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Gulf’s record floods highlight ‘balance between risk and investment’

  • Gulf flooding takes toll on infrastructure
  • Heaviest rain in UAE for 75 years
  • Bahrain, Qatar and Oman affected

Historic rainfall this week in the Gulf, particularly in the UAE, has raised serious questions about investment in infrastructure to prevent the widespread flooding that brought much of the region to a standstill.

On Tuesday the UAE was hit by its heaviest rains in 75 years. The downpour turned main roads into waterways, particularly in Dubai, leaving motorists stranded and causing widespread damage to commercial and residential properties.

Dubai International Airport, one of the busiest in the world, was forced to suspend operations for 25 minutes on Tuesday, while disruptions continued into Wednesday.

Emirates Airline suspended travel for passengers from 8am on Wednesday until midnight on April 18 due to “operational challenges” as a result of the adverse weather and road conditions, with many staff members unable to make it to work.

Bahrain and parts of Qatar also suffered, while Oman was severely hit with the state-owned Oman News Agency reporting that 18 people lost their lives in the floods.

A Dubai-based stormwater drainage systems engineer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AGBI: “Our systems have been designed for storms but no system – anywhere in the world – is designed for very severe events of high intensity and devastation.

“It’s a balance between risk and investment. We may see some new tenders as systems will continue to be upgraded but, even then, they cannot prevent flooding in such cases. An improved system would cause less flooding.”

In 2021 work was completed on the $2.5 billion Deep Tunnel Storm Water System – a 10km tunnel measuring 11 metres in diameter, built 45 metres under the city in the southern area of the emirate near the Expo 2020 site.

The tunnel drains stormwater from 40 percent of the city and is part of the UAE’s wider investment plan.

“As the country continues to experience rapid urbanisation and potential shifts in weather patterns due to climate change, having efficient and large-scale stormwater management systems has become essential and opens doors for further projects,” said Dr Hassam Chaudhry, associate professor at Heriot-Watt University Dubai.

The National Centre of Meteorology (NCM) said that 254mm of rain was recorded in 24 hours in the Khatm Al Shakla area in Al Ain. The UAE’s average annual rainfall is 140 to 200mm.

Time to upgrade?

In January 2020, following another round of extreme rainfall, the government pledged AED500 million ($136 million) of new investment to safeguard the country’s infrastructure from the effects of flooding.

“If any government understands infrastructure, it’s the UAE. It’s almost certain that they are thinking about how to upgrade the infrastructure for situations like this,” said Ruchir Punjabi, co-founder of Distributed Energy and

“These transformations are really, really expensive. You cannot do an overnight swap of a drainage system, for example. It’s really, really difficult. What you can do is you make it part of new or redevelopment plans, and you build a transition.”

Research in the US by the National Centers for Environmental Information found that flooding costs an average of $4.7 billion in damage per event.

The NCM has denied that the storm was exacerbated by cloud seeding, where planes draw moisture from the air.

Low flying planes shoot flares into clouds and release a substance – salt, silver iodide or dry ice, depending on the cloud type – that attracts water molecules and makes them heavy enough to fall as precipitation. 

Omar Al Yazeedi, deputy director general of the NCM, said it “did not conduct any seeding operations during this event”.

David Kennewell, a Dubai-based water resources engineer, said that rapid urban development has increased these challenges as traditional drainage systems are not suited to the Gulf’s sandy soils and infrequent rainfall, leading to potential blockages and erosion.

In the UAE severe flooding has become a regular issue. July 2022 was the wettest in the Emirates for more than 40 years and led to the deaths of seven people. Nearly 4,000 more were placed in temporary shelter.

“We’ve observed strong warming in the Middle East,” said Andrew Pershing, vice president of science at Climate Central. “Nothing about this is normal. This year eventually will start to look like an average year.”

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