Opinion 3 charts show how better buildings save lives in earthquakes

People stand by a collapsed building in Adiyaman, southern Turkey, Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. Thousands left homeless by a massive earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria a week ago packed into crowded tents or lined up in the streets Monday for hot meals as the desperate search for survivors entered what was likely its last hours. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
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Hannah Ritchie is deputy editor and lead researcher at Our World in Data.

Though it might take weeks or months to confirm the death toll across Turkey and Syria, the latest number has topped 36,000. This makes this month’s earthquake the deadliest in the region in more than a century. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it was “not possible to be prepared for such a disaster.”

Data comparing similarly seismic countries suggests otherwise. Take Chile and Japan.

Chile sits along the Ring of Fire — an arc of faults and volcanoes circling the Pacific Ocean. It’s often hit by earthquakes as big, if not bigger, than those that shook Turkey and Syria. Incredibly, these now cause few deaths — if any.

It wasn’t always this way. Chile experienced some devastating quakes in the 20th century. In 1939, an 8.3-magnitude earthquake resulted in 28,000 deaths. In 1960, the century’s largest earthquake, a 9.5-magnitude one, killed around 1,600 people.

After 1960, Chile invested heavily in research into seismic designs, and developed strict building regulations. Most constructions can now withstand the most powerful earthquakes. Events of 8.0-magnitude or worse come to the region every few years yet take only a handful of lives. In 2010, more than 500 people died after an 8.8-magnitude quake — the building codes were crucial. Still, the nation continued to learn from the failure of some buildings: It updated building codes to cover the structural weaknesses that engineers identified in the aftermath.

Japan is another exemplar. This densely populated nation occasionally experiences earthquakes of 7.8-magnitude or more. With strict building codes, Japan’s regulations mean that, in most years, no one dies. The exception was the 2011 event that triggered the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. More than 18,000 lives were lost, almost all of them drowning as a result of the tsunami — not from crumbling buildings.

Comparisons of this sort have limitations, of course. Countries have different population densities and experience quakes at different depths. Newer data is more complete; the older the data, the more uncertainty there is around death tolls and magnitudes. And wealth plays a role. Japan is much richer than Turkey, so it can afford more resilient buildings. Chile, though, has a similar gross domestic product per person. And Turkey is much richer today than Chile was in the 1960s, ’70s, or ’80s, when its infrastructure was improving rapidly.

Was Turkey taken by surprise? No. Data from the past 120 years shows the recent earthquake to be the second-largest in that period, after the 1939 event that killed about 33,000 people. Sixty years later came another massive quake. In 1999, a 7.6-magnitude event resulted in about 18,000 deaths. Research in the aftermath put a high probability on there being another large earthquake in Turkey within the next 30 years.

The following year the Turkish government ruled that new buildings had to be earthquake-resilient. These are some of the most well-developed regulations in the world.

So, what went wrong?

The U.S. Geological Survey reports that “the population in this region resides in structures that are extremely vulnerable to earthquake shaking, though some resistant structures exist.” Many of the 6,000 to 7,000 buildings that collapsed were built before 1999. While the government offered some financial support for old buildings to be reinforced or rebuilt, this was optional, and many businesses and private homeowners turned down the offer.

Worse, construction companies cut corners on new builds. There’s visual evidence of new buildings — built within the past few years — pancaked. Most might be standing had they been built properly. The government failed to enforce its own building regulations, and even offered amnesties, legal exemptions from the rules — for a fee.

Turkey was struck by two massive, shallow shocks in quick succession. There’s no way it could have escaped unscathed. Its new building codes undoubtedly saved lives, but not as many as they should have done. As Chile and Japan demonstrate, it is possible to prepare better, and save many more.