Architects and civil engineers blame poor infrastructure for natural disasters

Floods swamped hundreds of houses and businesses and turned highways into rivers in İstanbul yesterday, where experts blamed poor infrastructure for the disaster.

September 10, 2009, Thursday/ 17:02:00
Civil engineers and architects have pointed out that İstanbul's poor infrastructure was the cause of the disastrous floods, which have claimed the lives of at least 32 people in the past two days.

Professor Hızır Önsoy from Karadeniz Technical University said unregulated urbanization and poor infrastructure was to be blamed for the floods.

“In İstanbul, today's infrastructure is no different from that of 10 years ago. The infrastructure in some districts was built for the needs of around 10,000 people 10 years ago. But those places now have 100,000 residents. Everywhere is filled with concrete. Rainwater has almost no place to flow. This is why it creates floods,” he explained.

İstanbul is situated on the steep banks of the Bosporus strait, which divides Europe from Asia and is one of the world's busiest waterways -- a major conduit for cargo ships and oil tankers passing between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Hüseyin Tarık Şengül, an official from the Turkish Union of Engineers and Architects' Chambers (TMMOB), said the flash floods came as no surprise as northwestern Turkey was most vulnerable to such disasters.

“We have always said that İstanbul, Thrace, Bartın, Batman and Antakya are at risk of flooding. Thus, the saddening incidents in İstanbul and Thrace came as no surprise to us,” he said. Şengül also complained that Turkish authorities have failed to take the necessary measures against natural disasters.

“If some countries take the necessary measures and prevent such disasters while our country remains inactive, then we should question it. Areas flooded in the recent disaster have experienced similar incidents in the past, too. But we did not think about what measures we should take,” the official remarked.

Watery path of destruction

Why have these floods -- one two days ago in the Tekirdağ area of Saray, the next in İstanbul -- occurred? How could such an event occur even in the flat Thracian landscape, so bereft of hills and mountains? The point underlined most by scientists on this matter is the back-to-back series of "human errors" that lie behind these disasters. At the head of this list of mistakes come the illegal structures that dot the landscape and leave runoff water no place to go.

Floods swamped hundreds of houses and businesses and turned highways into rivers in İstanbul yesterday, where experts blamed poor infrastructure for the disaster.

When water turns into a flood, it picks up huge amounts of energy as it moves, becoming almost impossible to block. From homes to fields, from bridges to dams, as it bursts out of riverbeds that may have been formed over thousands of years, water either washes over or destroys anything in its path. This can sometimes cause a great loss of human life.

What is now clear to us is that extreme intervention in our natural landscape combined with unregulated and unguided city growth are the most significant factors behind flood disasters. For example, despite the fact that ours is not a tropical climate -- as say Bangladesh's is -- we often witness great material and human loss as a result of completely normal levels of rainfall in our cities. We see this even in a region such as Thrace, which has a flat landscape and ought to theoretically be a difficult place for a flood to occur. Due, however, to extreme and unregulated building in this region, the path for more disastrous floods has been cleared. Here are some of the most frequent human errors committed when it comes to our natural surroundings:

  • When the banks of the natural riverbed are changed in a way that alters the flow of water or are opened up to human settlement in a way that affects the surrounding area.
  • When the banks of a river are narrowed to allow for building, despite the fact that these riverbanks have been formed by nature over thousands of years in a way that makes them ideally suited to deal with varying levels of water.
  • The destruction or elimination of trees and bushes near riverbeds; these are natural barriers to floods and overflowing rivers.
  • The filling in of former flood banks and riverbeds with earth.
  • When marshy areas are reclaimed and used for agriculture or even for residential areas.
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