As the muddy waters rose rapidly around his legs and debris shot by, blocking any attempt at escaping the swirling torrent, Khalfan underwent the stark realisation that he may be facing his death.
Only a few minutes earlier, Khalfan and two friends were playing in a wadi close to their homes in Amerat, enjoying a rare spell of rain, when the waters rushed towards them, seemingly out of nowhere and eventually swept Khalfan (who can swim) off his feet.
They had ignored the warnings that were sent out to alert all residents in their area, and instead chose to play in the downpour, relishing the reduced temperatures that came with a storm.
He is only alive to share his story with Y because of the quick thinking of one of his friends, who ran parallel to the fast-moving waters to a point where the flow was at its weakest, allowing him to wade in and pull Khalfan out after a brief struggle.
“I was nine years old and I thought I was going to die. By the grace of God and my friend’s quick actions, I was able to survive, but I don’t want to see any one else – kids or adults – in the same situation,” he says.
Sadly, stories like this are all too common in Oman and the reality is that stopping to enjoy the thrilling extremes of the Sultanate’s weather can be a deadly decision, brought sharply into focus over recent weeks.
Poised on the eastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, Oman looks out to the Arabian Sea on one side and hundreds of kilometres of desert on the other. While the combination of sea and sand, not to mention the stunning mountains in between, make for some amazing landscapes and have huge potential for outdoor adventures, there is also a darker side to nature, with the Sultanate vulnerable to extreme weather conditions ranging from sandstorms to tsunamis and flash flooding.
In June 2007, Cyclone Gonu, the most disastrous tropical cyclone ever recorded in Oman, made landfall, bringing with it 626mm of rainfall and Category 4 winds, which together claimed the lives of at least 49 people and caused RO1.5 billion of damage.
Three years later, Cyclone Phet struck, causing yet more widespread flooding, death and destruction.
Lessons were learned, with government bodies joining hands to be more careful in the planning and issuing of permits, flood protection dams were approved for construction, as well as calls for the inclusion of proper drainage systems in infrastructure projects. However, with Cyclone Ashobaa hitting the country in June of this year and the torrential rains at the beginning of September, which caused extensive damage and flash flooding, it goes to show that there is still some way to go before the Sultanate is truly stormproof.
Many parts of Muscat are carved out of mountains, which leave the low-lying areas susceptible to flooding, and this is part of the reason why the capital has been identified as one of the top three flood risk zones in the country – along with Rustaq and Sohar – by the Ministry of Regional Municipalities and Water Resources (MRMWR) due to poor drainage systems. Officials have drawn up flood risk maps, which are available to view at the Ministry.
Ahmed al Barwani, a water resources expert at the MRMWR, has highlighted the fact that these three cities make significant contributions to the economy of the Sultanate, but that inadequate drainage systems provide no outlets for water and make them prone to flooding and in some cases, loss of life.
On Friday, September 4, heavy rains fell in Muscat and other places around Oman, in some cases for no more than an hour. The results were landslides that made several sections of the Sultan Qaboos Highway impassable, damage ranging into the thousands of rials and widespread flash flooding that claimed the lives of six people. Two further people were still missing at the time of going to print.
In Muttrah Souq, floodwaters rose above two metres in mere minutes and one shop owner has lodged an insurance claim of RO100,000. Also at the souq, footage was shot depicting a person being swept away as he desperately fought for something to cling onto. The video went viral on social media before the teenager’s body was found and identified a few days later.
The Royal Oman Police (ROP) and the Royal Armed Forces of Oman joined the Public Authority for Civil Defence and Ambulance in their rescue efforts and helped to comb the worst affected areas. The ROP attended 19 rescue cases in Muscat alone and there is a consensus that the public, just like Khalfan and his friends, do not sufficiently heed the warnings, despite repeatedly witnessing the damage in the aftermath of storms and heavy rains.
According to the ROP, injuries often occur when people try to cross wadis in adverse weather conditions and warned in June that those found guilty of such behaviour would face strict legal action.
“People who are venturing into flood waters are not only risking their lives but also the lives of others. People who do this deliberatively should be penalised strictly,” Salim al Ghammari, Muscat Municipality Council Member, told the media in the wake of the recent rains.
Often, it can come down to a lack of knowledge and ignorance of the facts. Given that rain is largely a rare sight in Oman, some people are determined to head outdoors and revel when the heavens open when, in reality, they should be doing the opposite. Just because you are in a 4×4 it does not make you invincible.
During the rains that hit Oman at the beginning of the month, our photographer, Shaquel al Balushi, was out and about to document the effects of the storm and saw some worrying things along the way. Caught up in flooding close to his home in Amerat, he witnessed several landslides, which could easily wipe cars and people away, while drivers in off-road vehicles crashed carelessly through deep waters, oblivious or indifferent to the danger.
But the blame cannot solely lie with the public and the state of the current infrastructure also has to be considered. In the hours after the most recent rains, cars could be seen on a service road close to Sultan Qaboos Highway that were up to their windows in flood water, leading to questions about drainange.
One engineer who is working on the Bidbid-Sur road project spoke to Y, saying he believes that flooding is definitely a big problem for Oman, but that enough focus is being put on drainage in the newer construction projects.
“Due to the landscape of Oman, it’s not always possible for roads to bypass wadis and flood risk zones. In these situations, all we can do is to design the project so that it includes the required drainage systems,” he says.
The engineer recently opened a 12km stretch of road on his project, which includes drainage and diversion channels, ditches, box culverts and wadi bridges to minimise the effects of heavy rain and flash floods.
“When you look at other countries, of course their drainage systems are better, but it is not entirely fair to make this comparison because Oman is quite a young country. The main thing is that we are now aware of the problems and try to fix flood problems with new designs and the rehabilitation of old roads.”
Not everyone shares his optimism, though, and social media became a hotbed for debate in the wake of the storm, with some residents demanding change and questioning the priorities of the government after several videos of flooding and destruction went viral. “I know it doesn’t rain that often but when it does it causes damage in millions of rials, isn’t it time that Oman as a country that is building should invest in a drainage system?” commented one Facebook user.
The authorities have acknowledged that they have a key role to play when it comes to prevention and planning. The second Drainage Rehabilitation & Wastewater Management conference took place at the InterContinental Hotel Muscat from September 7-8. A timely meeting given the flooding damage caused by the rain that fell just days before.
Among other things, the conference aimed to analyse the different technologies and solutions for rehabilitating the current drainage infrastructure in the Sultanate, as well as address the frequent flooding of the Al Nahda Hospital in Ruwi.
While presenting a paper on Flood Mitigation and Management to the conference, al Barwani announced that Oman would be getting a flash flood early warning system able to predict floods three to six hours before they occurred. “The model is expected to be ready in the next 12 months in cooperation with the meteorology department,” he was quoted as saying. According to al Barwani, the work has already been assigned to a consultant in the USA.
Oman already has a National Multi Hazard Early Warning System, which was launched in March this year with the technical support of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO and is among the most modern of such systems in the world. As well as flash floods, it is also able to monitor for signs of other natural disasters including tsunamis and cyclones.
However, all the early warnings in the world aren’t going to prevent loss of life if people continue to flout warnings from authorities, so it seems that to move forward will require not only the latest hazard detection technology, but also an effort from the government when it comes to drainage planning for projects and common sense from the public, who need to realise just how frail human life is in the face of nature’s fury.