Lessons from Turkiye

February 26, 2023

Many in Turkiye and Syria are asking whether their loved ones perished due to the earthquake or because of shoddy construction

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hattered by the loss of about 50,000 lives, many Turkish and Syrian citizens are asking whether their loved ones perished due to the earthquake or because of shoddy construction with the connivance of an apathetic ruling elite. As information pours in from various sources, evidence suggests that the ferocity of the tremors was worsened by poor engineering, which turned several skyscrapers into concrete mass graves. Three major shocks struck more than 6,000 structures in the two countries. The initial jolt, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, wreaked havoc in the areas bordering both nations on February 6. A second, 7.5-Richter tremor followed a few hours later, demolishing structures weakened by the first.

In 1999, the city of Izmat, located over 1,000 kilometres north of the current disaster zone, had endured a 7.4-Richter earthquake that claimed the lives of 17,000 people and damaged around 20,000 buildings. New regulations were then introduced and updated to ensure that structures in fault zones are built to be earthquake-resistant.

Turkiye is a textbook example of poor governance. Construction deviated from purported earthquake-proof designs and builders were afforded immunity from prosecution over faulty design and construction. The government has issued arrest warrants for more than 100 people involved in the contracts and construction of the collapsed structures. However, this seems to be nothing more than political management aimed at pacifying the thousands of angry and grieving families.

On the surface, construction regulations were strengthened following the devastation in Izmat. Building codes were revised in 2007 and further updated and fortified in 2018. However, not only were the regulations poorly enforced, but they were also rendered ineffective by the introduction of construction amnesties in the same year. This allowed builders and contractors to pay fees to legalise their structures, even if they were built without complying with safety standards. The scheme generated $3.1 billion in revenue for the government through ten million applications. Warnings of impending catastrophes due to such waivers were ignored. Pelin P nar Giritlio lu, Istanbul head of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers, Architects and City Planners, stated that approximately 75,000 buildings in the earthquake zone in southern Turkey were sanctioned in this amnesty. Just days before the latest disaster, Turkish media had reported that a new draft law awaited parliamentary approval, granting amnesty for more recent construction work. Geologist Celal Sengor said earlier this year that passing such construction amnesties in a country riddled with fault lines amounts to a “crime”. On the 17th anniversary of the 1999 quake, the Architects’ Association said “anyone voting for a planning amnesty is responsible for incitement to murder.” However, these emphatic calls fell on deaf ears.

An earthquake in 2020 had devastated the western province of Izmir. According to a BBC Turkish report, 672,000 buildings in Izmir had recently received amnesty. The same report cited the Environment and Urbanisation Ministry as stating that in 2018, more than half of the buildings in Turkey, approximately 13 million, were constructed in violation of regulations. In a ruthless pursuit of economic gain, compliance with safety standards becomes the first casualty, resulting in thousands of human casualties.

The real estate and construction industry has taken on a central role in President Erdogan’s economic ambitions since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. Official data shows that the number of companies operating in the real estate sector has increased by 43 percent over the last decade, reaching a total of 127,000 by 2020. Additionally, the sector has attracted significant foreign investment.

It remains to be seen whether the Turkish leadership will take this devastating tragedy as an opportunity to build back better, a mantra that resonates after every disaster. In recent decades, engineering has made great strides in resisting the wrath of earthquakes. The 2011 earthquake of 9-Richter in Japan is a prime example. Despite its immense power, the shock did not result in the collapse of structures. It was actually the water waves generated by the tsunami that brought devastation and claimed around 20,000 lives. Today, countries like New Zealand, the United States and Japan are constructing buildings using advanced techniques like base isolation. The technique was introduced by Dr Bill Robinson in the 1970s in New Zealand and involves resting the structure on a set of frictionless rollers that can adjust their position to absorb tremors, ensuring that the building above does not move violently. The rollers are designed to resist transmitting the jolt to the main structure. Another effective, yet less advanced, technique is the use of ductile steel to absorb lateral shocks or deform without collapsing. Modern building codes provide sufficient safety to buildings in seismic areas, including the use of longitudinal steel, circular steel or confining steel, which helps keep the steel in place during earthquakes and reduces fatalities. Unfortunately, the construction codes were frequently found to have been violated in Turkey when experts examined collapsed structures after various earthquakes.

Countries like Pakistan have a great deal to learn from such tragic disasters. We became a lesson for others in 2005 but did not improve much our preparedness. An examination of structures that collapsed during the earthquake revealed blatant violations of construction codes. In Kashmir and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, many buildings were erected with rudimentary local masonry and no safety considerations. Unfortunately, official ignorance persists, as evidenced by the collapse of an iconic residential tower in the federal capital. The Margalla Tower, located in the heart of Islamabad, was reduced to rubble, resulting in the loss of around 100 lives. Investigation of this tragedy exposed flawed engineering and brazen circumvention of building regulations, yet no action was taken. The situation is no different in many parts of the country where construction standards are not regulated by any authority. Even in large cities like Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore, building controls are conveniently skirted by those with deep pockets or long arms. An ordinary engineering audit would reveal that most structures in major cities are at risk of collapsing in the event of an earthquake. In fact, millions of lives are at high risk in Pakistan, as the country sits atop several active fault lines. Human settlements continue to sprawl with complete disregard for disaster risks such as earthquakes and floods. The population explosion, absence of robust regulation and a callous attitude towards disaster vulnerability have exposed millions of lives to death and destruction. To avert a sudden catastrophe, Pakistan needs to improve safety codes, construction regulation and monitoring of compliance with safety codes. Unfortunately, local government systems are non-existent, making it difficult to put any systems in place. Building control authorities have scant authority, ability and resources to rein in rapidly sprawling structures. Real estate lobbies are extremely powerful and can trample any kind of regulation, evading any retribution by law.

The author is a professional in the field of disaster management. He can be reached at nmemon2004yahoo.com

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