We noticed you're blocking ads.

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker.

Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us

Font Size

- Aa +

Wed 3 Nov 2010 12:00 AM

Font Size

- Aa +

Life line

In a remarkable ten-year project, Riyadh’s Wadi Hanifah has gone from toxic sewage dump to Municipal Park. Middle East Architect reports.

Life line
Life line
At ‘node points’ along the 70km Wadi, public areas have been established.
Life line
Buro Happold’s bio-remediation unit has also filtered the water flowing through the city.
Life line
After a ten year project, Wadi Hanifah has become a municipal park.
Life line
Formerly a no-go area, property along the Wadi is now at a premium.

In a remarkable ten-year project, Riyadh’s Wadi Hanifah has gone from toxic sewage dump to Municipal Park. Middle East Architect reports.

For as long as Riyadh has been a settlement in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, Wadi Hanifah has been its lifeline.

But for decades the waterway that runs 100 kilometres through the Saudi capital has been a no go area for the people of Riyadh. Used variously as a rubbish dump, a rat run and a utilities corridor, millions of litres of sewage turned Wadi Hanifah from a gentle stream to a toxic river of sludge.

Today, the Wadi is barely recognisable as the filthy waterway it once was, thanks to a ten-year project instigated by the Riyadh Development Authority (ADA) and carried out by engineering firm Buro Happold. Wadi Hanifah has once again become a popular meeting place for families, while the outflow in the south of the city has become a habitat for birds, fish and snakes.

Meanwhile, the land on the banks of Wadi Hanifah – once fit for only rubbish and makeshift concrete roads – has become some of the most sought after real estate in downtown Riyadh. The problem for the local government is no longer how to use the Wadi, it is stopping developers from building on the valuable land that surrounds it.

“People would never come to Wadi Hanifah before this project was conceived because they saw it as a place with negative feelings for the people of Riyadh. It was seen as a dump. It was not a place that people go to enjoy,” explained Alan Travers, Buro Happold principal and director of rivers and coastal projects.

“That’s been entirely turned around now and the demand for people to come to this place is just enormous,” he added.

Prior to 2001, Riyadh had exploited Wadi Hanifah in almost every way possible. In some areas it had been used as a quarry and in others as a municipal dump, conveniently intersecting the city. In other areas utilities companies had erected power lines and sewage pipes, and construction companies dumped bricks, metal and other waste. Wadi Hanifah was used and abused, and then abandoned.

“It’s similar to many rivers in Europe and the UK where they were traditionally been used as a place where you throw your waste. In the same way as many of the great European cities turned their backs on the river, Riyadh turned its back on Wadi Hanifah,” Travers explained.

The ADA had commissioned a number of studies into what to do with the Wadi prior to 2001, but the difficulty was the sheer size of the problem. Over 70 km of Wadi Hanifah is inside Riyadh, and an area of around 4,500km2 use the Wadi as a waste water outlet. Buro Happold removed a staggering 1.25 million m3 of dumped material from Wadi Hanifah during the project.

“In both planning and practical terms the problem the ADA was facing was how on earth to reverse that level of degradation,” Travers said. “I think the problem almost seemed too big to solve.”

Following substantial research and planning lasting over two years, construction work on the project began in 2003. The first step was to clean up the waterway, remove the rubbish, relocate the utilities and makeshift roads and plan the space that would be created as a result. The Wadi had become a dump because of its convenient intersection of the urban sprawl of Riyadh, now it would become equally convenient as a park in a city that was in dire need of public space.

“One of the things about Riyadh is that it is a city is desperately lacking in green space, more so than any other place that I have been to,” Travers said. “When you see the number of people who come the Wadi now on the weekend, the place is log jammed with cars because people are desperate to come to this place and enjoy it. It’s become an incredible success.”

Buro Happold worked with Japanese architects Moriyama & Teshima to landscape the entire area, including restoring some of the traditional elements of the Wadi. One of the finest examples of this, as well as evidence of the Wadi’s importance to Riyadh over the ages, is an old stone dam that had once been used by Riyadh residents to channel the water to their crops.

“The dam is many hundreds of years old and it shows that well before the state of Saudi Arabia was created the people living here understood how to capture water,” Travers said. “The dam  was designed to trap the water from the seasonal floods and force the water into the ground around it. They relied upon wells for water and that dam was built as a recharge dam.”

