Coping with increasing tropical cyclones in the mist of development in Oman

Located in the arid region of the Arabian Peninsula, and near the Arabian Sea, Oman is one of the developing countries where climatic and metrological disasters are a constant way of life. Oman is also situated on the south-eastern part of the Arab tectonic plate, which is often affected by seismic activities, especially in the mountainous regions, as well as threats from tsunami along the coast.

Additionally, the dry climate, extreme temperature, limited seasonal rainfall, and a wide expanse of desert brings on drought, water stress and reduced vegetation cover. The vegetation of Oman has been influences by both Asia and Africa, with countless endemic species (species that can be found nowhere else on Earth) surviving in different habitats and climates. With the drought and damages to natural vegetation cover, it also provides a perfect condition for the tropical cyclones (TC) that emerge from the Arabian Sea, which makes landfall in Oman, making for a landscape that is constantly impacted by destructive natural elements.

From an annual estimated three (3) cyclones generated in the Arabian Sea, there is the possibility that at least one (1) will make landfall in Oman. Historically, super cyclones have been causing economic and infrastructure havoc in Oman for centuries. For example, in 1890 super cyclone hit Oman from the north, killing about 727 persons, and destroying over 100,000 Palme date trees. The destruction of the Palme trees was economically significant as it was the period of the dates trade. In 2007, tropical cyclone Guno hit the north of Oman, causing severe damages to the infrastructure of the country, estimated at US$4.4 billion. Many citizens and officials alike were shocked by Guno, a super cyclone, and the first cyclone to reach a Category 5 in the last 100 years. The most significant element of this cyclone was the rare track to the north of Oman, Muscat. The cyclone killed about 50 persons and affected over 20,000 persons in its 4-days wake. Two years later cyclone Phet hit the same area with notable damages, following by cyclone Mukono in 2018 which hit the south of Oman causing destructive floods with economic and environmental damages. Recently, research showed that the frequency of severe cyclones has increased in the Arabian sea due to climate change and lack of adequate vegetation cover to protect against these elements. Therefore, the probability of cyclones making a landfall in Oman has increased.  

Disaster-proofing and inclusion in Oman’s strategic plans for development is critical to reduce the risk from increasing and deadlier natural disasters. However, challenges of implementation are many and the impact of non-inclusion of disaster management in many development projects will cause insurmountable damages to the economy and most possibly, lives. For example, the unavailability of efficient flood drainage systems in urban areas results in huge economic damages to infrastructures. For instance, during cyclone Guno an increase in extreme flooding occurred, with many major roads and bridges collapsing as they were built in flood-prone areas with no proper drainage systems. Recovery after the cyclone cost the country billions. The same problem can be seen in housing developments with many homes built on flood-prone lands with no drainage systems. Many people suffer during the cyclones because of floods in these new settlements. Despite this, Oman’s Ministry of Housing is still handing out lands in low-lying areas for housing even after floods have affected these areas during the normal rain seasons.

Water floods the streets in Salalah after Cyclone Mekunu. Photo published by AL-Sharq newspaper, 27 May 2018.

So, what do we need in Oman for better inclusion of disaster in development? It is important to highlight that adding a few sentences in Oman’s strategic plans about climate change and disaster without good action is not enough. Thus, clear implementation of these plans is required. For example:

  1. A flood map should be developed to help with urban planning, ensuring that houses and businesses are relocated and/or not developed on flood-prone areas. This needs clear polices and regulations in the related organizations, and plan implementation. 
  2. A culture of safety needs to be built. Under the UN’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, a voluntary, non-binding agreement which recognizes that States have the primary role to reduce disaster risks, it is important that organizations improve their plans for disaster management to reduce risk through follow-up of environmental plans, auditing and accountability of any project. International standards should be used if environmental regulations are weak. 
  3. Improving public awareness and community resilience about floods, areas prone to flooding and the best ways of reducing the risk. 
  4. Oman has an excellent Early Warning Centre (EWC) with well trained staff. However, it is important that other related organization in the disaster management committee be as good as EWC.
  5. The importance of water management and drainage system for the flood is needed. For example, good management of the flood procedure from the related organization will help to reduce the inundations risk, and the floods water can be managed in a better way in a very dry country suffering from water shortage. Such waters can be used for agriculture for instance. Moreover, developing a separate drainage system for the flood from the sewage system can help save fresh water for other purposes as mentioned above. 
  6. Improving polices and regulations of waste management, for both solid and liquid waste are required. Despite the availability of adequate procedures of waste management in the related organization, there are still irregularities on implementation from individuals and companies. For example, in July 2019, citizens in AL Kabulrah, Oman were surprised by a black water flood and pungent odour emitted after a rainfall in the area. This was due to the traditional practice of discharging household septic tanks in nearby areas which is currently illegal. Some persons discharge the sewage water away from the residential area, polluting underground water – a major environmental impact in such an arid country where fresh water is limited, and demands are high. Solid wastes are also disposed of improperly in flood-prone areas which then blocks flood channels and raises the flood to the urban areas.
Waste that was illegally disposed of in the valley stream. Photo published by Abbas Al Zadjali in his Facebook page.

Published by Dr Suad Almanji

Dr Suad Almanji is a GIS specialist at the Ministry of Education in Oman.

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