Nature’s wrath in the Gulf

Ahmed Mustafa , Tuesday 23 Apr 2024

Unprecedented flooding in the UAE and Oman has claimed lives and wreaked havoc.

Nature s wrath in the Gulf


Over two dozen people were killed last week in the Sultanate of Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in one of the most severe weather events in the region. Heavy storms with unprecedented downpour first hit Oman, where flooding in many areas left almost 20 dead. The storms and flooding also affected the UAE, leaving one man in his seventies dead according to official statements. The victim’s vehicle was swept away by floods in the northern Emirate of Ras Al- Khaimah.

Sky News reports cited a statement by the Philippines’ Department of Migrant Workers that two Filipina women died after suffocating inside a vehicle during the floods in the UAE. A Filipino man was also killed when his vehicle fell into a sinkhole, the department added.

It is not uncommon for the area to face storms and heavy rain at this time of the year, but up to 259.5 mm of rain falling on the usually arid country on Tuesday last week was an unprecedented record — the highest since records began 75 years ago. Emirati official news agency WAM called it “a historic weather event” that surpassed “anything documented since the start of data collection in 1949”.

According to many meteorological models, the early signs of heavy storms and flooding were evident before they hit, but their force and magnitude turned out to be far greater than anticipated.

A low pressure system in the upper atmosphere, coupled with low pressure on the surface, had acted like a pressure “squeeze” on the air, according to Esraa Al-Naqbi, a senior forecaster at the UAE government’s National Centre of Meteorology, quoted in a Reuters’ report. That squeeze, intensified by the contrast between warmer temperatures at ground level and colder temperatures higher up, created the conditions for the powerful thunderstorm. That “abnormal phenomenon” was not unexpected in April when the pressure changes rapidly, the Emirati analyst said, but climate change is also likely to have contributed to the storm.

That view is shared by many weather analysts and climate scientists quoted by the Western media. Some blamed “cloud seeding” techniques used by the UAE to induce rain for the severity of the disastrous downpour. Bloomberg suggested cloud seeding planes were deployed on Sunday and Monday, but not on Tuesday, when the flooding occurred. But experts say that this could only have had a minor effect on the storm and that focusing on cloud seeding is “misleading”.

Cloud seeding has been around for decades, and the UAE has used it in recent years to help address water shortages. It involves manipulating existing clouds to help produce more rain. This happens by using aircrafts to drop small particles, like silver iodide, into clouds. Water vapour can then condense more easily and turn into rain. But this needs clouds to be there already, and they form due to weather pressure systems as outlined above.

Cloud seeding is thus generally deployed when conditions of wind, moisture and dust are insufficient to create rain. But last week, forecasters had already warned of a high risk of flooding across the Gulf. Diana Francis, head of the Environmental and Geophysical Sciences at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, told the BBC, “When such intense and large-scale systems are forecasted, cloud seeding — which is a costly process — is not performed because (there is) no need to seed such strong systems on a regional scale.”

The event became notorious as it paralysed life in UAE, especially in Dubai. Dubai Airport, one of the busiest travel hubs globally, was in chaos with flights cancelled and passengers stranded. Schools were closed and government workers were told to work from home. One British reporter described the situation in this way: “If Dubai is the ultimate Instagram city, then this was the week the filter came off… Over an unprecedented 48 hours, the skies over the UAE darkened and torrential storms washed away Dubai’s picture-perfect image.”

In an unusual direct intervention, the UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, ordered “authorities to quickly work on studying the condition of infrastructure throughout the UAE and to limit the damage caused,” according to official media. The president also gave orders for affected families to be transferred to safe locations.

In a note this week about the impact of the flooding, Moody’s rating agency said that “record rainfall in the UAE that resulted in widespread flooding will give rise to significant insurance claims arising from property, motor and business interruption policies. Local insurers tend to be heavy users of reinsurance, which will help moderate their losses in this instance but contribute to pressure for higher reinsurance prices at upcoming renewals.” The note added: “Although profitability has been improving slowly, we anticipate that these floods will reintroduce stress on earnings, especially for small and medium-sized insurers who have struggled to generate underwriting profits.”

Most of the Gulf region is not well-prepared for such weather conditions, now exacerbated by climate change. Preventing heavy rainfall turning into deadly floods requires robust defences to deal with sudden intense downfalls, as many experts suggest. Almost all Gulf cities are heavily urbanised, with little green space to absorb the moisture, and drainage facilities were unable to withstand such high levels of rainfall.

Lessons will have been learnt on this occasion, and measures will be put in place in case such severe weather conditions come around again. The correct amount of futureproofing is necessary, as major shifts in climate are making a heavy impact on traditional weather systems.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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