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Government unprepared for urban disasters

The rockslide tragedy has yet again raised tempers among the populace about the government’s slow rescue response.

Just a few days after a fire engulfed the upper house of parliament in the heart of Cairo, the city witnessed another calamity on 6 September when a rockslide buried 50 houses in a shanty town on the east side of the capital. The crises have highlighted the government’s poor urban planning and lack of adherence to safety measures, observers say.

Security officials said about eight boulders weighing about 60 tonnes each fell on al-Duweqa shanty district in eastern Cairo, which is part of al-Moqattam hills on the edge of the city. So far, more than 30 people have died and tens wounded, while dozens remain under the debris of their collapsed houses, according to local residents. The affected area was estimated to be about 60 metres wide and 15 metres long.

“My wife’s family lives in al-Duweqa,” said Talaat Kamal, a young man living in the nearby Manshiyyit Nasser, to the west of al-Moqattam hills. “Our family is okay, luckily, but people are traumatised, crying and shouting. The crisis happened early in the morning and during Ramadan [the Muslim month of fasting]; people do not leave their houses until late in the day. This increased the number of casualties.”

While police cordoned off the area, no heavy rescue machinery was seen by witnesses until late in the day. When it arrived, it was not used for fear of causing further damage. According to Kamal, local residents tried to remove the rocks collectively, but to no avail.

Photo: IRIN
Local residents flock to the area where a rockslide killed at least 30 people and injured many others

The Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) and a group of local NGOs were on hand at the site with volunteers. “Thirteen of our youth were distributing water all day long [on 6 September]. Today [7 September], we’re going again with other volunteers to distribute food,” said Ezzat Naim, head of the APE.

As the health centres in al-Duweqa and Manshiyyit Nasser did not have the necessary emergency facilities to cope with a large number of injured people, patients were transferred to al-Hussein and al-Zahraa hospitals, 10-minute drives away. “Many of the ambulances are not ready to receive people wounded. And doctors and nurses are not available in the ambulances to help those affected,” said Sabah Mohammed, one of the volunteers taking part in relief work in the area.

The low-lying areas surrounding al-Moqattam hills house thousands of very poor migrants from the countryside who have created an urban sprawl, particularly in the areas of Manshiyyit Nasser and al-Duweqa. The former has traditionally been home to the city’s garbage collectors, while the latter houses menial workers.

Fears over government housing project

In al-Duweqa, a government-sponsored housing project is being built with the aim of relocating slum dwellers there but local residents complain that they have been kept in the dark over the plans and have attributed construction delays to municipal corruption.

“A slum side by side with a government-sponsored housing project shows you how urban planning is poor and marred with corruption. We came to Cairo hoping to find a living. We didn’t figure that even here there’s death waiting for us,” said Rizk, a local resident, reminiscing over a 1993 rockslide in the area that also killed 30 people.

Photo: IRIN
With no heavy machinery available, rescuers use their bare hands to try and dig out those still buried in the rubble

Rizk spoke of residents’ mounting fears that the unstable slopes of the rocky mountains would lead to more rockslides. “The government has geological maps identifying areas at risk, but there no information is disseminated to communities living here,” he said.

A report published in 2000 by Mahmoud Youssif, from the department of geology at Ain Shams University, warned about the slopes of the mountain’s middle plateau and the fact that they may cause rock failures destroying nearby neighbourhoods.

“The proposed precautionary measures and slope trimming must be taken into consideration in order to decrease the potentiality of such failures. Similar danger can be avoided in other similar areas and in new cities by preventing random sprawl housing, avoiding random use of the land, and careful urban planning,” Youssif said in the report. 

Mohamed al-Helw, a lawyer with the Egyptian Centre for Housing Rights, said construction on the mountains was dangerous and should be halted immediately. “We have raised a [court] case against the governor of Cairo and the municipality of the area, petitioning the [cessation of] construction works on the mountains, which are threatening peoples’ lives,” he said, adding that some 30 families from the area had backed the case raised earlier in July.

Failures in long-term planning aside, the recent rockslide tragedy has yet again raised tempers among the populace about the government’s slow rescue response. Two weeks earlier, an inadequate and slow response to the fire in the upper house of parliament allowed the fire to spread to neighbouring buildings.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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