Natural Disaster and Crisis Management

Izmir Quake Exposes Deadly Cost of Shoddy Construction in Turkey

Only Turkey saw a death toll of more than 100, while other countries hit by larger quakes in 2020 did not have any casualties.

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(Photo Credit: Reuters)

The talk of what Turkey would go through if a large quake hits Istanbul or another metropolitan city sits on the northern Anatolian faultline has become a favorite genre in itself for the past two decades. The last time Istanbul was shaken was 1999 when a quake centered in Golcuk town of Marmara province of Izmit unleashed the overwhelming power of nature by leveling thousands of buildings and neighborhoods in multiple cities to the ground. Avcilar, a coastal district on the European side of Istanbul near the Marmara Sea, was the place hit hardest within the confines of Turkey's largest city.

It was in 1999 when the entire country finally gave their assent for a national reckoning with the unavoidable question of the long-anticipated next big quake. Before it is too late, the coalition government conceded, there must be military-style preparation to deal with the disaster when it hits. The national consensus gave way to a series of legislation to confer the necessary power and authority on the national and local authorities. The earthquake tax has been put in place to lay the financial ground for building large shelters, essential equipment like blankets, tents, medicine, and all other stuff for the eventual moment of peril. For all the talk and ostensible action, deeds never matched the words when peril eventually gripped the nation in subsequent quakes, big or small.

Last week, Turkey’s inadequate preparation has been brutally exposed by an earthquake in the Aegean province of Izmir, the third-largest city in the country. While the nation coalesced around a sacred cause of helping the aggrieved citizens who were struck by the quake, questions for the considerable high toll nonetheless dogged the debate on TV. The public questioning of the casualties may be regarded as faint respect to the deceased and their surviving beloved ones, it is indeed an essential step to hold authorities accountable.

According to a graphic shared by a Twitter user, there were nearly a dozen large earthquakes with a magnitude of 7.0 or more around the world in 2020. Only in Izmir, a coastal province in western Turkey, there were more than 100 fatal casualties while other countries such as the U.S., Russia, and New Zealand had none at all. The question of why quakes always prove very deadly, why so many people die whenever a quake, small or large, hits somewhere in Turkey remains an abiding matter of public controversy, if not a scientific enigma. After a hiatus in the public interest, Turkey painfully came to reckon with the neglected facet of natural disasters: they would create calamitous consequences if there is not enough preparedness in advance.

Once again, that proposition proved prescient. “It is not earthquakes that kill humans; it is shoddy buildings that kill.” An oft-repeated adage conjures up the entire story about Turkey’s unnecessarily high toll in each case. But the answer to this query does not necessarily require a genius mind. A simple journalist curiosity tells it all. The lax zoning rules, the tailored documents to give official license for building on the shaky ground prone to earthquakes, the political catering to insatiable demand in the construction business for sky-high towers in risky regions, the pandering to real estate moguls for more business activity and employment, the faint heed to warnings by scientists, the evaporation of public funds previously reserved for post-disaster crisis management, the siphoning off earthquake funds and taxes are among the countless reasons that amplify the social, economic, and human cost of quakes or other natural disasters in Turkey.

No wonder, the same cycle recurred in Izmir last week. No one has any clear idea about what really would constitute the breaking point for Turkey’s leadership to fully grasp the gravity of the situation before that anticipated quake strikes next time (in Istanbul or elsewhere). If the government or local authorities cannot adequately answer questions regarding the Izmir earthquake, how can they reassure the public, how can they instill confidence about their handling of the matters in the case of a larger quake? Certainly, they cannot.

The government first needs to answer the question of where all that earthquake tax money went and for what purpose it was spent. Without full accountability, they can never inject the element of trust into an angry and aggrieved public desperately hankering for an explanation.

Written by

Virginia-based journalist and writer. Politics, culture, art, and technology. American political affairs, Turkey, the MidEast, and beyond. Twitter: @abyasun

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