Nov 11,2015
Hasan Abu Nimah

Last week Amman was hit by a severe rainstorm. In about 30 minutes of extraordinarily heavy fall, the city was full of lakes of accumulated water.

Many roads, basements of buildings, shops and other structures were dangerously flooded.

Underpasses were quickly filled with water as drainage pumps could not empty the sudden and huge inflow.

Water poured out of control in every direction besieging motorists and home owners while at the same time leaving the authorities stunned almost helplessly at the scale of the water attack.

Civil defence and police officers were seen all over the place struggling heroically to offer help and rescue wherever that was needed.

Before that, twice in the same week, the country was covered by thick clouds of dense dust that reduced visibility, contaminated the atmosphere and caused health concerns.

As dust could only be washed by rain, it was a blessing that rain was indeed predicted, actually sooner than the heavy falls that started Thursday morning.

But dust or no dust, rain and, more so snow, are always welcome in this dry country.

When precipitation is delayed we pray for it.

Water is the main source of life. In this country, water shortage for both domestic and agricultural use is a major national worry.

The downside of it, however, is the kind of disruptions and often tragic incidents related to abnormal weather conditions, which are becoming more frequent in this age.

The negative consequences last week were indeed severe. They caused massive complaints, as well as expression of blame, often harsh and probably overdone, but also understandable and legitimate, levelled at the government, but mostly at the Greater Amman Municipality and the Amman mayor personally.

This is not the first time weather-related problems in our country have stirred public uproar. Neither it is unusual, here or elsewhere around the world, that tragic events such as fires, major road or train accidents, floods, snowstorms, disease outbreaks and any other tragic happenings, reveal — and eventually help repair — basic defects in the very safety systems created originally to deal with such emergencies.

Lessons are often learned from tragedies and I hope we will learn a lot from this one. I am not quite certain that the concerned authorities did their best learning from previous calamities.

We must understand that no amount of preparedness, no matter how perfect, can sometimes help one cope with unforeseen emergencies, particularly when related to natural disasters.

But at the same time, we must understand that the validity of this fact should not be reason for complacency, for unpreparedness or, worse, for justifying negligence.

It is unfortunate that this kind of defensive rationalisation happens in most cases.

That is when the only right and appropriate response is in conducting objective diagnosis, determining the nature of the problem, identifying system defects and plan accordingly for repair and improvement.

Apart from larger projects, such as major renewing of long outdated city infrastructure, there are very clear matters that must be instantly addressed by the Amman municipality.

The extended list includes other urgent issues, besides the weather, that are getting more critical by the day.

The chaotic traffic situation, lack of pedestrian space and pedestrian crossings, flagrant abuse of pavements and bad road engineering, all contribute substantially to the driving anarchy on the streets of our capital.

To be fair, we should not overlook the other mounting responsibilities and daily duties the city authorities are confronting, as well as the great efforts done by GAM to keep vital services running in a capital that is home to almost half of the entire population of the country.

The problem is that some urgent matters — traffic is one — cannot wait, as every day of delay magnifies the phenomenon, making it much more expensive and difficult to handle.

Some weather-related issues must be put on the municipalities’ lists of urgent matters without further delay. Weather patterns are radically changing and are becoming more unpredictable, different from what we have so far been used to.

One is living in underground basements. The municipality is telling us that its regulations ban the use of underground car parks in apartment buildings for human use.

Even if that is the case — some claim that building guards are permitted to live there nevertheless, and often with their families — it is not enough because in most buildings, and after owners obtain the occupancy permit, they proceed to create small apartments in the basement for the building guard and his family or for other illegal uses.

Deaths were caused this time in such prohibited dwellings.

GAM regulations are worthless if not enforced. The least the municipality could do is to conduct surprise inspections of buildings to ensure abidance, and to impose heavy fines and prohibitive measures on violators.

It is the responsibility of the municipality to make sure that its safety regulations are fully observed.

Leniency encourages lawlessness and once people become accustomed to ignoring the law, it becomes much harder to impose the rule of law when matters get out of hand.

Another issue is that the installation of electric water pumps in buildings basements or in tunnels may not be sufficient to keep such places securely dry when large amounts of water suddenly pour in or when storm-related power cuts disable such vulnerable machines.

This has been the case in previous times and yet no adjustment to the measure has been introduced.

A third one is the vulnerability of some houses and buildings, depending on their location, to water attacks.

In a hilly town like Amman, where heavy rain creates sudden forceful water streams carrying with them debris, soil and stones that can block drains easily, one should expect better planning for overground water channelling.

Buildings ought to be also partially protected, if not securely fortified, against gushing rainwater.

Such minor remedies may help deal with immediate and momentary urgencies, but the big work of reviewing the entire situation of the city and its mounting problems remains a national undertaking far beyond the means of GAM.

This task should not be delayed either.