The white mountain [Archives:2004/765/Reportage]

August 19 2004
Houses nearby effected with discernable cracks
Houses nearby effected with discernable cracks
By Abdulrahman A. Al-Ja'afari
Yemen Times
Taiz Bureau

The absence of geological surveys for cities leads the future citizens to unknown dangers. The cracks on the white hill have destroyed many homes and creep towards the remaining ones. The local authority is slow to implement emergency procedures. The Housing authority bears the responsibility.
The white mountain is situated at Al-Qadhi valley in Taiz city. The nearby residents claim that the holes and cracks are not new, there were evidences of old cracks on the mountain. But, if the issue was known to some old residents, many new citizens, attracted by the location of the hill in recent years, were not familiar with the dangers of the mountain and its fatal hill. They were surprised by the cracks and the imminent death and destruction that they encountered.
Old residents have witnessed moments of terror and fear, witnessing the collapse of their homes over their heads, being buried alive when the cracks and holes first struck or widened, causing immense cracks in the exterior walls of their homes. However, the situation has worsened in recent times since the cracks creep, like a giant snake, creating more branches that have effected the interior of many homes and buildings. And for some residents, the cracks have marked their graves.
The area is littered with totally ruined, uninhabitable homes, newly built homes, whose owners were getting ready to move in, and half-constructed houses that have added to the misery of their owners whose personal savings or loans went down the drain, and whose dreams of securing their families from the suffering of paying rent and the threat of eviction, are in tatters.
Yousef Radman Al-Jubani, an effected resident took me to his homes, consisting of a two one-floor houses. In one, the construction work was complete while the other was half-way completed. He thought that he had accomplished his dream and had secured a permanent shelter for his family. But his dream vanished in seconds when the cracks reached both of his houses, instantly converting them into homes unsafe to live in – they are now merely remnants of a previously inhabited area. No one could feel the sorrow and grief that has stricken him. He told me bitterly that there was no other place to go to. “Here lays my soul and here I would stay regardless of the serious consequences” he said.
We went to find a representation of the local authority, we did not find any. This tragedy is getting worse. With the fall of rain and the penetration of more water to underground soil, there is an increased chance of mudslides and more catastrophes.
Since this problem occurred just few days ago, the local council, the public works office and the related authorities, including the Red Crescent from a humanitarian prospective, remain inactive and absent. They have contributed nothing to assist the victims, except for the formation of a commission of inquiry to study and examine the phenomenon in order to present a report about to the governorate.

Who is responsible?
In order to find a possible remedy, we went to the Public Works office in search of a geological map as this office would be in charge of that, similarly to other countries of the world. We looked for the geological map, which is the guide that construction and architectural engineers would use as reference for the suitable areas and locations to carry their designs and works. The map would indicate the areas and locations situated in the path of earthquakes and volcanoes, but we were disappointed to find out that permits were granted without any reference to any safety or suitability considerations. No precautious measures are in place to protect the lives of citizens or their funds. This is an indication of the level of negligence, apathy, chaos and ignorance, of the public works office in carrying out their duties.
If this problem has exposed the hidden nature of the public works, what do citizens expect from the public works, not only in Taiz city, but in similar areas? To solve this problem requires the suspension of issuing construction permits until the Public works, with the cooperation of the related authorities, has prepared a geological map of Yemeni cities and towns.
In order to include the view of the related authority, we headed to the office of the Public Works at Al-Mudhafur province, which the White Mountain is a part of. We met with engineer Mansour Al-Bahri, the director of the Public Works office in the province. We conducted the following interview:

Q: What are the causes of the cracks?
A: The cracks have been there since many years ago. However, many of them have been expanding and widening in recent years, which means there was a problem. After the office began to receive complaints from the residents on the white mountain hill, probably due to the rain falls, the office dispatched a team of three construction engineers to assess damage. I was the coordinator of the fielded survey. The primarily assessment was to include a number of geological specialists. In light of that, a memo was sent to Ministry of Agriculture and irrigation where such engineers would be available. We obtained two engineers. However, they wanted to include to the team a number of university geology professors and experts in the field. The Taiz University dispatched 3 of them with equipment and apparatus to facilitate achieving reliable findings. We split into three teams to scope the area. Following several visits to the site, a broad meeting was held in order to analyze the problem. It was very evident that the mountain was not solid-rock, but was of a more fragile type. The rainfalls are just exacerbating the situation, the more water absorbed by the soil, the more chances for widening the cracks and the faster the dissemination of cracked-branches.

Q: What were the procedures your office began undertaking or intended to, in order to treat the situation, if it could be treated?
A: the geologists in the commission said that it was beyond our capability to attempt fixing the situation quickly. However, the first step could be to pave and asphalt the area to prevent underground water leakage in the residential part of the area. Then walls could be built on the eastern and western sides of the mountain. Of course, some citizens on a self-initiative measure have begun building walls. We, in turn suspended issuing new construction permits indefinitely or until the completion of the study. The citizens could also dry out the underground dogged sewage by connecting their homes to the main sewage network, and creating canals to derail rain water out similarly to the irrigation canals.

Q: what did the office present to the victims in the area?
A: we have requested for tents to be temporarily placed outside the demolished homes. We advise those who have only a portion of their homes demolished and are still living inside the remains, amid constant fear of collapse of the still standing part over their heads, at least, to evacuate their homes when it rains. What we are concerned with currently is to find an expeditious solution to prevent further slides.

Q: In other countries of the world, they have the so-called geological maps of their countries, which indicate the areas that are most vulnerable to encounter volcanoes, earthquakes and mudslides, and the ones that are least likely to encounter such. This constitutes the primary perquisite element to granting or not to granting construction permits. Where does this stand here in Yemen, at your office, at the present time?
A: we have included in the submitted recommendations the need to make geological maps for Taiz area. The office in 1997, submitted a request to the engineering syndicate to seek to produce geological maps that would permit designers and engineers to determine the best and most safe locations and areas for any construction work, providing that it was the least expensive approach.

Q: Does the absence of geological maps, and the random issuance of construction permits makes your office responsible to present compensation to the victims in the area?
A: Of course, we can not determine precisely what lays underneath the upper ground surface. Permits were granted based on examining the ground surface of any construction site. Our recommendations have been emphasizing the importance to having the geological mans.

Q: But what will you present to the victims at the present time?
A: The problem is not exclusively connected with just the Public Works. The geological maps are the responsibility of Ministries of Oil and Minerals, Planning and International Development and the Public Works.

Q: I believe that you are evading my question. Will the local council and the Ministry bear the compensation to the damage-inflicted victims?
A: This is a matter that is up to the local council and the Ministry, which will determine what the final assessment might be. Our immediate role is to commence building the wall barriers that would reduce the chance of more landslides. The inflicted victims have the right to be compensated and the state's obligation and duty should be to assist them.