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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Why Turkey was ill-prepared for the Kahramanmaras earthquake

Despite billions in emergency funds, calls for improved earthquake readiness were ignored

Economic CrisisEuropeAsia

An aerial view of collapsed buildings in Kahramanmaras, Turkey. Photo courtesy Anadolu Agency.

On February 5 and 6, 2023, the East Anatolian fault in Turkey released two major earthquakes, the largest one registering 7.8 on the Richter scale. This earthquake is now among the strongest recorded in Turkey’s modern history. The massive tectonic move was felt from the Black Sea coast, across Northern Syria, and all the way down to Lebanon. It is one of the biggest disasters Turkey has experienced in the last century.

Turkey has experienced large earthquakes before. The 1999 Duzce-Golcuk earthquakes caused around 18,000 deaths, tens of thousands injured and hundreds of thousands more being left homeless. The deadliest in Turkey’s history, it was supposed to have been the wakeup call for the country to take action. Those deaths had been compounded by corrupt dealings of construction companies and building contractors. Thousands of buildings had been made without any attention to earthquake resilience, and many had collapsed amidst the seismic activity. Emergency plans and shelter areas had not been prepared.

This led to a national reckoning of sorts. New earthquake resilience guidelines were drawn up, new enforcement mechanisms were created, and new emergency preparedness plans were written (complete with marked shelter zones). For two generations every child grew up with earthquake drills. Earthquake insurance was made mandatory and new markets were created to provide them to everyone. New earthquake taxes were instituted to create an emergency response fund. These taxes have raised over $17 billion. It was assumed the Duzce-Golcuk disaster would not be repeated.

But when the two large quakes violently shook southern Turkey late in the night and again in the early afternoon this week, none of this helped. As you are reading this, hundreds of people will likely still be tweeting, texting, and yelling from under the rubble, to be saved. New buildings came down just as the old ones did. The government’s much touted major road network essentially collapsed, with massive tears across the asphalt connecting major cities in the southern region. Some of the public hospitals that are the lifeblood of Turkey’s health care system have also been rendered unusable as they were torn down by the quake. As supposedly safe and up-to-code buildings tumble like houses of cards, claiming hundreds of lives, people are repeating that what is unfolding is “afet değil cinayet”—not disaster but murder. That is, murder by the corrupt builders and their corrupt assessors, and the many more who have raked in profits from the crony construction industry that has been the engine of Turkey’s oligarchic economy. Because it is not earthquakes that kill but shoddily made buildings.

Another major government project had been putting airports in every province. Despite the many studies cautioning against it, the new Hatay airport was placed right on the faultline, on top of a dried lake. The runway has split in two, making it inoperable. Runway fractures in other airports in the region have also rendered them unusable. The combination of road closures and airport damage mean search and rescue teams are unable to reach many of the leveled towns where people are trapped under piles of rubble. Over the next few days, the collapse of transit infrastructure will mean that the materials being collected in the large cities of the West (Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara) for the relief effort will take days to reach the neediest survivors. In addition to food, water, and shelter, there is an urgent need for warm clothing as the earthquakes hit during the coldest months of the year.

Repeated studies and expert geologists and seismologists have been calling for tighter enforcement of building codes and a massive overhaul of unsafe structures around the country, including specific plans to improve safety around the impacted East Anatolian Fault. These calls have been ignored. As has been repeated in Turkey for decades, the threat of earthquakes is not an if but a when. The eastern faultline was eventually going to burst. Whether it would cause mass loss of life and destruction was up to Turkey’s government institutions. It is clear that they were not up to the task. AFAD, the country’s central disaster authority, was certainly not prepared to respond when the first large quake hit Kahramanmaras at 4 am, and it lost its footing further when a second quake pummeled Gaziantep. Not only was the disaster authority ill-prepared logistically, it is also unclear how much financial resiliency the institution has. This despite the fact there are multiple revenue sources that are supposed to directly feed into a fund for earthquake preparedness and relief. For reasons still unclear, the military was only partially mobilized after 48 hours for search and rescue operations.

On top of the litany of problems caused by the crony-dominated construction sector, the response by the government has been geared towards maximizing political benefit and punishing voters who have spurned the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). In an initial call with the metropolitan mayors within affected provinces, the presidency did not include those that elected opposition mayors in 2019. Only after public outcry did the government contact the mayors of Adana and Hatay, two major provinces impacted by the disaster. In various cities around the impact zone, locals report digging people out of rubble with their bare hands, while the central disaster authority has not made an appearance at many sites. Particularly in Hatay, a heavily impacted province along Turkey’s southernmost edge jutting towards Syria, locals report being abandoned by the government. The Mediterranean city could be reached by boat yet the navy has not been mobilized for support.

It will become clearer in the coming days to what extent the delays are related to the transit failure (a direct outcome of crony construction) and how much is attributable to intentionally deprioritizing opposition voting cities like Hatay. In speaking about the relief efforts, the spokesperson of the governing AKP said that “We are in the field as the People’s Alliance.”

According to him, it is not the government of Turkey, responsible for everyone, that is undertaking the rescue and relief operations, but the People’s Alliance, an electoral coalition made up of the AKP and its smaller governing partner, the Turkish fascist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Government figures are attempting to use a tragedy of this scale to improve their electoral prospects. The critically important election that might finally boot the AKP from power is only 96 days away, on May 14.

As thousands struggle to breathe buried under rubble and dust, and the government response remains utterly inadequate, capitalists have already mobilized to make money off of the disaster. Stocks for cement companies rose rapidly on Monday. They expect to make a killing in the post-earthquake rebuilding boom.

Thankfully, solidarity mobilization has been just as swift. Neighbours in affected areas are helping each other and people from the rest of Turkey are organizing to collect materials and funds. Parties of the opposition, large municipalities like Istanbul and Izmir controlled by opposition parties, and various NGOs are directing massive solidarity operations. Some are now on their way to the disaster sites to help search and rescue personnel. These operations are critical to saving the lives of as many people as possible. Tragically, the death toll has already surpassed 6,000 (and that number will steadily increase as bodies are unearthed) but the faster the response, the more likely it is that some can be saved.

You can support these efforts by giving to AKUT (an independent search and rescue association) and Ahbap, an independent NGO working for relief. Both are operating in every province hit by the earthquakes. Opposition parties have landed across the impacted region and have been streaming from each province where state institutions, especially the disaster authority AFAD, are missing in action. Many are already calling for prosecutions of corrupt builders. Without a change in government in May, accountability for anyone—the builders or their government partners—is extremely unlikely.

Nesi Altaras is a freelance journalist and holds a masters degree in political science. His writing in English, Turkish, and Ladino has been published in various outlets. He lives in Montréal. Follow him on Twitter @nesialtaras.

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