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Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 04 - 03 - 2010

Thunderstorms lashed the country in ways not seen in years, prompting calls for the government to put in place a proper drainage system. Reem Leila reports on a day in which it was even snowing
It was a typical wintry afternoon on 25 February when the sky abnormally opened, drenching the country. A couple of hours into the evening, the streets of Cairo, which lack a proper drainage system, became absolute lakes. Cars stalled, turning already chaotic traffic into a nightmare. People who tried to return home had to find an alternative to the underground which had come to a halt.
Six people were killed and more than 50 injured as bad weather, including a rare hail storm, caused mayhem across Egypt. Thursday evening's storm, the first in many years, snarled traffic, bringing the sprawling capital to a virtual standstill. Cars crawled on the slippery roads as lightning periodically lit up the sky and thunder deafened pedestrians who were trying to hide from the showers and cowed people at home.
The downpour followed a heat wave and, as such, caught many off guard. Tourists near the Giza Pyramids, on the outskirts of the capital, ducked for shelter from the frozen, marble-sized bullets of hail.
People, particularly children, were excited by what the weather also produced -- snow, something they had never seen at home. Some begged their mothers to play outside in an attempt to build a snowman.
Violent rains blocked the 26 July Corridor and its western arch leading to 6 October governorate, with long stretches of asphalt transforming into deep puddles of water. Later in the night there were reports of accidents and severe traffic jams between Juhayna Square and 6 October.
"Cars were literally swimming," said a commuter stuck in the chaos. Hail was also observed in Zamalek, while dozens of traffic accidents were reported around the capital, with the worst in the 6 October governorate, resulting in 27 injuries. Traffic came to a complete halt in many areas in the capital, with the usual mini-lakes that Cairo swims in with every heavy rain, and drivers desperately trying to find alternative routes.
Hail caused jams on the Nile Corniche from Maadi to Garden City in the evening, and parallel bottlenecks in Al-Bahr Al-Azam Street in Giza.
Downtown was a real mess, with Tahrir Square turning into a huge garage of cars unable to move for hours. The situation was just as bad in Heliopolis and Nasr City. Streets were totally blocked with floating cars and pedestrians trying hard to reach a safe and dry place. Power supplies in several districts of Cairo were interrupted.
Meteorologists said Egypt was experiencing the coldest weather and heaviest rainfall in years. For a decade, moderate and dry winters have been the rule. Scientists studying climate change warned that the rise in emissions of gases that trap heat in the atmosphere could cause the Earth's average temperature to rise between two and six degrees over the next century. Such a rise, some scientists say, could mean dramatic shifts in rainfall patterns, more severe droughts and heat waves, a rise in sea levels and a spread of tropical diseases. Some scientists thus predict that Egypt, and the Middle East as a whole, will witness higher rainfall in the coming years.
Whether this is true, and whether Egypt is prepared to cope with such dramatic shifts in rainfall patterns remain highly disputed. Wahid Soudi, head of the Central Public Agency for Meteorology (CPAM), contests claims of climate change. "These are only predictions; there is no scientific proof they are right," Soudi said. "We have been monitoring temperatures and they have not changed over the past 20 years. These are normal phenomena that are always expected in winter." Rainfall, Soudi explained, is always expected this time of year. "Unstable weather and cold waves can occur, and this is what Egypt has experienced in the past couple of weeks," he added. "This could happen at any time in winter."
In Alexandria, according to press reports, there were waves as high as a two-storey building. The authorities closed down ports after winds reached 30 knots (55 kilometres per hour) and waves six metres high pounded the shore.
A luxury cruise ship smashed into a pier in the resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh as the bad weather continued overnight into Friday, killing three sailors and injuring four tourists, maritime officials said. Officials from the General Authority for Red Sea Ports said the sailors aboard the Costa Europa, an Indian, a Honduran and a Brazilian, died from the impact. Officials said bad weather caused the crash.
In other weather-related casualties, media reports said that one person was killed and more than 50 injured in a spate of car collisions nationwide. In Port Said, the fishing port was closed due to high waves. In Fayoum governorate, some 80km southwest of Cairo, one fisherman went missing on the Qaroun Lake.
The CPAM informs all concerned authorities and governors with the expected rainfall beforehand, yet the warning could not prevent streets from being flooded, which caused serious traffic jams.
Egypt does not have a drainage network. In 1997, in the aftermath of a heavy downpour that wreaked havoc on Cairo's main streets, the government ordered the Ministry of Housing and New Communities to establish a rain drainage system for LE125 million. The plan gave priority to such main streets in Heliopolis and Nasr City.
With its measly 15,000 drains, Greater Cairo simply cannot cope with powerful rains, leaving an unfortunate public trapped in muddy, chaotic, flooded streets for hours. The problem is that the current sewers are linked to the existing sewage network. "Sewers should be connected to a rain drainage network now that we are expecting heavier rains," stated Hamdi El-Tahhan, head of the People's Assembly Transport and Telecommunication Committee. "The capacity of the current sewage network cannot accommodate rainfall."
According to El-Tahhan, the government has spent more than 106 million Euros to develop the country's bridges and roads, among them LE1,200 million to pave and enhance the Cairo-Alexandria desert road, LE919 million to improve the Port Said-Alexandria road, LE600 million to expand the Alexandria-Marsa Matrouh desert road, and LE710 million to develop the Shubra-Benha road. In addition, LE250 million has gone to enhancing the overall network of the country's roads and bridges. "All this amount of money has been spent on improving roads, streets and the sewage system, yet the country drowned in shallow water," El-Tahhan stated.
Ahmed Nassar, head of the Cleanliness and Beautification Authority, disagrees with El-Tahhan. "Establishing a rain drainage network is too expensive," he said. "And since the rain lasts for only a few days a year, we can make do with trucks that siphon the water off the streets."
Nassar also argued that the present sewage system is capable of accommodating rainfall. "What happened on 25 February was that the downpour was exceptionally heavy and occurred during peak hours when the sewers were already full. The authority immediately sent dozens of trucks to drain the streets. Most areas were clear of water the following day."
Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, director of the Roads Department at the Cairo governorate, said establishing a rain drainage network in Cairo is a must, even if it rains for only one day. That Egypt's weather is dry for the major part of the year is definitely not an excuse. "I don't believe it is that costly," Abdel-Aziz said.
Observers argue that traffic jams resulting from even a few days of rain may cost even more than a drainage network in terms of work delay, car breakdowns, accidents and possible loss of life that can result when ambulances are stuck in traffic. Abdel-Aziz believes that the obstacle to a drainage system is principally one of funds. He suggests a long-term plan to cover the expected cost of the system, which stands at around LE300 to LE400 million. "Every year we can spend LE30 million building parts of the network until the whole capital is covered, which will take about 10 years. We already spend LE25,000 a year on sewer covers." (see Weekly 2, p8)

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