"The Algerian Earthquakes of May 2003: Some precedents for
reconstruction" by James Lewis
Floods and Mudslides in Algiers: Why No Warning? Why Poor Drainage?
Dr. Ben Wisner, Visiting Research Fellow, Development Studies Institute, London School of
Economics. 14 November 200. firstname.lastname@example.org
Floods and Mudslides in Algiers: Why No
Warning? Why Poor Drainage? Why?
Allah Akhbar! God is Great; yes, but He did not do this .
In the early hours of Saturday, 10 November 2001, a huge wave of mud engulfed low-income
neighborhoods of Algiers, capital of Algeria. At least 579 people died as houses in which
people were still sleeping were swept away, cars and buses were trapped in the mud.
Rainfall of 99 mm in 24 hours had fallen in the northern slopes of the Atlas Mountains.
Algiers is situated between these mountains and the Mediterranean, and its drainage system
could not cope.
The storm that produced this large amount of rain had been forecast by meteorological
authorities days in advance. The flood hazard is well known. Why were there not
evacuations or at least warnings?
Another disturbing question being asked in Algeria and by experts in France casts light on
the tight coupling between political and natural hazards, and the deadly surprises that
can result. Several years ago, the government sealed off an extensive subterranean storm
drainage system in Algiers because they feared that fundamentalist terrorists could use it
as a hiding place. The question now is whether the availability of this additional
drainage capacity would have prevented the flood disaster.
In a country with many experienced engineers and great wealth from export of oil, why has
there been so little investment in such basic infrastructure as storm drainage? Why so
little investment in the housing sector - a market (and policy) failure that has produced
a housing shortage nation wide of seven million units? In this instance the overcrowding
that is the result could have contributed to the high death toll.
Visiting the working class districts most affected, the Algerian Prime Minister and
Interior Minister were greeted with crowds shouting "Murderers!", "God is
Great!", and "Long Live Osama bin Laden!"  The populace seems to believe
that the government has shown little interest in the safety of the common people and had
neglected public works. They are not alone in these opinions. An official of Algiers'
office of civil protection said to Le Monde: "One could have avoided this catastrophe
if some simple measures had been taken in good time" and went on to criticize the
neglect of public works. Others called this disaster "genocide by negligence"
Several general lessons can be drawn from this disaster, even at this early date.
- Cities in the 21st Century are becoming more and more
dangerous in part as a function of their complexity. Hazards include natural extreme
events, technological hazards, and political (or social) hazards such as terrorism.
Complexity in this case means that in focusing attention on one hazard, authorities may
inadvertently increase vulnerability to another one.
- Environmental management in cities is not sufficient to meet
the challenges of increased population growth. Land use and resource use must be planned
and regulated in a comprehensive way. As in many cities in the world, the affected
districts in Algiers (Qued-Koriche, Bab-El-Qued, El-Kittan) had been allowed to develop
chaotically in response to market forces. Algiers is a city of 4 million inhabitants
spreading into a steep topography. There has been much deforestation of slopes as the city
has grown and little control of construction through building permits .
- When governments are seen by the population, especially the
poor and marginalized, as incapable or unwilling to provide minimum social protection,
great alienation results. The cries of "Long Live Osama bin Laden" give
additional salience to the warning by UNDP's administrator, Mark Malloch Brown, that
foreign aid diverted from least developed countries by the need to rebuild Afghanistan
could end up producing more terrorists. He uses as an example how the void left by
withdrawal of the state from primary education in large parts of Africa and Asia has been
filled by Islamic schools .
- It is possible to prevent this and many other types of
disaster associated with extreme natural events. There is not a lack of knowledge. Weather
forecasting is available and early warning systems are not expensive. Drainage systems are
not rocket science. Algeria has many accomplished engineers and considerable oil wealth.
Why aren't they being applied to this problem? In a similar way, enforcement of
existing building codes would have prevented much of the death in the earthquake in
Gujarat, India, and the landslide that killed 700 people in the outskirts of San Salvador,
El Salvador, in the aftermath of it January 2001 temblor .
Political will is required and an "organic" or
minimally trusting relationship between government and the inhabitants of urban districts
and neighborhoods exposed to risk. In the end, one cannot "fix" disaster risk
with technology alone. It is also a matter of enacting and enforcing laws, building and
maintaining institutions that are accountable, and producing an environment of mutual
respect and trust between government and the population .
1. State television in Algeria has called the disaster
"a test from God, and that which God gives, no one can reproach Him for"
("La colere gronde a Alger alors que le bilan des inundations approache les 600
morts." Le Monde, 14 November 2001, p. 10).
2. Le Monde, 13 November 2001, p. 6.
3. Le Monde, 13 November 2001, p. 6 and Le Monde, 14 November, p. 10.
4. "Les consequences d'une gestion anarchique de la ville." Le Monde, 14
November 2001, p. 10.
5. Geoffrey Lean, "Western Aid 'Could Spread Extremism'." The Independent on
Sunday, 11 November 2001, p. 14, citing Malloch Brown.
6. Algeria has a foreign exchange surplus of US$18 billion due, in large part, to export
of petroleum. A recent report by the International Federation of the Rights of Man (FIDH)
describes Algeria as a rich country with an impoverished population. Concentration of oil
wealth in the hands of a small elite is one reason. Implementation by Algeria of a World
Bank structural adjustment program (SAP) in 1994-5 is cited as another. Since 1994 the
cost of living has risen and also has unemployment. There is also a growing housing
shortage in Algeria that causes overcrowding and increases vulnerability to disaster. The
average number of people per house in Algeria is 7.2, compared to 5.7 in Morocco and 4.9
in Egypt. Since 1994 education and heath sectors have been weakened by decreased public
finance. Meanwhile the oil flows, while seven million Algerians (23%) live on less than
one US dollar a day (40% on less than US$2 per day). The poorest 20% of the Algerian
population consumes 7% of income; while the richest 20% accounts for 49%. As a result,
Algeria is mired well toward the bottom of the UNDP's rankings of nations' Human
Development Index, at 100th position. See: Florence Beauge, "Un pays riche mais dont
la population s'appauvrit, selon un rapport de la FIDH." Le Monde, 13 November 2001,
p. 7 and Le Monde's editorial, "Pauvres Algeriens," p. 18.
7. See my analyses of the El Salvador earthquake http://www.afsc.org/emap/help/wisner/razwire.htm
and "Risk and the Neoliberal State: Why Post-Mitch Lessons Didn't Reduce El
Salvador's Earthquake Losses." Disasters 25,3 (2001), pp. 251-268, and my analysis of
the Gujarat earthquake http://www.un.org/Pubs/chronicle/2000/issue4/0400p6.htm and well as
other commentaries on both El Salvador and Gujarat at the RADIX web site, http://www.radixonline.org.
8. By contrast, I have recently argued that so few people died when hurricane Michelle hit
Cuba very hard because of the existence of precisely that sort of organic link between
government and the people ( "Storms and Socialism." The Guardian 14 November
2001, p. 21).