'New normal' of extreme weather in Gulf will require significant infrastructure investment

Report says nature-based solutions could help mitigate the effects of extreme rainfall

Roads in Dubai were flooded after record rainfall on April 16. Pawan Singh / The National
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Countries in the Gulf will be required to invest billions of dollars in flood-proofing infrastructure as the region grapples with the “new normal” of extreme weather, a report has found.

A briefing document from Oxford Analytica, an analysis and advisory company, warned the region “has not fully adapted” to the challenges posed by climate change and faces high costs, with each flooding event costing as much as $4.7 billion.

The report follows severe flooding last month, when some areas in Dubai received more than 250mm of rain in 24 hours – the highest figure in at least 75 years and about double the amount that typically falls in a year.

The study called for “increased expenditure” to help weather storms, by ensuring better drainage, upgrades to the health sector and the expansion of early warning systems.

It urged Gulf nations to overhaul existing infrastructure and look to nature to protect against adverse weather, including the building of canals to help contain flooding.

Titled, “Flash floods will increase in frequency in the Gulf”, the report notes that the Gulf is among the most heavily affected regions of the world by climate change, with temperatures having increased at a “significantly higher” rate than the global average.

Rising flood threat

“As a result, the Gulf states are already experiencing the ‘new normal’, meaning that extreme weather events such as droughts and floods are on the rise,” the report said.

The report’s warnings tie in with the conclusions of scientists, who say that climate change is putting the region at greater risk of extreme weather.

“Several previous scientific studies have come to the same conclusion, which is that extreme rainfall events, especially during spring, are becoming more frequent and more intense and this tendency is set to continue in the coming decades,” said Dr Diana Francis, an assistant professor who heads the Environmental and Geophysical Sciences (Engeos) Lab at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.

Dr Francis, who is not connected to the Oxford Analytica report, said the reasons for this trend include a combination of high temperature and high humidity, which contributes to the formation of “powerful convective clouds”, which are formed by convection, the process by which warm air rises.

“Changes in the atmospheric circulation in the upper levels of the atmosphere associated with the jet [streams] are providing the trigger for these events,” she added.

In a recent paper in Nature Scientific Reports, Dr Francis and her colleague Dr Ricardo Fonseca found that the tropics would expand towards the poles, with the UAE and Oman seeing their climate change from subtropical to tropical.

“A tropical climate is known for extreme rainfall events in spring and summer,” Dr Francis said.

As reported late last month, scientists from the World Weather Attribution group found that the storms that hit the UAE and Oman on April 15 were made up to 40 per cent more intense as a result of climate change.

The Oxford Analytica report said “recurrent floods will be particularly disruptive to public infrastructure, including transport, emergency, health and education services”.

It noted that investments of hundreds of millions of dirhams were announced in Dubai after flash floods in 2020, with these coming in addition to the $2.5 billion Deep Tunnel Storm Water System, a 10km tunnel with a diameter of 11.05 metres that drains much of the southern part of Dubai’s urban area.

“The tunnel mitigated the impact of the 2022 and 2024 floods for about 40 per cent of the population in Dubai,” the report said.

“However, such plans are unlikely to suffice. The region will likely require billions of dollars in investment to transform infrastructure by constructing not only further stormwater tunnels, but also canals.

“Rapid urbanisation has also overwhelmed traditional drainage systems. To adapt, national and municipal authorities will push urban developers to ensure there are sufficient drainage systems, especially in new land developments in close proximity to desert areas.”

Climate action plan

Dr Hassan Aftab Sheikh, a research fellow at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford, said that New York offered an example of the types of measures authorities could consider to mitigate the effects of severe rainfall.

The New York Department of Environmental Protection has produced an interactive map of the American city showing which properties are most at risk of flooding, as well as provided workshops outlining measures residents can take to reduce the risks.

The department has also offered flood barriers that residents can put up to protect their property in the event of flooding.

Dr Sheikh said cities in the Gulf region could also look at nature-based solutions to mitigate the effects of extreme rainfall.

These can include green infrastructure, a term that covers features such as rain gardens, which are shallow areas that receive run-off from hard surfaces. Also, canals could be incorporated into new developments, Dr Sheikh said.

He indicated that such elements could promote the absorption of floodwater in built-up areas where there are large amounts of concrete.

“The Middle East can follow Rotterdam’s small reservoirs to store excess rainwater. All these options are cost-effective and build resilience other than trying to come up with a better drainage system,” Dr Sheikh said.

With climate change causing weather events to become more intense, he added that there were risks that even upgraded drainage systems would be unable to cope with the level of rain.

“You can look at the people who live in these flood-prone areas,” he said. “Is there other infrastructure you can built to maybe buy some time if an event occurs, to mitigate the human risk?”

Dr Sheikh said authorities in the region could look to develop new early warning systems to alert residents in advance of the risk of flooding so that they can take measures to protect themselves.

Updated: May 20, 2024, 11:21 AM