Devastation of Turkish earthquake — a man-made crisis?
It is unlikely that the 2023 Gaziantep earthquake will be the last in the region. Apart from the lack of rescue efforts and capacities,1 the human role in the chaos must also be addressed. This should be a compelling lesson and example of what systemic overlooking and corruption in the housing sector leads to,2 the consequences of which are literally measurable in ruins.
In terms of devastation and loss of life, modern Turkey and the countries that have occupied the region in the past have faced many earthquakes that have killed tens to hundreds of thousands of people. Notably, Turkey is located on a plateau in eastern Anatolia which is geologically active.
In the last few hundred years alone, the region has experienced a number of devastating earthquakes in different parts of the country. Consequently, the threat of earthquakes, their likelihood and the resulting risks cannot come as a surprise to the Turkish public sector and the relevant authorities.
Earthquake does not shout when it comes
Although the year 2023 has only lasted a few months, it will be forever marked by the memory of the extremely powerful and deadly series of earthquakes (the strongest at 7.8 magnitude) that struck southern and central Turkey and parts of northern Syria at 04:17 on the early morning of February 6, with the epicentre 34 km from the town of Gaziantep.3 It was followed by a similar magnitude 7.7 aftershock on the same day.4
The February 6 earthquake is the second strongest recorded earthquake in the country since the 1668 North Anatolia earthquake. The series of earthquakes in February has caused widespread devastation in the region and has taken the lives of more than 55,000 people to date. At least some of this chaos could have been prevented.
Construction amnesty and discount in civil defence
Protecting citizens, not only national defence, is one of the most important challenges for a modern country, but also one of the most complex. The management of society must take account of both natural and man-made phenomena and events, but it must not underestimate the limitations, nature and, unfortunately, the folly of the human mind.
A pertinent example comes from Turkey, where in 1984 the public sector ‘invented’ the ‘construction amnesty’, which deliberately took a fundamental discount on the protection of the population.5 The building amnesty is just one example of an ill-considered policy where, in return for a fee paid to the government, people were given permits for all illegally built or altered buildings – with, of course, non-existent building inspections.
It is also important to point out that the last such amnesty took place in 2018, before the general election.5 This time, the construction amnesty was hailed as the biggest in the history of the Turkish Republic, covering almost 7.4 million buildings and bringing in 4.2 billion dollars to the state budget.
According to the Turkish Ministry of the Environment and Urbanization, by 2018, almost 13 million,6 or one in every (sic!) two buildings in Turkey, were in one way or another in breach of building and safety laws in one “everything is legally correct” scheme or another.7
At the time of the earthquake, a large number of buildings had also been added to the housing stock as part of the same construction amnesty. It’s no exaggeration to say that this kind of official amnesty as a gift to residents is like Russian roulette, where bets are made on the safety of human lives.
Another problem is that the Turkish construction amnesty makes no distinction between a one-storey shack gecekondul* and a 30-storey high-rise building.5 This is also relevant for the average Estonian who is planning an exotic trip to Turkey.
Who knows in which building, which serves as a hotel, accommodation might be offered – the likelihood of ending up in a building related to the notorious construction amnesty is considerable.
Who is responsible and if so how?
It is hard to say whether one of the catalysts for the scale of the disaster of February 6 was an irresistible desire to fill the treasury or a foolish decision made in good faith that failed to take into account the geological specificities of the region.
At the same time, the responsibility for the construction disaster rests entirely with the public sector, and in particular with those officials who enforced the twisting of the law and fuelled the accumulation of danger by turning a blind eye to the issuing of dangerous building permits, construction supervision and quality control.5
How inappropriate it is to claim that this is a horrendously systemic (criminal)act perpetrated against the whole of society can only be judged by the Turkish public sector itself. This is a crucial nuance in a situation where the death toll is still unclear and, as the rescue and reconstruction work progresses, is increasing over time.
According to the best available information, the earthquake injured more than 129 000 people and the economic damage to Turkey alone is estimated at more than $100 billion,7 in the case of Syria, it has been estimated at close to $5 billion.8
While the rubble is cleared, bodies are moved and efforts are made to return to everyday life to overcome the incurable wounds, the question that remains after the dust has cleared is: who will take responsibility when general and presidential elections take place in Turkey on 14 May,9 and if so, how?
One might think that dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake and the causes that amplified it, as well as the criticisms that emanate from it, is something that the current powers-that-be wish to avoid like wildfire. It is not impossible that the chain of events could, in a confluence of circumstances, culminate in another crisis, when the anger in society is finally unleashed, spreading through the electoral ballot box.
Preventing the devastating consequences of an earthquake is just as much about proactive pre-crisis management as it is about building up emergency capabilities and crisis stocks. An integral part of this is also the recognition of the dangers on a site-specific basis.
In the case of Turkey, pre-crisis management was essentially left undone through ill-considered construction policies and the issuance of unsafe building permits. It is important to underline the fact that these are political decisions.
What unites all these apparently different cases are the decisions taken by people, which in turn are influenced by different factors. Moreover, quite different types of state institutions have been designed to mitigate them.
However, the case of Turkey clearly shows that no public authority can mitigate the cost of political mistakes, which risk amplifying crises to unforeseen consequences.
*gecekondu in Turkish literally means “house built at night” without proper permits and planning in the slums of Turkish cities.
4 [Anon.], 2023. Global Centroid Moment Tensor. CMT, 06.02.2023. (accessed 04.04.2023).