Poor Planning Behind Istanbul Deluge

flood istanbul submerged highway photo

Floods caused heavy damage in the Istanbul region. Photo via Today's Zaman.

The devastating, tragic floods in Istanbul and northwestern Turkey earlier this month -- which killed at least 41 people and did $70 million to $80 million in damage -- offered yet another reminder of the danger such incidents pose to the country. Floods are the second most destructive type of natural disaster in Turkey, after earthquakes, causing an estimated 2,000 deaths and displacing an additional 100,000 people over the last century. This time around, even as city residents were just starting to pick up the pieces and assess the damage, the floods also caused fingers to point in every direction as to who, or what, was to blame.

In early September, flash floods triggered by heavy rainfall partially submerged some suburban districts of the large metropolis, damaging houses and infrastructure, stranding people in their vehicles as the city's highways turned into rivers, and cutting off access to the airport.

Strongest Rain In 80 Years
"In an hour, Istanbul received 205 kilograms of rainwater per square meter. This is the strongest rain Istanbul has experienced in 80 years," Mayor Kadir Topbaş noted in the early days of the disaster, saying global warming was to blame. Critics, however, accused Topbaş of trying to divert attention away from the role played by his administration and those of his predecessors, including now Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

According to the Istanbul branch of the Environmental Engineers Chamber, the issuing of permits for buildings close to riverbanks without creating sufficient infrastructure was a major factor in the flood damage. The environmental engineers also blamed the city's poor system for dealing with sewage and rainwater, which are collected together, not separately, as needs to be done to keep pipes from overflowing; a lack of emergency plans and adequate warnings; and the municipality's failure to complete promised stream-reclamation works.

Poor Planning And Infrastructure
The environmental group WWF-Turkey took something of a middle ground on the issue, blaming both global warming and poorly planned and unregulated urbanization, saying in a statement that: "Due to irregular and unplanned building and insufficient infrastructural investment, rain is unable to reach the sea through its natural flowing canals and turns into flooding. Because of insufficient greenery in cities, the rain isn't absorbed by dirt."

One of the most contentious areas has been the dense and hard-hit settlements around the Ayamama River, which the local Chamber of Architects lobbied back in 1997 -- when Erdoğan was mayor of Istanbul -- to protect as an ecological corridor and recreation area. "We prepared reports then, but they did not listen. [We said] urbanization in the region would both destroy the environment and put an extra burden on the already insufficient infrastructure," said Büyükkent branch chairman Eyüp Muhçu. "We filed a lawsuit against the decision, and we won, but the municipality allowed settlement in the region despite the court ruling."

58 Rivers At Risk
Minister of Environment and Forestry Veysel Eroğlu is also among those who said he warned early on about flood dangers. As general manager of the Istanbul Waterworks Authority (İSKİ) 12 years ago, Eroğlu wrote in a report that 58 of the city's 174 streams and rivers had the potential to cause flooding. The report called these rivers highly dangerous and said buildings within 25 meters of their banks should be immediately evacuated and those erected within 100 meters of the riverbanks demolished as quickly as possible.

Eroğlu now says 2010 will be declared a year of mobilization against floods and has called for the rehabilitation of waterways and reforestation efforts and other measures to prevent further erosion. The World Bank has said it will cooperate with the Istanbul Municipality on a $336 million project to remediate illegal waste dumps and rehabilitate rivers in an attempt to prevent future disasters. Said Eroğlu: "What is to be done is pretty clear. Watercourses will be evacuated. Rivers will return to their natural forms."

Environmental Master Plan Needed
Others say even broader measures are needed across the country. Ümit Erdem, an environmental researcher at Ege University, has called for an environmental master plan to be prepared for all of Turkey's provinces. "Right now, we don't know what's where. Decisions are being made regarding transportation, industry, shopping malls, skyscrapers. We need to make all such decisions within the framework of a larger plan that both protects natural resources and guarantees human safety... Decisions made back to back without this knowledge eventually came to a head [in Istanbul]," he said. "When something wrong is done to nature, it will certainly strike back."

More On Floods
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Images of Inundation: Day 4 at the World Water Forum
Big Floods in Northern England Won't Be Freak Events by 2080
Après le Déluge, What Kind of Housing?
Focus on Focus Earth: Flooding in Venice
Using the "Flash" from Lightning To Predict Deadly Floods
Lessons From The Midwest Floods
California's Flood Risks: A 'Disaster Waiting to Happen'?
Five Asian Nations To Study How To Cope With Floods
Eco-Drainage To Fight Floods In India
The Tide is Turning: Natural Flood Defense Makes a Comeback

Poor Planning Behind Istanbul Deluge
The devastating, tragic floods in Istanbul and northwestern Turkey earlier this month -- which killed at least 41 people and did $70 million to $80 million in damage -- offered yet another reminder of the danger such incidents pose to the country.

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