Why were we caught unprepared by the Kahramanmaraş earthquake?

Human Disaster

Why were we caught unprepared by the Kahramanmaraş earthquake?

Earthquake damage in İskenderun, a city along the Mediterranean Sea in Turkey’s Hatay province (Çağlar Oskay/Unsplash)

In the aftermath of the disastrous Kahramanmaraş earthquake, Turkey is suffering indescribable pain. A relative or acquaintance of almost everyone in our country was left under the wreckage. This is a huge catastrophe, but it is us, human beings, who turned it into a disaster. Yes, the southeast of Turkey was rocked by two consecutive violent tremors of magnitudes 7.6 and 7.7, and aftershocks have continued in the region to this day. The reason these earthquakes, both centered in Kahramanmaraş, turned into a disaster is our failure to learn our lessons from previous earthquakes and prepare accordingly. We lost 17,509 residents in the 1999 Marmara earthquake, according to official figures. After the great devastation it caused, politicians declared that they considered this disaster a year zero, adding that they would never allow such pain to be repeated. The Marmara earthquake had a deep social and political impact. In fact, along with the economic crisis that followed, voters punished the political parties that formed the coalition government of the time, almost completely eliminating them from the political scene. From the earthquake until the year 2002—and after that date, under the AKP government—many regulatory changes were introduced. But it has emerged that those changes were not solutions in themselves— they remained on paper. If we had learned to live with earthquakes and provided the necessary circumstances, the Kahramanmaraş earthquake would not have turned into a disaster. There are many examples of this across the world: Japan, China, Chile, and the U.S. all learned their lessons from the great earthquakes they faced in their history, and today they prevent similar earthquakes from turning into disasters thanks to healthy cities and earthquake-resistant buildings.

So where did Turkey go wrong? The building code was improved after 2000. It had become obligatory to make buildings earthquake-resistant, and Law no. 6306 (Law on the Transformation of Areas under Disaster Risk) had been passed for the transformation of risky buildings and areas. However, these changes did not take place in practice. Although political change was promised after every earthquake in the past 24 years, we saw, after the Kahramanmaraş earthquake, that nothing has changed. It is, in fact, the government that has been in charge of the country for 20 years and its earthquake policies that have been left under the wreckage. We are talking about mistakes in the context of urban development and construction, but this earthquake has shown us that we are also absolutely unprepared in terms of earthquake-disaster management. The present government has also carried out many institutional and structural changes regarding disaster management throughout the long years it has been in power. As a result of these changes, all disaster management has been consolidated in a single center. Now we see that these changes have taken us backward rather than forward.

In terms of construction development and urbanization, the picture remains bleak as we continue to wait for the inevitable Istanbul earthquake. The situation is desperate, especially for buildings built before 1999. Construction amnesties have been issued for unlicensed buildings, and zoning plans have been designed without taking ground conditions into consideration. Also, construction licenses have been issued on their basis, and acts such as columncutting and removal of load-bearing walls abound. No comprehensive intervention has been carried out to solve these problems. The government used public resources and powers not to face the reality of earthquakes and increase the strength of building stock but for large-scale infrastructure projects and real estate development projects in pursuit of urban profiteering. On the basis of such political preferences, the government dazzled voters with megaprojects and made sure public resources were transferred to allies who supported them. Meanwhile, the government has avoided the reality of the earthquake, since it wouldn’t bring political advantage.

There are approximately 10 million buildings in Turkey, and 2 million of them were built since 1999. Seventy percent of the country’s surface area is in the earthquake zone, and six to seven million of the remaining eight million buildings pose a risk; thus we are facing a gargantuan stock of risky buildings for which an intervention program must be prepared. This kind of work naturally requires huge resources. In the past week, the World Bank announced that this sum stands at around $500 billion. In other words, we need half a trillion dollars to renew or strengthen our building stock. This figure could have been provided in the past 24 years through public resources, yet we consumed these resources by building huge bridges, many of which are underused, as well as tunnels, airports, roads, new cities, and imaginary channel projects.

Meanwhile, unfortunately, as we were thinking that it was only our old building stock that was the source of the problem, the Kahramanmaraş earthquake exposed another truth: Our new buildings pose a risk at least as big as the old ones. Expected to suffer less damage since they were built according to the post-1999 code with new building techniques, many of them collapsed completely. These apartment blocks were advertised as earthquake-safe housing, yet they became the coffins of our people. We faced this inevitable outcome because of zoning plan decisions that did not take ground conditions into consideration, construction licenses given without adequate ground studies, problems in the increasingly commercialized building inspection process, inadequate engineering services, materials-based problems, and administrations that turned a blind eye to all this while also failing to fulfill their inspection duty. This outcome showed us that the problem was not the result of insufficient legislation or a lack of technical capacity, but a problem of ethics, and a systemic problem. It was construction unsuitable to ground conditions, old building stock, and blatant mistakes made in new buildings that brought us this disaster.

So what should we do now? First and foremost, we must listen to the voice of science while not postponing our public duties. We must carry out micro-zoning work in all earthquake areas in order to renew or revise zoning plans in line with ground conditions. We should get rid of Disaster Law no. 6306, which imposes profiteering-focused urban transformation, and make sure that we create durable cities that prioritize disaster preparation instead of producing new urban plots for real estate development that increase population density. In the light of our experiences so far, we should abandon the concept of urban transformation that is now universally identified with profiteering and develop the concept of disaster-focused transformation. We should establish a strong legal and technical framework for the contractor system, transforming it into a field of activity where contractors, not with a lot of money but competent expertise, produce value under public inspection. We should increase inspection by public institutions and professional organizations in engineering and architecture services and the building inspection system. We should remedy deficiencies in and comprehensively renew zoning legislation. Beginning with earthquake zones and old buildings, we should scan our entire building stock, prioritize according to their earthquake responses, and prepare intervention programs. We should use public resources to realize structural interventions for citizens who are unsafe in the face of earthquakes due to economic problems. We should regulate tenants’ rights to resilient and healthy housing. Through a progressive strengthening system, we should prevent buildings from collapsing even if they do suffer damage, to make sure people survive. Rather than the current pyramidal hierarchy in disaster management, we should redesign it in a network structure where all will take part in coordination, renewing all disaster plans. Disaster training should become an obligatory part of school curricula. Most importantly, we should protect the most basic human right—the right to life—which we lost in the mass deaths and devastation that are the unnatural outcome of natural catastrophes. We should make sure collective reason and science prevail over authoritarian rule to live in safe and healthy environments, and we should build a system of administration on the basis of democracy, justice, and freedom.

This is the only way in which we can be prepared for all possible disasters, including earthquakes. Yes, we have a long list in hand, and a tough task awaits us as a country. Yet if we do not want to experience the same pain at the next earthquake, we have no other option. We were caught unprepared by the Kahramanmaraş earthquake, but the same solidarity and collaboration that followed this earthquake will now be displayed in preparation for the next. We will make sure we never suffer the same pain again. Now we have to roll up our sleeves for a new start for Turkey.

Tayfun Kahraman, PhD, was the executive board chairman of Turkey’s Chamber of Urban Planners. He is currently serving an 18-year prison sentence for his opposition to construction and development plans as expressed in the 2013 Gezi Park protests.