A wedding photograph went viral on social media. It was taken in a picturesque vineyard in California’s wine country, the bride and groom dressed to the “t”, and this while the sunset was red in the background, the horizon stoking in flames.
More importantly, the bride and groom had put on hazard masks to avoid the smoke fumes in the air: they had ventured outside for the photograph, but soon had their wedding inside. It was a traumatic photograph that will live forever.
There is nothing normal about the photograph, but it is indeed a new reality as climate change will likely increase the potential and the forcefulness of natural disasters.
The current wildfire season in California is the worst on record. It has caused massive evacuations across the state, turning California into an inferno. In 2016, a similar wildfire swept through Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, destroying 2,400 homes and buildings and causing massive evacuations as large areas were demolished. Recent wildfire episodes are endless, and these are merely two examples.
However, it is not only wildfires that sweep across hard-hit countries. Natural disasters in the shape of flash floods, ravaging hurricanes, severe droughts and magnitude eight earthquakes that trigger massive tsunamis are occurring more frequently and more intensely everywhere.
Having prefaced my topic with this long introduction, we need to ask ourselves if Egypt, given its geographical location and climatic tendencies, is safe from such disasters? Is Egypt as vulnerable to the harsh climate as other countries?
According to the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDDR), a global partnership managed by the World Bank, Egypt is susceptible to natural disasters like floods and wildfires, set at high risk, and tsunamis and earthquakes that have a medium potential of occurring.
Once we accept the fact that Egypt is as susceptible as any other country to some of the natural disasters that may occur, we will understand the inevitability of what happened during the third week of October this year.
Egypt then faced what seemed like unprecedented torrential rain that caused flash floods. The sudden deluge disrupted normal life. Schools and universities saw classes cancelled, flights were delayed and ports and roads were closed, as tunnels filled with flooded cars. Many commuters were stuck in the streets for hours on end at the height of the rush hour, unable to budge because of the disruption caused by the rain.
But what followed exhibited how many Egyptians are unaware of the potential for such disasters, and the fact that they may become the norm. This is understandable since such intensity of rain is unheard of in Egypt. The end result was that many Egyptians had to hang this volatile climate and its repercussions on a peg. Someone had to be blamed for the accumulation of water in the streets.
Who can be blamed but an official of some sort? Soon vicious attacks swept social media. They focused on local governments, mayors and any official with some link to water management and drainage systems. According to the complaints on social media, lax and negligent bureaucrats did not meet their responsibilities, did not carry out their duties, and did not clean the gutters or the drains, but more importantly they did not forecast the ferocity of the storm either.
After the traffic congestion lifted and having arrived at their homes safely breathing sighs of relief, many people then began a deluge of sarcasm and ridicule. Humour is part and parcel of Egyptian attributes; however, the mockery and embellishment exhibited this time round a new naiveté and simplicity.
People should be tuned in to the reality: the world will see weather fluctuations as witnessed recently again and again, and these fluctuations in the shape of hurricanes, fires and floods will ultimately affect the whole world. Sometimes, Mother Nature, when she cruelly turns on humans, becomes undefeatable; no gutter-cleaning or drainage-inspection can prepare for such sudden weather swings.
The unprecedented torrential rains that befell Egypt in such a short span resulting in flash floods occurred simultaneously all over Europe. In areas of Britain, in just 24 hours rain accumulation exceeded that of an entire month. Flash floods in Italy killed two people. Spain suffered from severe floods that drowned several people as, according to the BBC, “streams became raging torrents.”
In France, rivers burst their banks, and one town saw “198 mm of rain – about two months’ average rainfall – in just six hours”. The rain also turned the area surrounding the Eiffel Tower in Paris into a vacant deserted pool. Countries with usually heavy rainfall were unequipped and could not cope with the overwhelming elements, let alone Egypt which rarely witnesses such torrential weather.
As annual average temperatures increase, things will get worse, and unfortunately we will be unable to stop the effects of climate change. According to Floodlist, an EU-funded observatory, by the year 2050 flood losses in Europe will increase fivefold and be attributable mainly to climate change. Egypt is too close to Europe not to be affected by the same weather patterns.
Egyptians did not call it quits until they saw photographs of the recent hurricane in the international media. Meteorologists described it as a medicane, meaning a Mediterranean hurricane that causes heavy thunderstorms and flooding in coastal regions. Usually, the region does not see such hurricanes as they rarely happen in closed waters such as the Mediterranean, but the new normal is changing matters. Only then did Egyptians realise that hurricanes are far more catastrophic than they thought and that the same new normal may also reach Egypt.
A word in the ears of Egyptians: your diligence in determining the reasons behind the October storm was amusing and unfortunate at the same time. Nobody, especially the lay-person, has an absolute certainty of why it happened; nobody can determine the causes of storms and hurricanes unless they are meteorologists.
It’s time to accept the new normal, while hoping that Mother Nature does not turn her back on us ever so viciously or ever so often.
The writer is the author of Cairo Rewind on the First Two Years of Egypt’s Revolution, 2011-2013.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.