Abdullah Khalid stood in his house in the Samara District east of Jeddah and pointed to a swamp adjacent to his neighbourhood.
"There lies the huge lake", he said.
Abdullah was referring to a lake formed over the past 25 years when tanker trucks started dumping Jeddah's sewage haphazardly in an area called Aslaa Valley.
The sewage lake, sarcastically called "Musk Lake" by city residents because of its awful odour, is about 14.5 km northeast of Jeddah and holds about 50 million cubic metres of sewage water.
Many experts have warned about the lake's environmental and social hazards and called for its elimination. Over the past five years, Jeddah Municipality announced several projects to divert sewage water from the lake, but such efforts failed or were not implemented. About 1,400 tanker truckloads of sewage are dumped into it every day.
Abdullah said the flood that struck Jeddah last November 25th drew attention to the danger the lake poses to the city. More than 90 mm rain fell in the city in just four hours, nearly twice the average for an entire year and the heaviest rainfall in the Kingdom in a decade. At least 124 people died in the flooding.
Government officials began to realise the serious disaster that could occur if heavy rains caused the lake to overflow, possibly inundating entire districts with putrid water, in addition to threatening the whole city with an environmental disaster including the spread of diseases.
"We spent horrible nights following the flood disaster when the civil defence and municipal officials started warning about the danger of the dam bursting because of rains and floods," Suleiman Abu Dawood, a resident of Ajwad district in the eastern part of Jeddah, told Al-Shorfa.
Abu Dawood, a father of four, two of whom are married and live in the neighbourhood, said, "One night we went into a blind panic when we saw the civil defence vehicles roaming through the eastern districts, urging residents to be careful and calling on others to evacuate their houses, reiterating that the lake had reached dangerous levels and that it was about to spill over. That night, I packed all of our valuables and fled with my family to my mother's house in one of the districts farthest from the lake. We lived in an indescribable horror."
His son, Saad, lives in the same district. He was more optimistic and decided to stay in his house with his wife, believing that government warnings were exaggerated. In the worst case, he would not be affected, as he lives on the third floor of a ferroconcrete building.
Saad said he watched many neighbours, especially those who live on the ground floor, flee to their relatives' homes, furnished apartments or hotels.
"The days passed, and we all were on alert, but three days later, municipal officials returned and assured the residents that the threat was over and the lake had stabilised," he said The November 25th disaster was decisive in the history of the sewage lake.
Saudi King Abdullah ordered investigations into the causes of the Jeddah flood disaster, and the results of these investigations included strict orders to dry out the sewage lake within a year at most. Responsibility for the lake was transferred from the city to the Ministry of Water, in implementation of a royal decree.
Loay al-Musallam, chief executive officer of the National Water Company, told Al-Shorfa that after the royal decree was issued, the company agreed with Jeddah Municipality to form a joint field team to transfer the responsibilities of the sewage lake, and management of the lake and its facilities.
He said the company is committed to emptying the lake within a year in accordance with the royal decree.