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DUBAI: Men transport salvaged belongings in a canoe along a flooded street on April 19, 2024. - AFP
DUBAI: Men transport salvaged belongings in a canoe along a flooded street on April 19, 2024. - AFP

Lacking storm drains, Dubai floods persist

DUBAI: When record downpours sent water flooding into his Dubai home, Riaz Haq expected the levels to drop once it stopped raining. But instead of falling, the water kept rising higher. “We went to bed, the water was half-a-meter,” the British lawyer said, recalling Tuesday’s tempest that flooded homes, malls, offices and roads. “We woke up and it was one metre. My cars were submerged, water to our waist. Everything is ruined.”

Haq, his wife and their dog spent more than two days trapped on the upper floor of their two-storey home before they were finally rescued by a neighbour’s boat on Thursday. The couple, who were only able to salvage some bread and snacks, did not eat for most of that time, surviving on a few bottles of water.

“Fridge, freezer, even my car was floating. Everything was floating,” he told AFP. “I had a brand new car. It’s all ruined. It’s a natural disaster situation. No one was prepared for this level of carnage,” he added. During their ordeal Haq, his wife and their neighbors — about 18 families in a suburban residential community — were too scared to wade out through the waist-high, smelly water, fearing electrocution.

The failure of water to drain away has proved a major obstacle to recovery efforts in the desert country, with persistent flooding blocking roads around Dubai days later. Impassable roads have affected basic services, with supermarkets unable to restock and many employees struggling to reach their workplaces. Dubai’s airport, the world’s busiest for international passengers, has suffered badly from staff shortages with flight cancellations and delays expected to continue into the weekend.

Karim Elgendy, associate director at the Buro Happold engineering consultancy, said drainage for stormwater had not been widely included in planning for the city, much of which is only a few years old. “Someone must have vetoed this because of the fact that it hardly rains. This conversation, I think, when it happened, was short,” he told AFP. “Water is locked in. If you have a hard surface like the road or the airport, where will it go? The ground is too hard (to absorb water),” Elgendy added.

Without drainage for excess water, authorities rely on pumping trucks to suck it up with giant hoses and drive it away. Elgendy called this a “stopgap” measure. But he said it was very difficult to install stormwater systems once infrastructure has been built. “Once a city is built in a certain way, retrofitting stormwater management is next to impossible,” he said.

Four people died after the heaviest rainfall on record in the oil-rich UAE, including two Filipino women who suffocated inside their vehicle in Dubai’s flooding. Climate change will make extreme weather events more common, Elgendy warned, saying the storm — which dumped up to two years’ worth of rain on the Gulf country — was consistent with the effects of global warming.

“What this particular incident highlights is that the historic calculus on (whether to install stormwater systems) has changed, because there is a cost,” he said. “There’s also a reputational cost. These scenes of the runways and airplanes taking off in water — I don’t think that’s consistent with Brand Dubai,” he added, referring to widely shared footage of planes taxiing through standing water on Tuesday.

UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed has ordered at-risk families to be moved to safety and directed an urgent study of the country’s infrastructure. While Haq is reassured by the support, uncertainty remains. “We don’t know when we will be able to come back to normality,” he said. “They are using tankers to remove the water.It will take days. But I’m sure the authorities will do everything they can to get us back to our homes.” – AFP

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