The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Turkey earthquakes could have been much less deadly

Turkish politicians have spent decades ignoring the best urban planning, construction and disaster management practices

People walk through destruction caused by the earthquake in Kahramanmaras, Turkey, on Sunday. (Tolga Bozoglu/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
7 min

The massive earthquakes in Turkey that have resulted in a death toll of 31,000 and rising are a monumental tragedy. That is especially true because, while earthquakes are not preventable, much of the devastation they cause can be avoided with good planning. As other cities in places as varied as Mexico, Japan and California have demonstrated, governments can significantly mitigate the effects of quakes by identifying hazards, building safer structures and providing education on earthquake safety.

Instead of doing this, however, Turkish politicians have spent decades ignoring the best urban planning, construction, hazard analysis and disaster management practices. Today’s catastrophic losses are rooted in politics, and it is crucial that Turkey now learns from its mistakes — especially because experts forecast that by 2030 there is a high probability of an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude or above in Istanbul, a city with more than 15 million residents.

Turkey has been hit by many powerful earthquakes over the past century. A 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Erzincan, a city in eastern Anatolia, in 1939 and claimed about 33,000 lives. But the country implemented only a few laws and regulations on disaster management in its aftermath — one in 1959 and another in 1988. These regulations primarily focused on crisis management and did very little to mitigate risk.

Then in 1999, an earthquake hit Golcuk (Kocaeli province) that was measured at a magnitude of 7.4 on the Richter scale, killing about 18,000 people.

Lax building laws and shoddy construction exacerbated the tragic death toll. Thousands of lawsuits were filed against the contractors of destroyed or damaged buildings. One, Veli Gocer, was convicted of negligent homicide and sentenced to 18 years and nine months in prison for noncompliance with construction safety laws. His actions had contributed to the deaths of nearly 200 people.

The 1999 earthquake appeared to be a turning point in disaster management and construction oversight in Turkey. The coalition government led by Bulent Ecevit of the Democratic Left Party (DSP) undertook changes to the massive independent aid agency in the country, the Red Crescent (Kizilay), which had been criticized for its handling of the earthquake’s aftermath. It adopted European Union standards for such organizations and also levied an earthquake tax to pay for the development of emergency services.

These actions were not enough to keep the Ecevit government in power. Criticism of its response to the earthquake, combined with an economic downturn, led to the loss of the 2002 election. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) gained control and has dominated Turkish politics ever since.

The AKP continued to address the shortfalls in disaster management that had manifested themselves after the Golcuk earthquake and another quake later that year. In 2004, it established the National Medical Rescue Team (known by its Turkish initials UMKE) to strengthen rescue efforts and reduce the human cost and suffering of natural disasters. Then in 2009, it created the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (known as AFAD). The organization aimed to prioritize risk mitigation over crisis management, even while improving the latter. Turkey’s parliament also attempted to deal with the shoddy construction that had exacerbated the damage in 1999, passing a new construction safety law in 2007 and following up with an additional such law in 2018.

Yet even these measures overlooked the flawed urban and infrastructure planning at the root of the problem. During the second half of the 20th century, the migration of rural populations to Turkey’s cities had led to a dramatic rise in those living in “gecekondus,” or slum housing, on the urban periphery.

These cheaply constructed homes were not adequately built to withstand earthquakes. The coastal city of Izmir has the highest number of gecekondus in the country. Experts have warned that, absent major changes, the city may face a disaster in the case of a large earthquake, given that even a medium-strength earthquake killed 119 in the city in 2020.

Instead of heeding such warnings, however, the government waited until 2019 — a full two decades after the Golcuk earthquake — to announce that it planned to transform 1.5 million earthquake-vulnerable houses over the next five years. The move was too little, too late. Moreover, instead of prioritizing this transition, the initial phases of Turkey’s urban transformation initiative focused on opening vacant areas for construction and demolishing buildings to build even higher ones. Even worse, Turkish officials never adopted safety regulations specific to the high-rise buildings increasingly dotting the skylines of their cities. They also granted “amnesties” to builders whose projects did not meet the new construction codes.

These were not mere mistakes or mismanagement, however.

They were the outcome of a cozy relationship between Turkey’s construction industry and the authoritarian ruling AKP. During the 2010s, Turkish construction companies began winning lucrative international contracts, leading them to form an interlocking relationship with the ruling party. This cozy relationship helped the firms get lucrative development contracts, while the regime benefited when the firms purchased newspapers and television stations, enabling the party to construct a pro-government media and silence the opposition. As Fikret Adaman and Bengi Akbulut argue, the building boom spurred by these firms also helped grow popular support for the AKP because it created jobs and stimulated other sectors of the economy — everything from the companies making building materials to the transportation sector. The AKP, therefore, had every incentive not to enforce building codes or to push its construction industry allies to eschew more lucrative projects in favor of replacing substandard slum dwellings.

That set the stage for the devastation of this month’s earthquake.

Even the disaster management measures implemented since 1999 proved insufficient, in part because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government focused more on containing criticism in the hours after the earthquake than mobilizing a response to the catastrophe. It took them 36 hours to authorize 3,000 military personnel to join the relief efforts — a stark contrast with the 90 minutes it took for such an authorization after the 1999 earthquake.

Yet the government sprang into action to censor and attack critics. Erdogan warned that he was “keeping note of lies of distortion” and would “open his notebook, when the time comes.” His government created a smartphone app for reporting people who “produced or disseminated fake news” about the earthquake. It then promptly began arresting social media users and journalists for purportedly spreading disinformation, and temporarily restricted social media sites including Twitter.

That damaged the relief effort because aid providers and survivors were using Twitter to coordinate aid and communicate.

Erdogan’s reaction reflects his understanding of how the AKP came to power. Even the relatively better-coordinated response to the 1999 earthquake by Ecevit’s coalition government contributed to the downfall of the DSP. Erdogan understands that he could face a similar fate if the Turkish public holds his government accountable for the earthquake’s destruction. And he recognizes that his political vulnerability after 20 years of increasingly authoritarian rule by his party left Turkey no better prepared to handle a massive earthquake than it was before.

But of course, this was the wrong lesson to learn from recent history. If the government wishes to mitigate the devastation of the next earthquake to hit Turkey, it will focus on adopting better urban planning, construction policies and disaster management practices — even if that entails alienating powerful interests.