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On February 6, 2023, a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Türkiye and Syria, leaving over 42,000 people dead and many more injured and homeless. As the Turkish government faces criticism for its handling of the disaster, videos have emerged of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan praising housing projects that later crumbled, leading to the deaths of thousands. The lack of enforcement of safety regulations to increase contractors’ profits has been blamed by critics for the extent of the destruction. The earthquake revealed major missteps in Türkiye’s disaster response and the role of centralization of power in the tragedy.
Türkiye has a history of earthquakes and has been preparing for the next major earthquake since the devastating 1999 quake that killed over 17,000 people. However, the government’s disaster response remains slow, inflexible, and incompetent. The government’s failure to enforce building codes and its sale of “zoning amnesties” to owners of existing substandard properties have led to more than 61,000 buildings being damaged or destroyed in the recent earthquake, including several hospitals.
The centralization of power under Erdoğan has been blamed for the ineffective disaster response by analysts and critics. Erdoğan has hollowed out important institutions, weakened them, and appointed loyalists with little necessary credentials to key positions. This has eliminated civil society organizations and a state disaster response that needed more efficiency and competency. The centralization of power has also led to the government’s lack of accountability for the disaster. No high-level officials have been arrested, resigned or held responsible for the deaths and destruction caused by the earthquake.
Building Codes and Zoning Amnesties
The construction industry has played a significant role in the disaster, with contractors often building buildings that violate safety regulations for higher profits. However, their actions go beyond individual contractors, with the industry creating a system that allows them to bypass safety regulations. In Türkiye, construction has become a dominant industry backed by the state, attracting enormous interest and investment. The government has repeatedly rewritten regulations and taken authority away from professional organizations responsible for inspecting and approving projects. As a result, the number of registered contractors in Türkiye surpasses other European countries like Germany.
The government has also issued several “construction amnesties,” making it legally impossible to inspect many buildings and legalizing unsafe structures. Construction amnesty, also known as reconstruction peace and zoning reconciliation, refers to a group of Turkish laws that legalize illegally constructed buildings. This type of amnesty is retroactively granted to buildings without planning permission, such as gecekondus or slum houses, and constructions that ignore building codes, including fire and earthquake safety regulations. However, authorities often use zoning amnesties for short-term economic and political gain, with the timing of these amnesties often coinciding with Turkish elections.
Turkey’s primary association of engineers and architects has vehemently opposed this practice, stating that it incentivizes illegal construction in Turkey, which leads to unsafe and unhealthy living conditions for the population. They called zoning amnesty “an invitation to death” and argued that it is used “for the sake of political gain” and should be stopped to ensure public safety. In 2018, Turkey declared its most recent construction or zoning amnesty just before the presidential elections. A new draft law for zoning amnesty was also pending approval in the Turkish parliament before the recent earthquakes. According to a leading Turkish geologist Celal Şengör, zoning amnesty in an earthquake-prone country is equivalent to murder. The 2018 amnesty program revealed that over half of all buildings in Turkey did not comply with current standards.
Common violations included homes built without permits and structures that violated existing codes. As a result of the amnesty, 3 million 152 thousand buildings received construction registry documents, with nearly 300,000 buildings in 10 heavily damaged provinces receiving permits due to the amnesty. Following the recent earthquakes, Turkish prosecutors are issuing arrest warrants for contractors whose buildings collapsed and caused a high number of casualties. However, experts warn that contractors can only be punished if samples from the buildings are collected before the wreckage is cleaned. Turkey’s Bar Associations have called on the Ministry of Justice to start collecting evidence from collapsed buildings immediately. Many in Turkey fear that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan to build new apartment buildings for earthquake victims within a year may lead to further negligence in investigations related to the destruction caused by the earthquake.