Now open, to allow the flow of water downstream, the structure of the dam has been restored and now forms one of many ‘nodes’ scattered along the Wadi’s path to allow families to enjoy being by the water. “The Wadi has been developed as a linear park but in various key locations we have created a series of nodes which naturally lend themselves to development as public park areas so they have become a focus for people to come and enjoy the a picnic and spend leisure time,” Travers said. “The old stone dam for me is one of the best examples of this.”

But before getting down to the nitty-gritty of restoring historic elements, Buro Happold had to deal with a bigger problem, the predilection for Riyadh residents to drive their cars along the oft-concreted over Wadi in a city with more than its fair share of traffic problems.

“When we arrived in 2001 in many parts of the urban area the Wadi was seen as a place where you could dip in, drive up for 10 or 20 km and come back into the city and bypass the traffic,” he said. “In the process a lot of very uncoordinated highway construction had taken place and in places, it was almost wall to wall tarmac and the natural Wadi bed was almost obliterated.”

To prevent the more stubborn Riyadhis from taking to the Wadi when the traffic gets too much, Buro Happold completely revised the road network to make it more difficult for drivers to go off road. To go north to south in Riyadh, it is not worth your while to take the Wadi. The firm has obviously had to balance this with the need to provide access to what is now known as ‘Riyadh’s Central Park”.

“Only a very small space has been given over to creating a limited road network that gives access to those who live alongside and allows the traffic to cross the Wadi to get from east to west. We’ve reduced the amount of tarmac and asphalt massively and recreated a more naturalised landscape,” Travers said.

But the most significant part of the project had nothing to do with town planning or landscaping, it involved ensuring that the water would be safe for human contact. To achieve this, Buro Happold has instigated a major water purification scheme.

“The problem was that the water was not safe to come into contact with. One of the fundamental objectives of the master plan was to deal with the water quality. Stop all the dumping, stop all the bad treatment, yes, but to bring the water quality up to a quality which would be safe for people to come into contact with,” he said.

“We’re not talking about swimming, but about something that is safe from the point of view of not contracting illness and so on from being splashed or being in close proximity to it.”

To manage this, Buro Happold established a water treatment plan which takes dry weather flow that is pumped out of the river upstream and, through a biological treatment process produce clean water at the other end. What is innovative about the programme is that the cleaning is done without chemicals, instead the process uses some of the oldest residents of Riyadh’s waterway – fish.

“Within the bio-remediation system these is an incredible population of fish,” explained Travers. “It was always designed to be stocked with fish, which would be the top end of the food chain and eventually consume the various different nutrients, which would then be converted into fish mass. We have since recorded about eight or nine species of fish within the bio-remediation system.”

The jury is still out on whether the fish are suitable to eat, but while Travers is yet to indulge, he doesn’t doubt that both fish and water produced by the Wadi will be an important factor in the future development of Riyadh, a city whose population is  expected to rise from 4m to 10m by 2021.

‘The challenges that population increase would bring to any city, but particularly to Riyadh, are enormous,” Travers said. “If water was consumed at the same rate per capita by 10m as opposed to 4m they’ll have to find two and a half times the amount of water.”

The demand for water has been satisfied partly by groundwater by wells but as the population expands Riyadh will increasingly rely on desalinated water from Jubail, a coastal town 350 km away. Travers hopes that as the Wadi grows cleaner, its use as non-potable water could help to satisfy Riyadh’s thirst for resources more and more.

The project has been such a success that it has been raising eyebrows in Jeddah, where the authorities have already contacted Buro Happold about a similar project with Wadi al Aswa, a traditional waterway 20 km from the city that has become a sewage lake. The firm is looking at how to remove the sludge and redevelop the valley. For now, however, Travers is happy to reflect on a remarkable Saudi success story.

“One of the messages taking this project out to a wider audience is that without a strong vision from the client it can’t really happen. You have got to have the will and the determination to make a difference. To go through that process and come out the other end with something that is worthwhile and valuable to the community and the people of the city,” he said.

“In a country in which there has in the past been a lack of coordination between different government departments, the ADA has found a way of harnessing all of the different interest groups and getting them to pull in the same direction here.  That has been absolutely invaluable, to be able to share the vision and get the buy in from all the different parties and getting them to make their own contribution to making this remarkable project happen.

“I have worked in water resource management pretty much the whole of my career, most recently on the preparation for the London Olympics, but this has been the most fascinating and rewarding project I have ever been involved in,” he said.

Arabian Business: why we're going behind a paywall

For all the latest construction news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
Real news, real analysis and real insight have real value – especially at a time like this. Unlimited access ArabianBusiness.com can be unlocked for as little as $4.75 per month. Click here for more details.