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Türkiye: Rubble of corruption fuels earthquake devastation 

Luavut Zahid speaks to Burcak Basbug, Academic Director of ICPEM, about the post-earthquake situation in Türkiye, where 14 million are affected, with 9.1 million in the direct line of fire. Thousands have been injured, and countless displaced…

On February 6, 2023, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake ripped through Türkiye and Syria. The destruction is some of the worst that has ever been recorded in both countries.

Hatay, Turkey, 9 February 2023

Hatay, Türkiye, February 9, 2023. Members of the UK's International Search & Rescue Team continue working in co-ordination with other search and rescue teams looking for survivors | Image: UK ISAR Team

The death toll is climbing every day, with over 44,000 declared dead so far. According to estimates, at least 164,000 buildings have been compromised, according to Murat Kurm, Türkiye’s Minister for the Environment and Urbanisation.

"It’s a horrifying situation," Burcak Basbug says. Basbug is the Academic Director of the Institute of Civil Protection and Emergency Management (ICPEM). She is also the Special Advisor for Disaster, Emergency, and Crisis Management to the former Turkish Prime Minister, Professor Ahmet Davutoglu, and the Head of the Disaster Risk Management Working Group at the Ankara City Council in Türkiye. Her insight into the situation is that of an insider who’s watched it all go wrong.

Türkiye is prone to earthquakes due to its location near the Three tectonic plates – the Arabian, Anatolian and African plates. "This was not unexpected. The earthquake was coming sooner or later because this area is prone to earthquakes," she told me. Just days after the first quake, 6.4 and 5.8 magnitude tremors rocked Hatay once more.

Nearly 500 years ago, a crack in the East Anatolian fault line led to a big, destructive earthquake. This is the second-biggest active fault line, which is a hazard to Turkey geographically," Basbug explains. "And the scientists knew there was a seismic gap and expected it to occur sooner or later in Kahramanmaras, the epicentre of both earthquakes. The unique case is that there were two separate earthquakes nine hours apart," she adds.

The first quake erupted at 4:17 am and was measured at 7.7 magnitudes. The second hit came nine hours later, registering at 7.6. Turkey is supposed to have a very strong building code in place when it comes to regulation, one of the strongest in the Mediterranean region, so what went wrong?

"The rules are well-written," Basbug confirms, adding that they aren't followed. "We watched one building totally collapse, killing hundreds of people, while the next stood perfectly. They have even shown people's living rooms where the plates are still standing as though no earthquake ever hit that building. If you follow the building code, that is what happens. Even a plate on a stand doesn't fall, let alone a person losing their life. This is obvious because we see buildings where they didn't implement the regulations, and you can now see sand within the construction."

We always say that it is the earthquake that is the problem. But the earthquake is a natural hazard; what's killing people is the poor construction. Thousands upon thousands of people were buried under rubble all of a sudden without ever even understanding what was going on because they were caught sleeping. It is a horrible, horrible scenario," Basbug says.
Who's to blame?

"It's not just the builders who are responsible because if you want to get a building licence, there's a process, there's a regulating body, there's a municipality signature, there's an engineer, an architect, a city planner, so a chain of signatures is supposed to give you the licence," Basbug says, emphasising that this is a systemic issue. It's become its own structure in a way because there's no one person to point a finger at.

Rules are rules, and not following them can ensure this level of devastation, explains Basbug: "Some people claim that it is the old buildings that fell apart, but the reality is that there we have also lost new buildings built just two, three or five years ago, and they collapsed totally. There is evidence that they didn't follow the building regulations and code. The buildings that were left standing perfectly implemented the codes because their owners had a conscience and constructed them responsibly; rules are rules. Rules are not there just to be written. They are there to be implemented."

Basbug goes a step further and says that this is an apolitical disaster. Instead of trying to blame those in power, we have to look at the system that is the culprit: "It's not a political party or government issue. This has been going on for years. We saw the same thing during the 1999 earthquake, which we thought would be a watershed moment in Turkish disaster risk management history. We need to learn from these events and not ignore what has happened."

There is a lot of evidence that the co-ordination was lacking, as she explains: "We had a co-ordination issue, so disaster management activities, such as reaching out to find those in the rubble, were delayed. Reaching out to the provinces was delayed. People panicked, and the disaster and emergency managers themselves became earthquake survivors. So they couldn't even help themselves, let alone the other people. The public has a lot of complaints that the response didn't come through as quickly as it was needed. There was a lack of co-ordination, organisation, and good governance."

And this lack of co-ordination and governance issues also go back to a flawed system. "Our management and governance system are very top-down and centralised. And in 2009, the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority's (AFAD) aim was to make it look a lot more decentralised from the bottom up. With bureaucracy, you waste time and lose time. And it is obvious evidence of that with this earthquake."

