BEIRUT: Lebanon is ill-prepared for what scientists are predicting will be the worst winter in a century, as public officials throw up their hands and citizens in vulnerable areas prepare for disaster.
The Russian Meteorological Department announced Wednesday that Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine would be suffering from the harshest weather in almost 100 years this season, a prediction that was quickly picked up by Arab media, raising concern across the region.
Flooding, closed roads and power outages have become as routine as winter rain in Lebanon over the years, as infrastructure deteriorates and government bodies trade blame over who is responsible.
Last winter, a severe winter storm battered Lebanon for days, killing several people and causing millions of dollars in material damage. In light of Wednesday’s reports, residents of the hardest-hit areas say they are preparing for the worst.
The Beirut suburb of Hay al-Sellom was devastated last January when the Ghadir river burst its banks, flooding roads and homes in one of the country’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
One resident who asked to remain anonymous said he was expecting an even greater catastrophe this year.
“People are going to get seriously hurt,” he said, claiming that last year a 2-year-old girl was electrocuted and died after coming into contact with water-soaked electrical cables.
“There’s going to be a riot in Hay al-Sellom,” he stressed, adding that the roads were already overflowing Thursday because of the heavy rainfall in the morning and afternoon.
Residents of Hay al-Sellom blame the municipality for neglecting the area, claiming that the Druze-controlled local government does not care about the neighborhood because it is inhabited by mostly Sunnis and Shiites who are registered to vote in other parts of Lebanon.
Shoueifat Mayor Melhem al-Souqi did not deny that the municipality was not moving to address the infrastructural issues in Hay al-Sellom, but blamed the Energy Ministry and the Public Works and Transport Ministry and the Higher Relief Council.
“Hay al-Sellom is a fundamental problem,” the mayor said. “It has no infrastructure. It is something bigger than the municipality.”
Souqi claimed the municipality calls contractors to help with the water blockages during the rainy season, but admitted that this was not enough to prevent flooding. “The Ghadir River needs to be closed off from both sides so the water doesn’t flood into the streets and into the homes,” he said, adding that a project of such scale was beyond the means of the municipality.
In other areas, he said, local officials have ordered the gutters in inland roads cleared, expecting work to finish sometime next week. He also called on the Public Works and Transport Ministry to ensure the main roads’ gutters and drains are cleared and ready for winter.
But municipalities can expect little help from the state, with caretaker Transport Minister Ghazi Aridi saying last week that funds had not yet been allocated to the ministry, preventing it from cleaning sewers and drainage pipes. Aridi blasted the Cabinet and the Finance Ministry for failing to deposit the necessary funds.The ministry could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Leon Telvizian, former head of the Urban Planning Department at the Lebanese University, said the problem was much more fundamental than a few clogged gutters, blaming the lack of permeability in over-built areas for the worst of the flooding.
“There needs to be urban planning,” Telvizian said. “There is no longer any piece of natural land that can allow the water to collect in one place.”
In Beirut, Governor Nassif Qallosh held a news conference Thursday, alongside contractors and engineers, to discuss the city’s preparation for the winter season.
Precautionary measures were first taken two months ago, Qallosh claimed, and would continue throughout the entire winter season, particularly cleaning the gutters and sewers, and managing water drainage lines.
The municipality has also asked owners of construction sites and workers to clean around these locations to keep sand from flowing into the gutters during heavy rainfall in winter.However, this work alone is not enough, the mayor added. With the first few rainfalls of the season being very heavy, sewers and gutters could possibly fill up.
In east Lebanon, officials from the municipalities of Baalbek and Zahle have taken smaller measures, most of which consist of cleaning out gutters. The municipality of Bar Elias, where one person drowned in floodwaters last year, could do little more to prepare for harsh weather. Local officials in Bar Elias and nearby Marj admitted such steps were all but futile in the face of a major storm.
Along the coast, the Municipality of Jounieh’s engineer, Dominic Chamoun, said the gutters in the city had been cleaned, the sewers maintained and the lighting on the roads improved.
“It’s something we do every year from September through to November,” Chamoun said.
However, he admitted that natural disasters were sometimes too difficult to work around, and precautionary measures were not always enough to prevent flooding and material damage.
Heavy rainfall already caused flooding in the north last week, spurring the city of Tripoli to launch a campaign to clean blocked sewer openings in an effort to avoid future flooding after shop owners had to shut their doors to prevent water from ruining their goods.
Professor Simon Moussalli, formerly in charge of Town Planning Studies at the American University of Beirut and the Urban Planning Department at the Lebanese University, said inadequate drainage is one of the primary causes of flooding. Moussalli said simple measures such as elevating roads in the middle so that water drains off the sides can go a long way toward preventing water from pooling.
“The infrastructure of the city of Beirut is totally inadequate,” Moussalli added. “One can anticipate that the surface water and the sewage water are getting mixed together, causing them to overflow.”
Moussalli said official and municipal authorities need to be able to work together on the issue to achieve optimum security, adding: “Municipalities cannot throw their responsibility to the Public Works and Transport Ministry.”