Turkey’s earthquake death toll might be more than just a natural disaster

Damaged and collapsed buildings after an earthquake in Kahramanmaras, Turkey, on Monday. (Ihlas News Agency/Reuters)
Damaged and collapsed buildings after an earthquake in Kahramanmaras, Turkey, on Monday. (Ihlas News Agency/Reuters)

In 1999, I was visiting Istanbul when the city was struck by a massive earthquake. I’ll never forget what it was like — the deep roaring from beneath the ground with angry gyrations that led to devastation above.

More than 17,000 people died; another 40,000 were injured. This was a horrible natural tragedy. Yet it soon became apparent that human error also played a major role in the death toll. Even though Turkey stands astride a well-known seismic zone, few buildings had been designed to take earthquakes into account.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that shook much of southern Turkey on early Monday and killed nearly 4,000 people could turn out to be the largest the nation has seen. It was, by all accounts, apocalyptic.

Buildings collapsed, natural gas pipelines burst into flames, airports were destroyed, highways split open. Nature is the greatest equalizer. In freezing temperatures, underneath the rubble, lay thousands of Turks and Kurds, citizens and Syrian refugees, rich and poor, Alawites and Sunnis. Some died where they were, while others patiently awaited rescue.

Today is a day of rescue and mourning — not of finger-pointing. Turkey is overwhelmed. Despite the state’s characteristic suspicion of foreign aid agencies and the government’s desire to appear in control, Ankara immediately called for international support. That was the right call.

The first earthquake, followed by a second one of almost equal magnitude, was massive by any standard. The collapse of buildings directly on the fault line was probably unavoidable. Yet across the region, there were many structures that stood firm, saving the lives of their occupants, while others next door crumpled — pointing to sloppy construction practices as the main cause of death. We will need time to fully understand the extent to which human failings may have contributed to the loss of life. But early indications certainly raise questions.

In 1999, we quickly learned that it wasn’t the earthquake itself but human-made concrete blocks that kill people. The blame went to contractors who used cheap materials, to the officials who failed to enforce Turkey’s relatively loose building codes, and, of course, to a government that has failed to develop a nationwide earthquake response strategy.

Ironically, it was for just such reasons that the 1999 earthquake inspired a huge grass-roots desire for change that ultimately benefited the Justice and Development Party (AKP) — the party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. When it came to power in 2002, the AKP was all about reform and closer ties with the European Union. E.U. funds flowed into the construction of safer schools and other public buildings in accordance with European building codes.

Yet as Erdogan has expanded his own power (and as Turkey’s European dream has faded), the government’s interest in living up to European safety norms has eroded. In 2018, nearly two decades after the massive 1999 earthquake, Turkey finally passed much-awaited earthquake legislation. But those rules have been more honored in the breach than the observance. Erdogan has frequently described the construction industry as the crown jewel of the economy — encouraging a tacit lack of oversight. Turkey’s big public contracts tend to go to the same government cronies. Make what you will of this.

One of the most prominent Turkish critics of our runaway development mentality is Tayfun Kahraman, an urban planner jailed by the government for his role in the 2013 urban protests against the government’s attempt to turn an Istanbul city park into a mall. Kahraman was sentenced to 18 years in prison in the same case that landed philanthropist Osman Kavala behind bars. Shortly after the news of the earthquake broke, he tweeted from his prison cell: “The priority is to save lives, to meet people’s immediate needs and to organize our solidarity. Asking for accountability for the ruined public buildings, hospitals, roads, and airports will come afterwards”.

With Turkey’s best and brightest either imprisoned or sidelined, a spirit of mediocrity has permeated the country’s governance.

Natural disaster is one aspect of the story. Turkey’s reliance on construction-driven economic growth, cronyism and willingness to ignore its own building standards is the other. The first was unavoidable. Did the second lead to mass casualties? At the very minimum, the Turkish people will have every right to demand a thorough investigation of precisely that question.

Today is the day of mourning and support. I am moved by unity and solidarity across the nation: people lining up to donate blood and desperately trying to help one another. But there will come a day to ask questions as well — to ask questions and to demand accountability.

Asli Aydintasbas is a former journalist from Turkey and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C.

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