Sabra Camp Braces for Winter Floods

Sabra residents and street vendors call the yearly flood caused by heavy winter rains ‘the river.’ Sabra is geographically lower than its surrounding areas, making it a perennial location of flooding. (Photo: al-Akhbar)

By: Alaa al-Ali | | Al Akhbar English | October 3, 2011

Yearly floods plague residents of the Sabra Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. Locals must fend for themselves while government attempts to stem the crisis regularly fail.

With winter approaching, there are no signs within Sabra Palestinian refugee camp of precautionary measures to counter the flooding that occurs each year.

Sabra residents and street vendors call the yearly flood caused by heavy winter rains ‘the river.’ Sabra is geographically lower than its surrounding areas, making it a perennial location of flooding. The nearby Abu Sahl neighborhood, which is on higher ground, forces rainwater to flow into Sabra’s main square, where it joins waters coming from the Ard Jalloul neighborhood in the west. Flood waters from Beirut’s Sports City complex gather at the butcher-market street, where water levels reach their height. A final tributary passes Hursh Sabra (Rihab Station) through the main street of Shatila camp.

During the floods, the everyday life of Sabra residents, shopkeepers, and vendors turns into a tragic comedy. Many surrender to their reality, helped along by simple logistical arrangements that allow life to continue. Abdel Rahman, a roaming coffee vendor, wears heavy boots in order to sail through the flood. He has yet to buy a poncho, usually worn by motorcyclists. His fellow vendor, Mohammad from Idlib, Syria, will purchase them both ponchos. When asked about the price, Mohammad enthusiastically answers, “Between 8,000 and 10,000 Lebanese lira (around US$6). I can ask vendors who are my friends to give you a good price.”

In Sabra square, shopkeepers seem unconcerned, as the rain rarely enters their shops. But the situation is different in shops further away from the square. The owner of a clothing store turns from his merchandise to tell us about flooding in his shop. He no longer knows what to do. Placing a few stone blocks at the entrance of his shop to stop the water would get him into trouble. He previously placed a plastic tent outside his store, but it was damaged and must be replaced.

Bassem, a stationary shop owner, is reassured that his shop sits slightly above street level, though he sarcastically proposes a new business venture. “I am thinking about buying a plastic boat. I’ll use it to sail home and transport people for 1,000 Lebanese lira per person. Isn’t that cheap? Maybe later I can use it to return to Jaffa, too.”

Yasser greets us in his shop at the entrance of the Daouk quarter. He warns us, “We are not expecting winter; we are expecting a disaster.” This quarter, like other shopping areas, is outside of UNRWA jurisdiction, the UN organization that provides services to Palestinian refugees. And with the Lebanese government virtually absent, there is only one drainage network for sewage and rainwater in this densely populated area.

The high number of recently constructed houses will only make the situation worse. A child in the camp leads us through a long alley to Zubaida Ibrahim’s house, which is built below the street level. In winter, the house turns into a pool of water. The sewage pipe intended to discharge rainwater from the home instead funnels it back in. Ibrahim explains that “an architect who came along with a survey team said that there is no solution. This situation has not changed for 20 years.”The camps’ butcher’s market is located on a street separating the Ghobeiry municipality from Beirut. There, mud visibly blocks rainwater drains intended to prevent flooding. Beirut Mayor Bilal Hamad paid a visit to this area in early September, where he reiterated a promise he made last year to resolve the sewage problem.

After Hamad’s previous visit, municipality vehicles performed a routine cleaning of the networks, which failed to reduce the amount of water flowing into the camp. Similarly, a 2008 sewage rehabilitation project by the Ghobeiry municipality also failed to solve the problem. Without solutions in sight, a spice shop owner near Omar al-Dana mosque proposes to build a cement dam to block the rainwater.

Shops on the main street of the nearby Shatila refugee camp have found a novel solution to the problem. They have raised their floors by using cement or tile. As for street vendors, they simply cover their carts with nylon sheets or stay at home on rainy days.

In the southern part of Sabra, known as the ‘UNRWA buildings’ area, water floods the square at a point where a reservoir was built to ease the flooding. Residents confirm that the reservoir has had little effect. According to them, the sewage network from the nearby Farhat neighborhood occasionally backs up, sending water and sewage into the camp.

UNRWA’s efforts to ease the problem through a rehabilitation of the area’s drainage system have not succeeded. Sabra’s new network was recently connected to the Ghobeiry municipality system. It has rained two or three times this year and flooding continues as before. Despite all recent efforts, the people of Sabra will once again surrender to the winter’s coming deluge.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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