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Rainy day blues
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 17 - 01 - 2002

Will the downpour that brought havoc to Egypt's streets prompt the government to deliver the drains at last? Gihan Shahine wonders
It was a typical winter afternoon on 10 January in Cairo when the sky suddenly opened, drenching the capital. It had been drizzling for days, and everything was just beginning to dry up. A couple of hours into the evening, however, the streets of Cairo, which lack a proper drainage system, became veritable lakes. Cars began to break down, turning already chaotic traffic into a nightmare. People tried to get home; business ground to a halt.
Outside Cairo, heavy rains and storms were blamed for a surge in highway fatalities that killed at least 17 people and injured some 70 others in different parts of the Nile Delta on Saturday. Rough weather also set a fishing ship adrift in the Red Sea on 11 January; it sank, taking 39 fishermen down. Hospitals and emergency centres were on 24-hour alert nationwide.
The previous week, Alexandria airport had been forced to close, and airplanes were asked to change course and land in Cairo instead. In Sinai, streets were covered in snow and students stayed home.
Meteorologists have said that Egypt is experiencing the coldest weather and heaviest rainfall in a years. For a decade, moderate and dry winters have been the rule.
Is the weather changing? Last year, a CNN report quoting scientists studying climate change for the United Nations 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 or not this is true, and whether Egypt is prepared to cope with such "dramatic shifts in rainfall patterns," remain highly disputed.
Sherif Hammad, 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," Hammad said. "We have been monitoring temperatures and they have not changed over the past 20 years."
Rainfall, Hammad 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."
Although the CPAM informs the governor of expected rainfall beforehand, streets are still flooded, which causes serious traffic jams.
The reason? 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 at a cost of LE125 million. The plan gave priority to such main streets as Salah Salem, Al-Khalifa Al- Maamoun, the Nile Corniche, Ter'at Al- Ismailia, Gisr Al-Suez and Al-Tayaran.
The project was completed only this year. The catch: sewers were linked to the existing sewage network.
"Sewers should be connected to a rain drainage network now that we are expecting heavier rains," concedes Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, director of the Roads Department at the Cairo Governorate. "The capacity of the current sewage network cannot accommodate rainfalls."
Mohamed Abdel-Rahman, head of the Sanitary Sewage Authority, disagrees. "Establishing a rain drainage network is too expensive," he said, echoing the view adopted by the authority's former chairman. "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."
Abdel-Rahman also argued that the present sewage system is capable of accommodating rainfall. "What happened on 10 January was that the downpour was exceptionally heavy and occurred at the peak hours when the sewers were already full," he explained.
Last year, however, Cairo Governor Abdel-Rehim Shehata told Al- Ahram Weekly that "establishing a rain drainage network in Cairo is a must, even if it only rains for 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," he 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 concedes 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 400 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 to build sewers," he pointed out.
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