When Mahmut Talic left his small hardware shop one summer evening, its displays of tools, insulation supplies and window frames were all neatly in their places.
One hour later, floodwaters rampaged through the shop in the town of Dereli, near Turkey’s Black Sea coast, smashing the glass storefront, filling the shop with mud and sweeping its contents into the street.
“Everything is gone,” Talic, 28, told Reuters.
“I couldn’t get back to the shop that night because the rain was so heavy. But it’s a good thing I didn’t, or I’d be dead now.”
At least 11 people were killed when heavy rain, followed by flash floods and landslides, hit the province of Giresun last month.
Environmentalists and engineers have been warning for years about poorly planned urban development in the Black Sea’s coastal cities and in the thickly forested mountains that rise up steeply behind them.
Combined with the effects of climate change, they warn, this has left the rain-prone region with its population of more than 7 million highly vulnerable to floods, Reuters reported.
Four people are still missing after the storm in Dereli, which washed out or blocked dozens of roads and damaged hundreds of buildings.
“This is the first time I’ve seen such a flood,” Turkish Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said while visiting the area after the disaster.
Just over a month earlier, six people had died in two days of storms further east in the region, in the provinces of Rize and Artvin.
“These kinds of disasters cannot occur because of one mistake,” said Mikdat Kadioglu, a meteorological engineer and disaster management expert at Istanbul Technical University.
“All the activities that destroy the area’s natural structure play a role.”
When Kadioglu was growing up in Macka, a mountain town in the Black Sea province of Trabzon, “the older people would tell the younger ones where to build their houses, the places where they would be safe from landslides or floods,” he recalled.
“But, once the government began constructing roads through the stream-beds, where it was cheaper and easier to build, people started putting their houses there too.”
Neither the ministry of agriculture and forestry nor the ministry of environment and urbanization responded to several requests for comment.
The Black Sea region began changing rapidly in the 1980s. Government subsidies were eliminated for agriculture and livestock husbandry, encouraging migration to the lowland urban centers.
In 1987, construction began on a new 540-km (336-mile) coastal highway from the city of Samsun to the border with Georgia.
Completed two decades later, the highway cut off access to the sea and facilitated additional development along the coast as well as on the stream-beds leading inland up into the mountains.
“Apartment buildings have been built in the yaylalar (upland mountain plateaus), with highways built up to them, covering the river valleys with asphalt and cement,” said Onder Algedik, a mechanical engineer and independent climate consultant.
According to a report by environmental group 350 Ankara, Turkey experienced 328 flood disasters in 2018, a sharp rise from 25 in 2000. During that same period, the amount of asphalt and concrete poured each year nationwide more than doubled.
Recent deluges in Turkey’s two largest cities, Istanbul and Ankara, have created surreal scenes over the past few years of water-logged subways, floating cars and people swimming across the street.
In the Black Sea region, environmental experts say the risks are compounded by the mountainous topography and the hundreds of dams and hydropower stations, quarries, mines and roads built there.
A project to connect the region’s ecologically fragile highlands with a 2,600-km (4,184-mile) highway has continued to move forward despite court rulings against it on environmental grounds, activists and local officials say.
Environmentalists have spoken out against the highway, saying such projects cause deforestation and soil erosion, contributing to the destructiveness of floods and landslides.
Trees help to soak up rainwater, shield the land from heavy rainfall and hold soil in place, they note.