for the missing five-year-old girl in Mlaih[Al Jazeera]

The disaster hit while Jordan was still reeling from last month’s flash floods in the Dead Sea area which killed at least 21 people, including many schoolchildren.

According to the state-run Petra news agency, Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz has been “following up [the situation] in detailed and accurate manner” from the National Center for Security and Crisis Management, a state-of-the-art “war room” created to manage national crises.

Last month, the al-Razzaz government was heavily criticised on social media and in the press for its “mishandling” and its “chaotic” response to the crisis. Two government ministers were forced to resign as a result.

‘Jordan not prepared’

Though flooding is not a new phenomenon in Jordan, the havoc it wreaked over the past few weeks and the large number of victims has raised an alarm among experts who warn of dire consequences if the government does not take a number of measures – including land-use planning and infrastructure development – to prevent such tragedies.

The frequency of heavy downpours that quickly cause destructive flash floods has increased in recent decades, according to Jordanian water and climate experts.

They say this is directly tied to a chronic lack of urban planning and failed government policies that allowed cities and towns to spread over previously undeveloped land without taking into consideration the impact of urban sprawl on the environment or the country’s changing climate.

These disorganised expansions have resulted in the creation of “chaotic concrete jungles” that have covered vast areas in Amman and other cities – land that in the past was absorbing rainfall and turning it into groundwater.

Civil defence teams searching for missing persons in Madaba [Al Jazeera]
Civil defence teams searching for missing persons in Madaba [Al Jazeera]

Sara Abu Hammour, an Amman-based civil engineer and an environmental expert, told Al Jazeera that while climate change affects Jordan like any other country, authorities have not undertaken proper land-use planning that would have prepared it for rising temperatures in the summer and the more frequent heavy rainfall in the winter.

She added that the lack of appropriate planning to accommodate a rising population – amid the influx of millions of refugees from neighbouring countries in recent decades – has also strained the country’s infrastructure and created conditions that increase the likelihood of natural disasters.

“Without the open areas that soaked up rainfall or the presence of modern sewer systems, heavy downpour turns into destructive flash floods,” said Abu Hammour, who is also the author of a 2013 scientific study about the impact of climate change in Jordan that proposed rainwater management solutions to prevent flooding. “The change in climate in Jordan was not accompanied by change in the infrastructure,” she said

“Jordan is simply not prepared for what nature has in store for it,” she added.

Government failure

For Amer al-Bashir, a former deputy mayor in Amman and an architect, the recent floods should not have caught authorities off-guard

Citing past floods that hit the Amman region in the 1990s and Petra in the 1960s, he said the government had not learned the lessons from previous disasters due to the absence of proper records documenting previous occurrences of flooding.

“Lack of data”, he told Al Jazeera, “made the country vulnerable to destructive flash floods similar to those that took place in recent weeks.”

Al-Bashir argued that “part of the reasons for such destruction and the tragic loss of life, in addition to the lack of proper planning and natural disaster preparations, is the lack of coordination and communication between the various government agencies.”

Jordanian civil defence officers searching for survivors in Mlaih [Al Jazeera]
Jordanian civil defence officers searching for survivors in Mlaih [Al Jazeera]

For his part, Tharwat al-Masalha, a former commissioner of the Petra Tourist and Development Regional Authority from 2014 to 2017, pointed to the lack of geological and hydrological studies needed to help create mechanisms to identify where flash floods are most likely to occur.

He pointed to an early warning system installed during his tenure at the Petra Infrastructure Authority to guard against sudden flash floods – a tool, he said, that to his knowledge is not in use elsewhere in the country.

Al-Masalha said the particular location of Petra, an important archaeological site surrounded by more than 1,600 metres of elevation, makes it susceptible to sudden flooding.

Because of its topography, he said, authorities “installed gages in the upstream areas that would send alarm signals to a control station should the level of rain reach a certain level”.

“The system”, he added, “kicked in and was the key factor in averting a catastrophic situation enabling the local authorities to evacuate about 4,000 tourists from the path of flash floods.”

Follow Ali Younes on Twitter: @Ali_reports

Source: Al Jazeera