“Instead of half an hour, it took my two children six hours to get back home from school last week.” Yasmine Aziz, a housewife in her 30s, was describing her children’s ordeal trying to return home in Nasr City from Ghamra, 12 kilometres away. “They got stuck in the rain without food or water,” Aziz said, asking how a few inches of water could bring the city to a standstill.
On 22 October a heavy downpour in Greater Cairo caused widespread chaos in the streets of the capital. Several districts east of Cairo remained impassable due to the accumulated rainwater.
“It was a day of suffering,” Ahmed Samir, an engineer, said. “Traffic was crippled for several hours as if it had been raining the whole day when in fact it was only one hour.” Videos circulated on social media showed tunnels, as well as the halls of Cairo Airport, flooded.
“The government knew a few days earlier that there would be rain... there was dereliction and neglect in dealing with unstable weather warnings,” Samir said.
A few days earlier, the Egyptian Meteorological Authority issued a statement warning that the country would see unstable weather.
“The volume of rainfall in Nasr City and Heliopolis in particular was unprecedented. The rainfall continued for 90 minutes, with a total amount of water reaching 650,000 cubic metres,” the cabinet said in a statement, adding that the level of rainwater reached 15mm, flooding drainage networks.
The mayhem raised urgent questions about Cairo’s infrastructure especially its 105-year-old drainage network, in dealing with such heavy rains. The country has no rainwater drainage network and relies on the waste network to drain rainwater.
“If we set up a separate drainage network for rainwater it would cost from LE300 billion to LE400 billion,” MP Mamdouh Al-Husseini, a member of the Local Administration Parliamentary Committee, said in an interview with Al-Hadath TV.
According to the cabinet, cities were built without rainwater drainage networks. “Our country is characterised by dry weather, and the cost of setting up a network costs billions of pounds and our financial resources did not allow it.”
However, Al-Husseini said that the existing network of drains in Cairo can drain 560,000 cubic metres, only 100,000 cubic metres short of the volume of rainwater which the cabinet announced Cairo had received on 22 October.
“Some 100,000 cubic metres of rainwater are not capable of creating the crisis that Cairo witnessed. The problem is that we deal with crises in a reactive rather than a proactive manner,” Al-Husseini said.
Several parliamentarians launched attacks against ministers and governors, holding them responsible for not appropriately preparing for the waves of heavy rain that came.
MP Moetaz Mahmoud, a member of the Housing Parliamentary Committee, in the same Al-Hadath TV show, said there were negligence and dereliction in dealing with the crisis.
“The drains were clogged, not ready or cleaned before the rains,” Mahmoud said despite assurances by governors that they had taken all precautionary measures.
Mahmoud and other MPs requested a briefing by ministers on the repercussions of the crisis.
Ahmed Morad, a professor of urban planning at Al-Azhar University, believes one of the main factors that amplified the crisis was that Egypt depends on the sewage network to drain rainwater since no city in Egypt has a separate network to drain rainwater due to its high cost and also because Egypt is not a country with much rainfall.
Mahmoud said that Cairo has only 80 vacuum water trucks which, he added, were not enough. There should be more such vehicles, he said.
According to the state budget, the budget for maintenance, cleaning of the irrigation and drainage network is LE769 million in the current fiscal year, up from LE572 million last year.
Al-Husseini said there are two solutions, one short-term and one long-term. “The short-term solution is to perform periodic maintenance of the drainage network and most importantly get the drains cleaned before any more floods.”
In the long term, he said, there should be a plan to put these huge amounts of rainwater to good use by storing them for use when needed, especially since Egypt suffers from water scarcity.
Al-Husseini said it was impossible to set up a separate rainwater drainage network.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.