Earthquake in Turkey: Between fatality and real estate speculation.
Everyone remembers the earthquake in August 1999, near Istanbul, which caused 17000 deaths. A decade later, the earth shook again further south, killing over 40,000 people in Turkey and Syria. The seismic risk in the region is very high because the boundaries of the Anatolian plate are approximately the same as Turkey’s. The fault in the north crosses the Marmara Sea and the fault in the south is on the border between Syria and Turkey (see map). The situation can be perceived as fatal, however scientific research allows to prepare for such situations. However, the political interests of the leaders obscure any vision of anticipation to prepare and protect the population against such a drama.
It is interesting to note that Turkey’s boundaries and the limits of the Anatolian plate coincide/overlap. Such situations can be foreseen with scientific research. However, the political interests of Turkish leaders made any anticipation impossible.
Scientific and demographic knowledge
The Anatolian Plate is located in the heart of the Turkish territory. According to the Governmental Disaster Management Agency (AFAD – Afet ve Acil Durum Yönetimi Başkanlığı) 210 earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater have been recorded since 1900. Thus, this region is well known for the risks associated with seismic hazards. The epicenter of the latest earthquake is located near the junction of the Anatolian, African, and Arabian plates. The earthquake that hit Izmit, killing 17,000 people, on August 17, 1999 was located on the northern Anatolian fault. The seismic activity, not perceptible by the population, had been observed by sensors for 40 minutes continuously before the earthquake. While the probability of such an event is measurable by science, it is not possible to predict when and how strong an earthquake will occur. In terms of effect, the demographic factor is a cross-cutting area to be considered when assessing the severity of the consequences of an event. With 109 people / km², the population density in Turkey is rather low. However, in the region where the earthquake occurred on February 6, the density is about 1000 people / km ². As for Istanbul, between 1950 and 2020, the population has been multiplied by 13. The population density has become close to 3000 people per km ² in the metropolis. We dare not imagine the consequences of an event similar to that of 1999 in the heart of Istanbul.
Hijacking of urban planning policy
Istanbul is made up of 1,160,000 buildings, more than half of which were built before 1999 without any anti-seismic standards. A few years after the earthquake, the ruling AKP initiated a process of urban transformation by imposing urban planning regulations. However, this policy very quickly turned into a vast real estate operation. Thus, many owners have been forced to leave their dangerous or dilapidated housing so that it is destroyed. These same owners found that not only did they have to borrow to relocate, but that their old neighborhood had doubled or tripled in value. In addition, despite the urban planning rules put in place, 60% of the buildings were built without authorization, without respecting the building permits or without calling on expert services. Buildings have collapsed without the help of an earthquake.
Despite the political will to improve and renovate certain neighborhoods, the situation has turned into a large-scale, lucrative real estate operation covered by laws that have given amnesty to offenders.
Political choices against the tide
Despite the scientifically assessed seismic risk, where the population is concentrated, the Turkish authorities have turned a blind eye to deviations committed by the construction companies. This situation makes the city of Istanbul even more vulnerable. The ostrich policy of the authorities extends to the policy of prevention of the populations or on the means allocated to manage a disaster. In terms of prevention, the population is not ready. The seismic culture does not exist so that the population is unable to put pressure on the elected officials. Only the youngest have been able to receive awareness training at school on how to deal with an earthquake. Due to a lack of financial means, the Turks are unable to project themselves in a less risky environment. The population is also burying its head in the sand in the face of the situation, sometimes voluntarily ignoring the dilapidation of their homes. As for the political orientations of the State, they are not in coherence with the reality of the observed facts. Not only the prevention and the sensitization of the population do not seem to be a priority, the means of intervention and help are not more. AFAD was created in 2009 to manage natural disasters (floods, forest fires, earthquakes, etc.). This agency is very active and trains to assist the population. Initially under the authority of the Prime Minister, the agency is now under the supervision of the Minister of the Interior since the constitutional reform. If Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan showed a particular interest in this issue he would have placed this agency under his authority. On the other hand, this positioning is consistent with the budget granted to AFAD.
While AFAD’s budget has decreased by 33% between 2022 and 2023, the budget of the Directorate of Religious Affairs has increased by 20% in 2022.
A natural disaster, such as an earthquake, has every reason to be perceived as a fatality. However, in the face of such an ordeal, knowledge and analysis of the situation make it possible to anticipate the risks in order to reduce their consequences. Turkey’s short-termist policy has gone against the grain and does not protect its citizens. While all indicators show Turkey’s vulnerability to an earthquake, the clientelism of the government is king. While the inevitability of a natural disaster can be contained by reducing the vulnerabilities of human society, the priorities of the political authorities do not go in the direction of protecting Turkish citizens. Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan’s choices are in fact commensurate with his personal ambitions.