Turkey experienced two consecutive earthquakes and multiple aftershocks on Monday, turning thousands of buildings into rubble in southern provinces. The quakes’ epicenters were magnitude 7.7 at 4:17 a.m. in Pazarcik and magnitude 7.6 at 1:24 p.m. in Elbistan town of Kahramanmaras province. Both earthquakes struck 10 Turkish provinces and northern Syria. The crumpled infrastructure in Syria due to long years of civil wars collapsed, killing thousands of Syrians. At the time of writing, the death toll has passed 13,000, but thousands of others are trapped under the debris of more than 6,000 destroyed structures in Turkey.
Turkey is prone to devastating earthquakes, as it sits on many fault lines and tectonic plates. The country has already recorded deadly earthquakes over the past decades in which the sudden collapse of multi-story buildings led to tremendous losses. One of the significant quakes occurred in Golcuk and left more than 17,000 people dead in 1999, followed by another major quake that killed hundreds in 2011.
It seems that the buildings are engineered to withstand earthquakes but still lack rebar in all right places. The building codes enacted after the 1999 quake are ideal standards but inappropriately applied. It is even worse for the structures built before 2000, which predate these codes and are at considerable risk. The amounts of steel and the types of concrete are inadequate. The buildings over three stories tall lack a usual construction technique.
How does the government respond?
Turkey has declared a three-month state of emergency in the 10 worst-affected provinces. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is aware that the government’s slow response can be costly for himself before the May 14 elections. Therefore, he has sought to appear at the forefront of relief efforts. However, the early responses so far have been far away from satisfying the survivors. The late and uncoordinated response has killed many due to hypothermia in the cold weather.
The government wants every relief effort under its control and creates obstacles for political parties in the opposition. The media, under the absolute control of the government, avoids releasing tragedies and sharing survivors’ complaints, but social media accounts post views of victims about the lack of aid and the government’s late response.
Interestingly, the government has excused the spread of disinformation and directed the police to investigate some accounts. Additionally, Twitter has been restricted, prompting widespread public outcry, although it has been an effective tool in coordinating rescue efforts. Moreover, the government shares bank accounts and invites people to make more donations; nonetheless, some are worried about whether this aid will be provided for survivors or the government’s preparations for the coming elections.
How does corruption fuel earthquakes?
Endemic corruption in Turkey has been a systemic issue over the past decades. Corruption scandals starting in the 1970s impacted the country’s political and economic system. The early governments avoided enacting anti-corruption laws and forming an effective counter-corruption unit. The municipalities turned a blind eye to stringent building standards in return for bribes. However, endemic corruption has evolved into a kleptocratic system under President Erdogan’s leadership after he took over the government in 2002. According to the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, corruption in Turkey worsened between 2012 and 2022. In 2012, Turkey ranked 54th of 176 countries; by 2022, it ranked 101st of 180 countries.
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi – AKP) emerged in 2001 on the ashes of its political-Islamist predecessors who were closed due to their violations of the secular constitutional system. Therefore, in his early years, Erdogan leaned toward western values because it seemed to be the only way to change the constitution and create a more protective environment for his political party to survive. His approach yielded the expected results for him. However, after being elected twice, he has been an authoritarian leader since the early 2010s. The 2013 December corruption scandals implicated how he and his entourage were involved in domestic and international corruption. The suspicious July 15 coup attempt in 2016 served as a pretext, which he labeled “a gift from God,” to change the constitution and move Turkey to the darkness of a Middle Eastern-type presidential system. President Erdogan and his entourage’s greediness have stolen billions of dollars from the poor Turkish people.
Today, the kleptocratic system presents opportunities for politicians and bureaucrats. The big-scale government contracts require people to bribe Erdogan and his ministers, whereas small contracts funnel money to government officials and officers at the municipalities. Endemic corruption is even worse in the municipalities responsible for checking and licensing newly built structures. The author’s research in 2006, 2009, and 2014 that aimed to shed light on corruption issues in the municipalities found that nothing has changed in people’s perceptions over the years on who saw municipalities as one of the most corrupt institutions.
The construction sector has been the catalyst of the economy during Erdogan’s tenure. Erdogan and his followers have been proud of how the government has spent its energy to change and seemingly create a modern-looking country. However, endemic corruption has resulted in building coffins for people who are unaware of how the existing bribery system has caused construction of weak structures.
The Monday quakes were so large and shallow that they would substantially damage older buildings. However, the number of newly built yet devastated buildings is exceptionally high. There were even one-year-old pancaked buildings that were suddenly destroyed. In addition, newly built highways were damaged. The photos show how these asphalts were made in contravention of the government tenders.
Interestingly, the most damage happened at newly-built government structures that belong to the military, police, and state institutions, as well as hospitals. Furthermore, airports are destroyed, and some are in useless condition. For example, the Hatay Airport was built on a quake belt with no feasible critical infrastructure plan. Undoubtedly, corrupt politicians and bureaucrats have received bribes in millions of dollars from these contracts but brought about the death of thousands of people.
Why does the Turkish government not learn from its experiences?
Three scientists underlined the high risk of quakes in the tectonic plates in Kahramanmaras and its neighboring provinces in 2022. However, the government ignored giving its attention to these alerts. The frequency of earthquakes and the high number of losses need to push Turkey to learn and take lessons, but politicians who pursue popularity and aim for short-term goals do not care about the quality of structures.
Turkey records similar scenes and tragedies after every major quake in the past two decades. For example, the survivors complain about the lack of government response and access to aid, and politicians promise to enact effective laws and apply stricter quality control over newly built structures. It seems that Turkey will watch again similar politicians and victims’ complaints after Monday’s quakes.
Had Turkey learned from its experiences right after the 1999 quake, the country today would have recorded fewer tragedies. Scientists have already alerted Turkey of a possible earthquake in Istanbul. The government has started the so-called urban transformation project in Istanbul and is supporting the replacement of old buildings. However, the lack of quality control and ongoing economic issues have caused the construction of weakly built structures. Construction companies cannot have a decent budget estimate in volatile economic conditions, pushing them to use poor-quality materials.
Some buildings can survive against quakes over magnitude 9, as seen in Japan and Chile, if they are prepared for killer quakes. However, even the lower magnitudes are able to kill people living in poorly built structures. Turkey’s geography is prone to earthquakes between magnitude 7 and 8, and its many provinces lie on active fault lines. Therefore, Turkey urgently needs to take lessons and use stringent building standards. However, the current kleptocratic system will be an obstacle, and politicians will continue to provide temporary relief for the victims. All others will return to their daily routines, but the victims of the Monday quakes will continue suffering from the dire consequences. Its survivors are at least happy to be still alive but have lost every piece of their homes and belongings. Today’s corrupt political system will ignore its to-do list to be well-prepared for future quakes once again, and Turkey will, unfortunately, continue to record these tragedies.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected].