The death toll from a tremendous 7.8 magnitude earthquake that shook Turkey and Syria five days ago is astonishing.
Drone film and satellite pictures have revealed the grim truth of massive destruction in a region straddling two very different countries.
The calamity is massive in scope. “We’ve done some mapping of the affected area,” said Caroline Holt, director of catastrophes, climate, and emergencies at the International Red Cross (IFRC). “It’s roughly the size of France.”
According to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, “we haven’t yet seen the full scope of the destruction and of the humanitarian crisis unfolding before our eyes,” while the World Health Organization believes that up to 23 million people may be affected by the natural disaster.
After the search activities are completed, the focus will shift to long-term reconstruction. Turkey has previously experienced earthquakes and rebuilt. But how much can be gained from history, and will these lessons be put into practise? Will the same efforts be made on the other side of the border?
In Turkey, history is repeating itself.
On Friday, the death toll surpassed the dreadful figure of 22,000 people. As it has risen, so have feelings of rage and contempt. Turkey is no stranger to earthquakes, and many believe that the government failed to prepare for a new disaster.
On Wednesday and Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a whistle-stop tour of the Kahramanmaras region, near the epicentre of the tragic earthquake. Erdogan praised his government’s response, recognising “shortcomings” but emphasising that “such a calamity cannot be prepared for.” He also stated that the government’s goal was to reconstruct “in one year,” despite the fact that experts informed HEADLINESFOREVER that it might take considerably longer.
Major earthquakes like these are rare, but many Turks are still haunted by the 1999 Izmit earthquake in the Marmara region.
Ajay Chhibber, an economist who was the World Bank’s director for Turkey at the time of the 7.6 magnitude quake, told HEADLINESFOREVER that “it’s like a bad movie [that’s] come back again.” That tremor, like this week’s, occurred in the early hours, but in the country’s northwest – a densely populated area closer to Istanbul. He claimed it lasted 45 seconds, killing over 17,000 people and displacing an estimated 500,000.
Chhibber, who flew into the region in the early aftermath, told HEADLINESFOREVER that he “hadn’t seen that much devastation before.” He remembered travelling in with the Japanese and German embassies at the time, who informed him, “This looks like World War II to us.”
Buildings that had “flattened like pancakes” were among the horrific scenes Chhibber witnessed in 1999. He recalls witnessing “submarines tossed up out of the ocean, laying 300, 400 feet up a mountain” in Golcuk, where a naval base was located.
“There were submarines sitting there. It was incredible. “And what I’m seeing today is simply a redo,” he explained.
Some may question whether the Turkish president’s current repair objective of a year is possible, given that he also stated that over 6,000 buildings had collapsed. However, according to Chhibber, “Turkey is capable of moving very, very quickly – if they can get their act together on this.”
In the aftermath of the 1999 disaster, Chhibber assisted in the implementation of a four-part recovery plan that provided cash to residents, aided in the reconstruction of infrastructure and housing, established an insurance system, and developed an organisational system that cascaded from a national level down to the community for overall coordination efforts.
“In comparison to other disasters across the world, it was one of the most quick restoration and recovery processes I’ve ever witnessed,” Chhibber remarked. He went on to say that the majority of the work was finished in two years.
In an email, Ismail Baris, professor of social work at Istanbul’s Uskudar University and former mayor of Golcuk at the time of the earthquake, told HEADLINESFOREVER that “aside from the collapsed private and public buildings, the city’s water transport pipes, water supply network, sewage system [and] storm water system were completely destroyed,” as were 80% of the city’s roads. He also stated that the entire city renovation took four years.
However, much of the rehabilitation was helped by the Turkish army, which was called in when many local governments failed. According to Chhibber, this allowed the rubble to be cleared swiftly.
“But Izmit is in Turkey’s heartland,” Chhibber pointed out. Many Kurds reside in earthquake-affected areas, and bringing in the army may exacerbate complications.
“This is a massive challenge,” said Ilan Kelman, a disasters and health professor at University College London. The army has the troops and resources, but “they also have the terrible history of frequently misusing their power,” Kelman told HEADLINESFOREVER.
“Understandably, the Kurds and many Turks in that region would be quite hesitant to have the troops on the streets much more than they have been,” he said.
According to experts, there should also be an investigation into what went wrong. The country has tight laws in place since 1999, with construction regulations requiring more modern structures to be able to survive severe quakes. Despite the fact that several of the apartment buildings within the earthquake zone looked to be newly constructed, they all fell.
According to Sinan Ulgen, a Turkish former diplomat who now chairs the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy, there was knowledge of the preparations that still needed to be made, but “sadly, this has stayed primarily on paper for the previous two decades.”
“There was a special fund with taxes earned for city rehabilitation to resist these types of natural disasters. Some of that money was squandered because it did not go to the correct places. “And then there’s the absence of enforcement, which is really the main liability,” Ulgen told Channel 4 in the United Kingdom. “The regulations have undoubtedly been improved … but it’s really a matter of enforcing those regulations. And Turkey needs to step up its game in this area.”
Chhibber, too, stated that Turkey had not learnt enough from past mistakes and questioned why building codes were not enforced. He claimed that the Turkish government often granted so-called “construction amnesties,” which were effectively legal exemptions that, for a charge, allowed projects to proceed without the requisite safety measures. Amnesty was most recently granted in 2018.
Building amnesties, he said, were a “big concern.”
“They just go ahead and build the structure. They do not adhere to the rules. They know that some politicians will grant them amnesty at some point since they fund their political parties. That is a major issue.”
According to Turkish state media Anadolu, Turkey’s justice minister stated Friday that investigations into builders in earthquake zones have begun. “As a result, as I previously stated, whomever has faults, negligence, or deficiency will be brought to justice and held accountable before the law,” Bekir Bozda added.