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Coping with rainfall in Saudi Arabia

Before I get on to the main topic, and most importantly, I had 5 days back home last week to celebrate #3 daughter’s 21st birthday. This was a week earlier than it should have been, as she had decided to go away on the nearest weekend to the actual date, and is currently in Paris for a girl’s jolly with her sisters. When I left Riyadh on Wednesday night it was just starting to rain.

The BA flights both way operated like clockwork despite a strike by some of BA's cabin crew. For me there’s something comforting being on a BA flight leaving Saudi Arabia, a cup of “normal” tea is available and (once we have cleared Saudi airspace) something stronger on offer too. I compare it to arriving at Calais and seeing the white cliffs across the Channel, knowing I am on the last leg home. However BA lost the goodwill gained on the RUH-LHR leg by charging 2.70 for a tea / coffee on the LHR-EDI flight. Complaining that I had paid the thick end of 500 for the whole return journey cut no ice. And a tip for anyone picking up an arriving passenger at Edinburgh Airport by car – wait until the arriving party has let you know they have collected their bags and then drive into the “Drop off” area (1.00 to visit for 5 minutes) and not the “Pick-up” area (3.90 for the first 15 minutes).

I returned to Saudi on Monday evening, and almost immediately on Tuesday was sent to Dammam to conduct an investigation into a passenger train derailment that had occurred in the early hours of the previous Friday. As I had been out of the country one of my colleagues had gone to site on Friday and secured the perishable evidence, namely photographs. The immediate cause of the derailment was abundantly clear, the track formation had been washed away after torrential rain on Thursday. My task however will be to look at contributing and underlying causes, and why a train had been able to traverse the damaged section.

As I was unable to get to Dammam by rail, I drove the 440km (275 miles) which took about 5 hours. My second tip is don’t drive that distance in a car that doesn’t have cruise control. My right leg was in agony after the drive. Even stopping a couple of times at service stations for a stretch and a cup of sweet tea, it still hurt. Driving on the main highway was another experience, it is 3 lanes wide with two metre margins on either side. Lane 1 was generally occupied by lorries that trundled along and occasionally overtook each other. Lane 3 was the preserve of those who choose to exceed the 120km/h (75mph) speed limit, and 160km/h (100mph) seemed to be the standard. So I pootled along in lane 2 avoiding the lorries which had a propensity to drift out and to shelter from the speeders who were happy to overtake each other in the central dirt or by undercutting other lane 3 users and encroaching on me. My return drive on Thursday was much the same, but with the added experience of driving into the setting sun, that is one of the delights of being in KSA, desert sunsets can be lovely.

The rain last week has been severe, by Saudi standards, with 170mm (6.5 inches) falling in 24 hours and as a result caused a lot of damage to infrastructure and buildings. Here are some newspaper reports and pictures from the English speaking daily, Arab News, describing the effects of the rain, this first of which relates to the derailment.


(17 February 2017) DAMMAM: A Saudi train derailed near the eastern city of Dammam on Friday, injuring 18 people, after flooding from heavy rains caused the rail line to drift, the Saudi Railways Organization (SRO) said in a statement. The 193 passengers and six crew members were transferred to another train and taken to Dammam after the incident that occurred at about 1 a.m., it said, adding that all injuries were minor. Giving details about the incident, the SRO said the train went off course because part of the railway track drifted at Kilo 10, near Dammam, as a result of torrential floods that went opposite its regular path. “This caused the train to go off course and carriages were separated from each other, and one train car overturned,” it said. Heavy rains have lashed Saudi Arabia for several days, causing severe flash floods throughout the Kingdom and at least one death in southern Asir province. Flooding can be politically sensitive in the country, where previous incidents — notably in the second city of Jeddah — have prompted anger over the government’s perceived failure to build suitable prevention systems. Saudi Railway said in a statement that as soon as the accident took place, an emergency situation was declared, and relevant authorities were notified according to the protocol for these situations. A reserve train was operated to transport all the passengers and the crew members. As soon as passengers reached the Dammam railway station, first aid was administered to 18 passengers who suffered minor injuries. The head of the organization, Dr. Mohammad Al-Rmeih, said the damaged line has been closed since then, and on Friday morning, the organization started to mend the damaged sector in order to continue services after checking the safety and readiness of the line. The SRO expressed its sorrow for this accident and apologized to the passengers for inconveniences.  He praised security and medical bodies who followed up on the accident, and for the efforts of the organization’s team. 


