Istanbul to draw lesson from flooding in Athens

Istanbul to draw lesson from flooding in Athens

The inhabitants of Mandra, in the western part of Attica, Greece, are in shock. With 19 of them drowned and three still missing, feared dead, with over 2,000 households and businesses destroyed, and with its infrastructure in ruins, this low-income, overpopulated area on the periphery of Athens is trying to come to grips with a natural disaster that hit it last week: A sudden, violent rain storm, that lasted no more than three hours but buried everything in the mud. Experts say this is a phenomenon that hits an area only once every 150 or 200 years.

The people are angry and the government is apologetic. The local authorities are trying to solve problems. But it is already too late and it has already cost too much.

It was no surprise that such an event with such a high loss of life, which turned part of a capital city into a disaster zone, grew rapidly into a bitter political confrontation. The local authorities, close to the leftist government of Syriza, are now in the firing line for not implementing an anti-flood plan drawn up and approved some time ago. But even if the opposition is now raising hell against the leftist government, it also must accept the reality of many decades of bad management, corruption, favoritism and neglect when they were in power.

If there is one good thing that has come out of this short but fatal natural catastrophe on the outskirts of Greece’s capital, it is that a discussion has started about how to approach “freak environmental conditions,” which seem to be our reality in the coming future. There is also a follow-up debate on the extent to which we should view extreme natural phenomena as “fatal” or “unexpected” or “God’s sent disasters.”

Scientists specializing in climate and environmental issues raise objections even to the terms that we use when faced with such disasters. In an excellent article, published in the daily Kathimerini, Stavros Mavrogenis claims that climate change, although a reality with predictable effects, has in fact become a scapegoat for politicians who have failed to perform their own part of the job (i.e. proper city-planning, strict regulations on construction, creation of green regions in populated areas, and rational use of water, to name just a few). Of course, rigid measures also have to be taken for preventing fires, many of which are attributed to arson for illegal construction. “Climate change requires long-term strategic planning that extends beyond the next elections,” wrote Mavrogenis. Greek geologists point out that during 2005-2014, almost 500 fires broke out in the area of Mandra, over 70 percent of which were on forest and agricultural land.

In Turkey back in July the people of Istanbul were hit by a horrific rainstorm that dumped four months of rain on them in just 12 hours. Meteorologists claimed that it was the most severe rainfall in Istanbul in the past 32 years. The storm flooded buildings, offices and newly constructed roads. Most worryingly, it also flooded new underpasses, tunnels and subway lines. Even one of the latest construction marvels, the Eurasia Tunnel, connecting Istanbul’s Asian and European sides under the Bosporus, was temporarily closed due to excess water.

There is an essential difference between Athens and Istanbul. Due to the nearly a decade of economic stagnation, there is very little new construction in the Greek capital. But Istanbul, as one Turkish economy professor commented during a TV debate, “continues to look like a construction site. We are trying to build the infrastructure that was neglected by previous governments.”

But has this construction drive been conducted based on considerations bearing in mind the reality of climate change and its extreme phenomena? What about the ever-expanding city-planning and the impact of the legalization of shanty-towns on Istanbul’s periphery? What about the use of water resources? A city cannot expand indefinitely without provisional thinking about its survival in the event of an emergency.

Forward planning is the key. In Holland, a densely populated country, with two-thirds of its area under sea level, water control is a central policy issue and during local government elections people also vote for the person who will be in charge of the management of water and sea dams.

In a recent speech Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan struck a somewhat regretful note about the over-construction that has transformed Istanbul into a cement city of “vertical buildings” with very little green space. “This was my responsibility,” he said, advising all local authority leaders to go for “horizontal” cities that are more aesthetically pleasing. Does that mean a change in city planning policies?

Until we have the answer to this question, let us prepare for the follow-up of the Mandra storm, which is due to reach Istanbul with an expected 30-60 kg of rain falling per square meter. Let’s see how this will impact Istanbul’s infrastructure and await how the future moves can protect the city from the extremes of climate.