Apr 28, 2011

Assyria: Underinvestment Exacerbates Flooding Disaster

Heavy rains and floods have affected Ninawa province, causing excessive damages and leaving people without shelter.

Below is an article published by Niqash

Khadida Barakat has been searching for his daughter for several days now. A few days ago the 13-year-old was herding cattle in the Ninawa province, in the north western corner of Iraq. Now, after heavy rains and severe flooding, her body is hidden somewhere in a large body of water that stretches between the town of Rabia, on the border with Syria and the larger town of Sinjar.

Barakat becomes emotional as he describes what happened: “It was like a devastating tidal wave. Everybody thought we had all been drowned.” Overcome, he cannot go on speaking but his relatives say that his daughter’s body may well have been swept over the border into Syria by now. They’ve searched for her along the path the water took for several kilometres but they have yet to find her.

Extremely heavy rain in the Ninawa province late last week has left at least seven dead, dozens missing or injured and hundreds homeless. Hundreds of cattle and other livestock have also been killed.

The exact size of the flooded area is unknown but affected towns and villages in the Sinjar, Baaj, Tal Afar and Mosul districts report that flood waters have been as high as two meters in some places.

In Rabia, locals criticized authorities’ slow response to the emergency. They told NIQASH that they only survived because they were able to take shelter on the concrete roofs of some of the buildings in town. “We would all have been dead if we’d waited for help from the authorities,” one said.

Ahmad al-Jahshi, head of the nearby village of Naim, blamed the local government for the extent of the flood damage in the area. “In the past, village elders have demanded that the Rabia authorities build a new, larger sewage network, one that is wide enough to prevent villages from being flooded. We have suffered in floods like this before but things were never as bad as they are now,” al-Jahshi said.

Additionally, he complained that although the local authorities had made many promises to start work on drainage infrastructure, there had been no action whatsoever. “Three years ago, contractors started a drainage project along the border road. But it was useless,” he said.

At a press conference, Ali Hassan, an engineer and the director of Ninawa sewage department, confirmed that even in Mosul, the capital of the province, only around 30 percent of the city has working rainwater drainage.

A similar problem lay at the heart of a number of flooding disasters in the western Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah. The city doesn’t have enough properly built drainage infrastructure and flooding in 2009 killed around 100 people there. At least ten people died in more floods there earlier this year.

Hassan defended efforts made to build new drainage and sewage lines in Ninawa, saying that his department had started 24 projects, 11 of which were in villages with the rest within the city of Mosul.

“Sewage treatment in Mosul city requires more time,” he said. “The city needs ten years and plenty of money to be able to solve its sewage problem.”

Jassim Mohammed, the mayor of Rabia which was most affected by the flooding, said that the authorities were actually relatively quick to respond. “However, with our limited resources we were helpless and we couldn’t cope with this enormous flooding,” he argued.

There had been some emergency response: Workers from the Red Crescent (the Islamic symbol used by the Red Cross in the Middle East), civil defence and some Iraqi military were in the area.

Visiting the area, NIQASH saw authorities digging extra drainage on the border road to Syria, in order to let excess water out, while dozens of vehicles queued.

Provincial officials have also visited the flood-struck area – these included council members and the governor of the province, Atheel al-Nujaifi. However many of the VIPs were unable to reach the flooded villages, even with four-wheel drive vehicles. They simply had to stand and look at the damage from a distance.

A district official believed that there have been several deaths but was unable to provide an exact number as yet. “We have been searching for missing persons since last Friday, as well as searching through the hundreds of houses that have collapsed,” the official said.

A lot of the building damage is due to the kind of housing in the area. Construction methods include mud bricks and plaster and these kinds of buildings cannot withstand heavy flooding. Villages and outlying residential areas had been worst affected with most of the houses built with mud brick destroyed. In these areas, it is only the concrete dwellings left standing.

The Ninawa provincial council declared the affected districts west of Mosul official disaster areas. It will also set up a committee to assess damages and to distribute financial compensation, up to the amount of IQD 7.5 billion (around US$6.3 million). But when it comes to seeing the relief fund, set aside by the Iraqi Ministry of Finance, the locals already have their doubts. “Bureaucracy may cause delays, as it has in previous disasters. In addition, nepotism and corruption may result and the funds allocated to help those villages hit by flooding may be wasted,” one local, who preferred to remain anonymous, said.

Khalaf Mahjoub, who lives in Sabayet Um al-Danabek, a village in the Sinjar district, continued to try to salvage his furniture and belongings from out of the water. His house was destroyed by flooding and a crowd had gathered to watch him as he worked He told NIQASH of his helplessness in the face of what he described as “nature’s fury”.

“The flooding swept all my furniture away. And nobody can tell me where it has landed,” he complained. Nobody believed him when Mahjoub recalled how he had found his refrigerator three kilometres away. The only thing he was able to salvage from it was a bottle of water.

“How can we resume classes when almost all of our classrooms are flooded?” the headmaster of the Tall Banat school in the Sinjar province asked. “The few buildings that survived are being used by villagers who have no other shelter.”

Most of people that NIQASH spoke to in the province wanted a faster response from emergency services. “Shelter, food and drinking water should be provided. And the authorities should remove dead livestock from the area too,” one villager said. “Otherwise we will have an even bigger disaster on our hands.”