(17 February 2017) RIYADH: Rainfall in Riyadh continued on Thursday, with heavy downpours throwing traffic out of gear in many parts of the city, and substantially bringing down the temperature. Huge traffic snarls were seen on the Khurais Road and King Fahad Road. The presence of traffic police at strategic points helped in streamlining the traffic, which moved slowly but steadily. The continued inclement weather also saw a cold spell return to the capital region. From the relatively warm weather during the week, the minimum temperature plummeted to single digits at the weekend and early this week. The Presidency of Meteorology and Environment (PME) had forecast clouds and thunderstorms with moderate to heavy rain on Thursday, leading to substantial drop in the mercury level yet again. The Civil Defense department cautioned city dwellers to exercise restraint while driving and take maximum precautions against the inclement weather conditions. It further urged residents to avoid going to valleys and low-lying areas facing flash floods.

 RIYADH : The Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) on Friday said it has directed its local branch to restore the damaged part of Ibrahim Palace in Hofuf, which was caused by heavy rains this season. The SCTH has closed the palace temporarily. It will be reopened for visitors once the necessary maintenance work is completed. A dedicated team of the SCTH branch in Al-Ahsa has already begun pumping out water from inside the building to do the restoration work. Hofuf is a major Saudi cultural center and has many cultural and heritage sites, including Ibrahim Palace, which is more than 500 years old, Khuzam Palace and Bait Al-Bayea. A UNESCO delegation, accompanied by a delegation from Al-Ahsa municipality and the SCTH, in late 2015 visited Hofuf to be briefed on monuments and the municipality’s ongoing efforts in developing historical sites to be considered for UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Ibrahim Palace is a well-maintained heritage site that attracts many visitors.


(16 February 2017) JEDDAH/RIYADH: Heavy rainfall and low temperatures are expected to continue through Friday before easing into light drizzle in Asir and the Eastern Province, the Jeddah-based Presidency of Meteorology and Environment (PME) told Arab News Wednesday. Daytime high temperatures in the Asir region were expected reach 24° C today and drop slightly to 23° C on Friday. Overnight lows will drop to 17° C. In Jeddah, overnight lows on Thursday were expected to fall to 19° C, with a high during the day of 25° C. In Riyadh, overnight lows are predicted at 17° C, while the daytime high will be 22° C. Meanwhile, continuous rainfall has caused major disruptions in several parts of the Kingdom with the Asir region the hardest hit with flooding. The Kingdomwide death toll remained late Wednesday at one person, who was killed in the Asir region due to flooded valleys. At least 10 other people were injured and one is reported missing. The Civil Defense reported that 25 people were rescued. Asir’s Civil Defense spokesperson Mohammed Al-Asimi told SPA the department’s operation room received 600 flood-related reports in Abha on Tuesday, which resulted in the flooding of nine valleys. In addition, Saudi Red Crescent reported 104 car accidents and motorists trapped in their vehicles, in addition to illnesses due to weather changes. Schools in this southwestern region have closed and Abha’s King Khalid University suspended classes on Thursday as a precautionary procedure, according to SPA. “Different areas around the Kingdom are still affected as this is the rain season and there are still chances for having cumulus clouds and more rain in the coming days,” Hussein Al-Qahtani, PME’s official spokesperson told Arab News. Heavy downpours lashed parts of Riyadh late Tuesday, resulting in traffic jams, vehicles trapped in floods and the Traffic Department being inundated with rescue calls from motorists and pedestrians. The Riyadh region reported heavy rains in Rimah, Thadiq, Murrat, Al-Quwaiya, Huraymala, Wadi Dawasir, Muzzamiyah and Hawtah Bani Tamim provinces. Riyadh Civil Defense Chief Maj. Mohammed Al-Hammadi, urged people to comply with safety guidelines and be careful while driving during rainfall. “People should keep away from electrical wires and connections exposed to rainwater, avoid standing in open places or near trees, and avoid walking through flood waters,” Al-Hammadi said. He added that they also should avoid using cell phones during lightning and thunder. The weather is predicted to be punctuated by rainy thunderclouds and active surface winds that might limit visibility due to dust. Jeddah’s skies were gray and cloudy Wednesday and the temperature has dropped to range between 19° C-23° C, which is the kind of weather that usually precedes rainfall. The PME said that there are chances of having scattered rain and drizzle in the city and that a warning would be issued if needed. The PME forecast said there would be incessant heavy rainfall and thunderstorms over parts of Asir and Jazan, while rains of varying intensity are expected in central and eastern parts of Saudi Arabia.

