In the nature of things, sometimes reaction follow only when disaster strikes, ie when it is too late. As disasters leave their mortal impact, and after so many innocent people lost their lives, there will be finger-pointing and clamor for blood. Such was the case with the recent flash floods in Istanbul. Since 1967, Istanbul suffered 13 floods which inevitably caused havoc and destruction in and around the city. Apparently there were no flood mitigation measures put into place prior to the flash floods in September 2009. The last floods in 2002, despite the experience, had not prompted any rethinking of policies vis-à-vis urban planning. It's described as a "weather-related accident waiting to happen". What happened went beyond the term accident; it turned out to be a horrendous disaster. (I)
At the worst stage of the torrential rains, access into sections of Istanbul including the highway which links to Istanbul Ataturk International Airport was cut-off. When the two Istanbul streams burst their banks, homes and workplaces in the adjoining areas were severely flooded, with extensive damage to property and infrastructure. In the raging floods, roads turned into fast flowing rivers drowning many trapped enroute to work. The surging waters flipped trucks and buses over like matchsticks, crushing them into piles of debris. The disaster struck low-lying areas on the western side of Turkey's largest city where drainage is often poor. The surging flash floods, moved at high speed, barreling across a major highway and into Istanbul's busy business districts and in the process trapping factory workers and truck drivers in their vehicles. Hundreds of homes and offices were flooded, in some places the waters two meters high. Emergency authorities confirmed that some 1,700 homes and offices were flooded in Istanbul's suburbs of Silivri.
The damages incurred were again fresh reminders to exercise care when designing urban development plans. Poor urban planning will obviously result in inadequate infrastructure and when compounded by rapid population growth, the urban risks increase in magnitude. The Istanbul Chamber of Commerce assessed that the damages caused by the flash floods ranged from $ 80 million to $ 90 million.
The Istanbul Meteorology Department said that the rainfall was the heaviest recorded in the last 80 years. It was apparent that Istanbul's creaking infrastructure was unable to cope with the surge of water. Skewed and unplanned development plus inadequate infrastructure have resulted in water flows being obstructed from reaching the sea through natural channels. The authorities acknowledged that the disaster "is a result of great negligence" attributed to spates of illegal construction in riverbeds in Istanbul. Exercising great care in designing infrastructure and urban areas become more critical especially in the case of Istanbul, which is situated on the steep banks of the Bosphorus Straits.
Istanbul's rapid population growth had been fueled by decades of rural-urban migration from impoverished regions. Hence, the city, a metropolis of 15 million has developed without adequate infrastructure to accommodate even a moderate rainfall. Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the floods "the disaster of the century". While blaming the high death toll on record rainfall he also pointed the finger on developers who constructed buildings in vulnerable riverbeds and flood plains. Erdogan quoted a local saying "the river's revenge will be strong". Several urban planning experts said government officials also are partly to blame for the high death toll. Istanbul's Chamber of Architects alleged that the city's administration created these conditions by allowing high density construction in the affected areas. The Chamber sought a court injunction but did not succeed in preventing construction of industrial and commercial zones in western districts of Istanbul around the Ayamama River, where much of the flood occurred. Unable to be absorbed by the ground, the water rises since the riverbeds have been turned into concrete channels together with the buildings around it. And already there are fresh warnings of bigger disasters.
The prime factors of flash floods have repeatedly been attributed to unplanned urbanization and the resulting erosion. Inadequate drainage systems and improper land use add on to the risks involved. Uncontrolled construction in a lax atmosphere of urban planning without careful consideration for risk reduction is a recipe for disaster. The weight and force of any pressure applied to the extreme limits will eventually break the walls of resistance. Any Town Planning student knows that with extreme pressure, dams would break; sewers burst their embankments, while the roads and streets turn into overflowing deadly waterways.
Hence, rapid urbanization should be sustained on town planning tracks, the development to infrastructural facilities designed corresponding to needs and the population growth. Urban development has its own risks. Left uncontrolled, unplanned and un-managed it will be disastrous eventuality.
Surprisingly, Turkey is no stranger to flash floods. Reports prepared by the Ministry of Public Works' General Directorate of Disaster Affairs and State Waterworks Authority (DSI) revealed that floods are the second most destructive type of disaster in the country. According to the report, 287 floods have occurred in Turkey in the past 20 years. Major flood disasters are again not new for Turkey.
The International Emergency Disasters Database (EM-DAT) indicated that between 1903 and 2003, Turkey experienced 32 major floods. The economic loss over the past 20 years is estimated to be $ 2 billion. The impact of these floods on development, economic growth could be a tremendous drag. With the flood scenarios being oft repeated events, it noteworthy to know that the Turkish authorities spends $ 30 million each year for infrastructural measures to prevent flooding. The flash flood prevention programme which DSI implemented since 1970 apparently achieved in reducing the number of annual flash floods significantly. (Ii) That may be the case for the countrywide flood prevention programme, but the disastrous scenes in Istanbul clearly indicate that any deficiencies in mitigating measures will soon lash back with fury.
(I) Todays Zaman.Klaus Jurgens. The limitations of urban development: Have we reached the limitations of urban planning?
(Ii) China View. 2009-09-12. Floods in Istanbul bring calls for better urban planning. Wang Xiuqiong. XinHua.