More at fault than fault lines: Deadly earthquakes in Turkey and Syria call infrastructure into question

Published by Sophia Bills, Date: March 2, 2023
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On Feb. 6 and 20, earthquakes struck southern Turkey near the Syrian border. The initial 7.8-magnitude earthquake was followed by 7.5-magnitude aftershocks with effects felt for hundreds of miles. The Feb. 20 earthquake measured 6.4 in magnitude. The deadly pair claimed approximately 49,000 Turkish and Syrian lives as of Feb. 24 counts.

Surveys report that 173,000 buildings collapsed or are damaged. With cities turned into rubble, millions of survivors are left homeless and in need of aid, including fuel, food and medical supplies. Experts warn of further aftershocks and many fear returning to buildings that remain standing, instead sheltering outside and in vehicles. 

The Feb. 6 earthquake is one of the deadliest global earthquakes in decades and Turkey’s deadliest since 1939. The region is prone to earthquakes due to multiple fault lines converging in a small area. The first earthquakes’ epicenter near the Turkish city of Gaziantep lies just beyond the intersection point of the Anatolian, Arabian, and African tectonic plates.

While geography played a role in the destruction, many assert that corruption in the construction contracting industry and Turkish government increased the loss of life and property. SRU professor of anthropology and co-director of the Middle East Studies Center (MESRU) Aksel Casson is among those criticizing the government. Casson, whose mother is Turkish, spent about a third of his life in the country.

“You know, it’s quite clear that there are layers of [systemic] issues that have made this a humanitarian crisis that simple natural phenomena would not have created,” Casson said.

Casson sees governing bodies as enabling contractors’ faulty construction schemes. Not only do new building plans receive approval when they lack proper earthquake-stable reinforcement, but Turkey has a program that grants existing buildings pardons known as construction amnesties. Buildings that are illegally built or altered can receive a pass to continue putting inhabitants at risk without consequence.

SRU Turkish exchange student Selin Derman, who studies at Istanbul Bilgi University, spoke of the government’s construction amnesties.

“They just forgive people,” Derman said. “They didn’t say, ‘No, you have to build stronger buildings, you have to build it to the regulations, the rules that we had’–they don’t say that. They just turn their backs.”

There is now debate about the Turkish city that stood: Erzin. Located less than 50 miles from the first earthquake’s epicenter, Erzin saw no buildings collapse and no casualties, according to its mayor. The mayor states that the city withstood the tremors because of his crackdown on shoddy construction in recent years. Some experts agree that the city has better construction codes than others that fell. Others discredit the role of bureaucrats and see the city’s soil and location above sea level as lucky factors that kept Erzin in one piece.

Casson’s mother and millions of others residing in Istanbul, a city in the northwest corner of the country, remain untouched by the pair of earthquakes in the south. However, this dense urban area lost 20,000 people in a 1999 earthquake and anticipates a massive earthquake in the coming years–“Within my lifetime, certainly,” Casson said. The city passed a law requiring all buildings, no matter when they were constructed, to be reinforced for modern earthquake standards or demolished and rebuilt.

Turkish cities have seen the success of Fukushima, Japan, for example, where the threat of earthquakes is high but fewer perish in earthquakes similar in magnitude. A 7.3-magnitude earthquake hit Fukushima in March 2022, killing four. ABC News reports that Japan’s economy allows the country to build structures that withstand such shocks. Knowing that high magnitudes with less destruction is possible and happens elsewhere, Turkish citizens demand more of their country.

Residents of a modern, upscale apartment tower in Malatya, Turkey put their trust in the three-year-old building’s earthquake-safe promise. However, the young building fell with the 7.8-magnitude earthquake, and it is not the only one of its kind. Modern buildings assured to meet the latest strict structural standards tumbled in the affected cities while older ones not built under these codes stood.

Engineering experts cite poor structural design, specifically a weak story not built strong or stiff enough, with the Malatya building’s collapse. The developer said that the building’s construction adhered to up-to-date rules and used quality concrete reinforced with steel but admitted that an engineering error was possible.

The aforementioned 1999 earthquake brought new construction regulations to Turkish government, but critics argue that these rules are not enforced, inspections are insufficient and new highrises are quickly slapped together.

“The contractors, you know, they cut corners, and they…will be prosecuted,” Casson said. “They’re probably going to overwhelming take the blame that probably needs to be shared amongst politicians just as much.”

News of such disasters arises many emotions, especially for those with family and friends affected.

“In addition to the sadness and depression and heartbreak, there’s anger too,” Casson said, discussing his frustration surrounding devastation he believes could have been prevented.

“I remember reading it in the morning, reading the news,” Casson said of first hearing about the Feb. 6 earthquake. “And then I kind of honestly made this decision to not follow the story. Because…you feel helpless. My mother is out there.”

Casson checked in on loved ones and found them safe. Derman also shared her experience of first hearing the news.

“It was night. I was studying for an exam that I had the next day. It was going to be my first work day,” Derman said. She did not think much of the earthquake at first, thinking, “We get earthquakes a lot.” The more Derman learned, the more invested and concerned she became, getting in touch with family and friends. They were okay, but she knows of a very distant connection who perished. “And then I tried to help at that point,” Derman said.

Derman recommends the Turkish nonprofits Ahbap and AKUT for those interested in donating to aid volunteers in work she would have done if she was currently in her home country. Casson urges the community to channel their generosity toward the above organizations and the Turkish Education Fund.

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