Creating new perspectives since 2009

Hasty rebuild could leave Turkiye at risk of another quake disaster

February 20, 2023 at 4:55 pm

Search and rescue operations continue after 7.7 and 7.6 magnitude earthquakes hit Kahramanmaras, Turkiye [Cuma Sarı – Anadolu Agency]

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s plan to rebuild quickly after devastating earthquakes rocked the country risks courting another disaster, unless urban planning and building safety are carefully re-considered, architects and engineers say according to Reuters.

Days after Turkiye’s worst earthquake in modern history, Erdogan vowed to rebuild the southern disaster zone within a year, an undertaking that conservative estimates put at $25 billion and others expect to be far higher.

Authorities say more than 380,000 units in 105,794 buildings are in urgent need of demolition or have collapsed, out of 2.5 million structures across the region.

A building boom has defined Erdogan’s two-decade rule, during which his government has collected some $38 billion in quake-linked taxes, according to Reuters calculations. The tax, still in place, could provide quick financing to start rebuilding efforts.

Facing elections by June, Erdogan’s government has endured a wave of criticism over both its response to the devastation and what many Turks say were years of politics that led to tens of thousands of buildings being so easily destroyed.

READ: Qatar sends 3 additional planes of earthquake relief to Turkiye

Erdogan had said the government would cover rents of those who leave quake-hit cities. “We will rebuild these buildings within one year and hand them back to citizens,” he said.

But experts believe he needs to carefully enforce seismic-safety standards and build safer structures in the area, which straddles one of three fault lines criss-crossing Turkiye.

“It is not only necessary to replace the demolished buildings, but also to re-plan the cities based on scientific data such as not to build on fault lines and to learn lessons from past mistakes,” said Esin Koymen, former head of Istanbul Chamber of Architects.

“The first priority is new planning, not new building.”

Over 1 million homeless 

The quakes on 6 February, which also hit neighbouring Syria, left more than a million homeless and killed far more than the latest official tally of 46,000 people in both countries.

They devastated southern Turkiye in the dead of winter, with overnight temperatures near freezing, leaving many emergency tents inadequate for the homeless. More than 2 million others have evacuated the region that was home to more than 13 million.

The earthquakes revealed the fragility of Turkiye’s infrastructure, experts said, given they ravaged both modern and ancient buildings including hospitals, mosques, churches and schools.

Some now worry the government’s ambitious timeframe leaves little time to fix past mistakes.

“When they say ‘we start the construction in a month, we finish it in a year’, without the city planning work, frankly, this means that the disaster we are experiencing has not been noticed,” said Nusret Suna, deputy Head of the Chamber of Civil Engineers.

“It takes months to make city plans … it is very wrong to ignore those plans.”

Urbanisation Minister, Murat Kurum, said last week the government would consider detailed geological surveys in its city reconstruction plans, and that tenders would be held.

“Friendly companies” 

The bill to rebuild houses, transmission lines and infrastructure is around $25 billion, or 2.5 per cent of GDP, US bank JPMorgan said in a report. Another report from business association, Turkonfed, estimated damages to housing at $70.8 billion.

And analysts say costs could overshoot initial estimates.

Over 20 years in power, Erdogan used major real estate projects to showcase Turkiye’s rising prosperity. Public and private builds have boosted jobs and new housing stock, and helped his opinion poll ratings.

The looming presidential and parliamentary elections, which could be delayed due to the quake, pose Erdogan’s biggest political challenge to date, given a cost-of-living crisis weighed heavily on Turks well before the disaster struck.

Some critics have said the State exacerbated the crisis by awarding “friendly” companies lucrative construction contracts over the years, in return for political and financial support.

Pinar Giritlioglu, the Istanbul Head of the Chamber of City Planners, said: “Unfortunately, the renter system instead of science continues to rule everything.”

The government has vowed to investigate anyone suspected of responsibility for the collapse of buildings, and has arrested dozens of people, so far.

Quake-proof buildings 

Though there is no definite data on the more than 20 million buildings in the country, former Urbanisation Minister, Mehmet Ozhaseki, said when in office in mid-2018 that “probably more than 50 per cent of all buildings” contravened housing regulations. The Urbanisation Ministry did not immediately respond to questions about current figures.

Opposition politicians accuse Erdogan’s government of failing to enforce building regulations, and of mis-spending special taxes levied after the last major earthquake in 1999 in order to make buildings more resistant to quakes.

Erdogan has repeatedly dismissed what he calls opposition lies meant to obstruct investment.

In 2018, the government issued an amnesty for existing buildings that had broken the construction rules – for a fee, a practice also carried out under previous governments before 1999.

While state housing agency, TOKI, built just 1 million quake-resilient houses over past two decades, about 5 per cent of buildings in Turkiye, the private sector built slightly more than 2 million sturdy homes during the same period, according to Urbanisation Minister, Kurum.

READ: After devastating quake, thousands of Syrians return home to war zone