1 March 2023

Three Weeks Since the Turkey-Syria earthquake, Questions Remain if the Worst of the Disaster Could Have Been Averted

The catastrophic earthquake that struck southeastern Turkey and northeastern Syria has left thousands dead and reduced large parts of the region to rubble. In the immediate aftermath, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reportedly said that it was not “possible to prepare for the scale of the disaster”. However, in the weeks that have followed, as the scale of loss and destruction has mounted, criticisms of the government have grown sharper. 

The earthquake, which struck the early hours of 6 February, was the joint-largest ever recorded, with its magnitude of 7.8 matching the earthquake that hit the Turkish province of Erzincan in 1939. This was then followed nine hours later by another 7.7 quake, and more recently by a smaller 5.6 earthquake centred in Malatya province. Authorities have said that 10,000 aftershocks have been reported. The numbers involved make for grim reading – as of 28 February, the earthquake is confirmed to have killed more than 50,000 people, while a further 1.5 million are currently homeless. Over 160,000 buildings across the region, containing around 520,000 apartments, were destroyed or badly damaged. 

With that in mind, it may be easy to conclude that the tragic outcome, with entire cities devastated and tens of thousands buried under the rubble, was unavoidable. However, as the death toll has increased so has public anger. Many are pointing to the Turkish government’s slow initial response to the disaster, along with emerging details of poorly enforced building codes.

Opposition politicians have accused both the government and the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) of being unprepared, failing to reach those under the rubble fast enough and not sufficiently providing for the millions left homeless. In a rare showing of contrition by a strongman, President Erdoğan apologised for the rescue delays during a visit to the town of Adiyaman on 27 February, blaming the persisting tremors and bad weather, while also pledging to build 500,00 new homes. 

Furthermore, critics have pointed to an unaccounted-for “earthquake tax” introduced after the 1999 İzmit earthquake, which was supposed to prepare emergency services and help increase the resilience of buildings against future quakes. Others have also pointed to rampant local government corruption which allowed property developers to circumvent construction codes. Erdoğan himself has been recorded making election promises to pardon unlicensed buildings. The government said on Saturday that 184 people, mostly construction contractors and property owners, have been arrested, while hundreds more are being investigated. 

The World Bank has said that the damage caused by the earthquake in Turkey amounts to $34bn, with the cost to rebuild predicted to amount to $64bn. Additionally, the head of the UN’s World Food Programme has described the scenes in the region as “apocalyptic” amidst the difficulties faced by aid agencies in accessing the war-torn parts of northern Syria that have been impacted by the earthquake. 

Turkey is due to hold a general election in June, during which President Erdoğan will be seeking to prolong his 20-year stint in power. However, some have speculated that the earthquake and the resulting three-month state of emergency will lead Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which enjoys a parliamentary majority, to postpone the upcoming election as it tries to ride out the growing wave of criticism.

These questions regarding the government’s handling of the disaster are certain to persist and efforts to delay the election are unlikely to abate public anger. Some even view the 1999 earthquake as an important factor in the electoral defeat of the previous government in 2002 – three years later. With his future on the line, the president’s failure to enforce building codes and prepare a country on two major fault lines for the possibility of an earthquake, is an oversight he may never recover from.  

By Jack Seal

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