Before the earthquake, the economic problems in Türkiye were already making it hard for people to find a place to live. The country has been struggling with an inflation rate that has gone up by 85 per cent, and things will only get worse from here on out.

"It's because of the economic situation, instability, and inflation rate, which was too high and is too high. For instance, in the property market, buying a house or renting a house is crazy. People who earn an average salary cannot afford the current housing rates. Prices have been doubled, tripled, and quadrupled. That was before the earthquake. So, it's still a problem."

When it comes to earthquakes, the worst may still be yet to come. What can authorities and those in crisis management roles do to ensure that an event of this kind never repeats? Basbug says it’s about resilience, recovery, and reconstruction: "We need to build properly and retrofit what already exists. We know that 95 per cent of buildings in Türkiye are vulnerable to earthquakes because of their location near prominent fault lines. What needs to be done is give this priority immediately, from today onwards, and retrofit or reconstruct all the vulnerable buildings everywhere. Otherwise, we will continue losing thousands of people.

"If there is a potential earthquake, which will be in Gemlik, in the Bursa region, because there's another seismic gap there, it is expected, as is a big earthquake in Istanbul. When it happens – and it will happen sooner or later, it will be catastrophic, and the damage level will be higher. I'm already expecting further earthquakes to happen, even right now, though not in that location because now the energy has been released. But technically, other parts of the country can still be affected because of the Turkish earthquake hazard map, where over 95 per cent of the country is in the red zone. That means it's extremely dangerous and vulnerable to an earthquake hazard. And such hazards turn into disasters if no precaution is implemented. If no mitigation strategies have been implemented and no preparedness action is there, then it becomes a disaster."

The problem is that people forget very quickly in Türkiye, according to Basbug. "We should not let this be forgotten because it is a human life that doesn't have a price equivalent to it. We need to look to the future. For instance, retrofitting is one way of making existing buildings stronger, as is also reconstructing after demolition and rebuilding again wherever there are problems. They have been running this campaign in Istanbul for state schools for like 15 or 16 years. But it is huge considering the population and the area you need to cover; it needs to start today. It took California, US, 40 years to retrofit and reconstruct every structure that was deemed to be earthquake-prone. We know that the hazards in the San Andreas fault system are very similar. So, we need to prioritise and retrofit our structures immediately. This should be done according to the law and the current existing building code." 

People must also be better prepared. "We need practice drills; practice is not just like drop, cover, and hold. That approach could work in Japan, where you trust your building and can go under the desk or table wherever to keep a life triangle near you if something falls on your head. But in a country like Türkiye, if you don't trust your building and if it's not properly designed, it will collapse on top of you. So if you go under the table, what will happen?" she questions.

Basbug also recommends being prepared on an individual level. "There are people who lost their dentures, some who were diabetic and lost medicine, others who lost their glasses, and these are urgent issues that can turn into lifesaving things. People need to think about emergency preparedness. If a disaster strikes, it affects at least 20 sectors: education, the legal system, transportation, communication, food, security, logistics – everything," she advises.

"Rubble removal is also another issue. I read that the total pile of rubble will be equivalent to Mount Argus. It's huge! What are you going to do with that rubble and all the leftovers? This brings us to disaster risk governance, because you need to govern in a manner that produces results. On the International Disaster Risk Reduction Day, which was a campaign of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) the year before the pandemic, this was pointed out: all sectors must function effectively and concurrently, with co-ordination," she adds.

Basbug believes that Türkiye is still better than many other countries in some aspects of disaster management. For starters, psychological support is good there: "We are far better than many countries in the world in psychosocial support and trauma work. So, with the experience of the 1999 earthquake and the Soma mine disaster in 2014, experience has taught us. I can confidently state that we are good with search and rescue. If you compare 1999 and 2011, we did really well in the 2011 earthquake, but this one, because of the scale and winter conditions (where roads were blocked), was difficult to tackle. It's because people couldn't reach the destination even if they had the equipment. There is definitely a need to go aerial and see whatever alternative routes can be built up immediately. How many months do you think it will take for just the clean-up and the recovery from the Earth in the next few months?"

She continues to have hope for the better and knows that she can rely on the community of disaster and emergency managers to do what’s needed: "There's a huge disaster and emergency manager community in Türkiye that really believes in this stuff. It's unbelievable, the solidarity of the community in Türkiye. They don't care who you are, where you're from, your height, weight, or anything else, including your sect, religion, or anything else you can think of. Everyone is so interconnected, and we hope that connection will last forever because there is unification. We know how to come together and work together for the better, and that is the most important aspect of rebuilding."

As things stand, the number of those suffering continues to rise. In the coming months, Türkiye has a lot to do to rebuild, and a genuine makeover in both priorities and system is needed for it to get back on track.

"It will take time until everything heals. But some wounds will never be healed. With this level of tragedy, some things you just can't walk back at this point," Basbug concludes.

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