(19 February 2017) DAMMAM: The level of rainwater pools has decreased in all neighborhoods and roads, and that traffic is flowing smoothly, said the Eastern Province secretariat on Saturday. It said that all roads have been opened after being closed for six hours as a precautionary measure. Heavy rains necessitated cleaning of the roads and draining of rainwater, it added. Spokesman Muhammad bin Abdulaziz Al-Safyan said the secretariat has deployed more than 300 machines and at least 750 workers and teams to clean, maintain and observe neighborhoods and main streets, especially those not equipped with rainwater drainage networks. “All the 43 rainwater drainage stations worked at full draining capacity, amounting to 420,000 cubic meters per hour,” he said. “The Eastern Province secretariat has completed implementation of more than 90 percent of networks on both sides of the highways.” He said Al-Dhahran municipality has suctioned water from several sites, including two in Al-Qosour and Al-Salmaniya districts. It also suctioned water from Prince Faisal Abu Obeida intersection in front of Dhahran Complex to open the road. Transport Ministry equipment suctioned water under Doha Bridge at the intersection of Prince Sultan road and Prince Mohammed bin Fahd road. The municipality of Al-Khobar province has suctioned rainwater from the main streets as it opened the King Faisal coastal road intersection with Prince Sultan road, as well as a number of main roads. Field teams were present in all neighborhoods that do not have rainwater drainage networks. “All rain drainage stations were operating efficiently despite the very large rainfall amounts they were removing,” Al-Safyan said. “The secretariat is still communicating with the General Authority for Meteorology and Environmental Protection to know weather conditions, as well as steady coordination with all concerned authorities.”

But, to put things into context here’s a cutting from 4 weeks ago:

(27 January 2017) RIYADH: Gov. Prince Faisal bin Bandar took part in a Kingdomwide rain-seeking prayer program, “Istisqa,” at the Imam Turki bin Abdullah Mosque on Thursday. Worshippers performed rain-seeking prayers, with the participation of the respective governors of the regions, their deputies and senior government officials on Thursday. The program included prayers at the Two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah. In Riyadh, Grand Mufti and President of Senior Scholars Council and Scholarly Research and Ifta Presidency Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al Al-Sheikh also graced the occasion. Muslims performed the Istisqa (rain-seeking) prayer in pursuit of the Prophetic Sunnah during drought and late rain, praying to Allah Almighty for rainfall. In Makkah, prayers were performed at the Grand Holy Mosque and attended by Makkah Governor Prince Khaled Al-Faisal. In Madinah, prayers were performed at the Prophet’s Holy Mosque and attended by Undersecretary of Madinah Region Governorate Wahib Mohammed Al-Sahli. Prayers were also performed simultaneously in other regions and attended by governors of regions and senior government officials. Imams urged Muslims in all parts of the Kingdom to perform meritorious deeds, seek forgiveness and give charities magnanimously. The sermons of the day urged Muslims to abstain from engaging themselves in misdeeds, which would prevent rainfall in the country and the preachers also requested the members of the congregation to seek forgiveness and adhere to the Holy Quran and Prophet’s Sunnah and be good Muslims following the precepts of the religion. According to Prophet’s Sunnah (Traditions), “Istisqa” prayers are conducted in the event of drought or delay in rainfall. “Rains will create a conducive environment for wildlife and plantation, we could also expect a higher percentage during the next breeding season in the spring,” an official from the Saudi Wildlife Authority (SWA) told Arab News. “The wetness will freshen up the vegetation and grasslands in the Central Province,” he said, adding that the rains will benefit the wildlife, providing water and necessary food for its sustenance.

 Be careful what you wish for!

 These cuttings were taken from the online version of Arab News (always worth a read for blog writers seeking inspiration, and for the idle curious too). The newspaper invites online comments and I copy here a couple of these, which give some insight of the locals’ response to the news.

 Imthiyas Achmad - “School and office should set as HOLIDAY until the roads become safe and secure to drive to avoid tragedy, safety hazards and road accidents that are high threat to human lives.”

 Tanzeelur Rahman – “Track men should be depute by which we can minimise the accidents. While raining, motor trolley should be deployed before leaving the train.”

 Abraham – “This story is rather strange and begs the question, as to why the train was allowed to begin its journey when there was a clear warning of extreme storm and flood conditions. It is well known that when there are storm events mud flows are common in the desert conditions. Mud flows combined with water ponding and flash floods is a major hazard especially to road and needless to say trains”.

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