The most recent amnesty, implemented in 2018, benefited approximately 10 million people and “legalized” unsafe, illegal structures built without supervision and engineering services. It is worth noting that both the ruling and opposition parties were involved, with laws enacted by all parties opening areas scientifically unsuitable for settlement. Municipalities have issued building permits without inspecting projects built in earthquake-prone areas. Building inspection institutions, which were supposed to ensure proper oversight, have failed to properly inspect these buildings.
Notably, some engineers rent their diplomas to contractors and inspection companies just to sign projects and documents, unaware of where the construction sites are. The lack of accountability for these engineers and contractors is a major issue in preventing future disasters in Türkiye. Despite the recent earthquakes, another zoning amnesty would likely have been delivered had it not been for the disaster. The responsibility for this disaster lies with the entire political establishment and the construction industry, from top to bottom.
Corruption and Misrule: Disastrous Earthquake Response
Quick response and rescue efforts are crucial to saving lives when an earthquake strikes. In Türkiye, however, corruption and misrule have hindered the effectiveness of earthquake response efforts. Following the 1999 earthquake, various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the armed forces responded to the disaster in a coordinated effort. Turkish President Erdoğan has gained control over several of these organizations over the past 20 years; following a botched coup in 2016, both military and civilian officials were dismissed from their posts. Now, all rescue and humanitarian aid efforts must be approved by AFAD, “Presidency of Disaster and Emergency Management (Afet ve Acil Durum Yönetimi Başkanlığı),” a rigid, top-down decision-making organization.
AFAD was created in 2009 under Erdoğan’s Prime Minister’s office to coordinate a post-disaster response. However, AFAD has now become an operation entirely run by the AKP, Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi), serving as a member of a group of religiously affiliated aid organizations created to increase the President’s domestic and international support. AFAD, along with the Turkish Red Crescent, is under the supervision of a trusted ally of Erdoğan and has transformed into a means of promoting the President’s diplomatic goals of gaining global recognition as the most compassionate nation. Nevertheless, AFAD’s results have been lacklustre, and its top brass, mostly AKP cronies, have been criticized for their lack of experience.
After the November 2022 earthquake in the northwestern province of Düzce, a report found that “adequate coordination could not be achieved” due to a staff shortage and other problems. In January, theologian İsmail Palakoğlu, who previously managed Türkiye’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, was appointed head of AFAD’s disaster response department. AFAD had total control of the response to the latest earthquakes on February 6, with the government warning against any coordination outside of AFAD’s purview. When the NGO Ahbap collected billions of Turkish lira for its relief work in the earthquake zone, interior minister Süleyman Soylu threatened to take action against those “exploiting donations and trying to compete with the state.”
Critics, such as AKUT’s Search and Rescue Association (Arama Kurtarma Derneǧi) co-founder Nasuh Mahruki, have called for the military to take the lead on relieving disasters since AFAD’s coordination problems have hindered search and rescue efforts. In the days after the earthquakes, many people had to dig themselves out of the rubble, and residents had to rely on their resources and expertise to conduct damage assessments and rescue efforts. The lack of coordination and the government’s absorption of civil society organizations in earthquake-prone areas have further compounded the problem.
The government’s top-down, rigid decision-making processes have hampered coordination efforts, and the absorption of civil society organizations has left a significant gap in disaster response infrastructure.
What is Next for Türkiye?
The recent earthquake in Türkiye has highlighted a powerful demonstration of human compassion and solidarity. People are making generous contributions to the relief efforts by donating their belongings, from wedding rings to shoes. This remarkable display of kindness is especially moving given the polarized state of Turkish society, where divisive politics and rhetoric have fueled hatred towards any community.
While the solidarity and generosity of the Turkish people are inspiring, it is important to acknowledge that this earthquake was not a natural disaster but a tragedy that resulted from social injustice and corporate negligence. The political establishment and private industry must be held accountable for their role in this catastrophe, which can be described as social murder. This issue may challenge Erdoğan in the upcoming presidential election as voters evaluate the government’s handling of the disaster and the subsequent relief efforts. Only by addressing the root causes of the earthquake can we ensure that history does not repeat itself.
Edited by Alexandra Hu