ISTANBUL — Angry debate about Turkey’s poor housing standards has erupted since last week’s earthquakes. Amid the outrage, critics point to the town of Erzin as an example of how properly implemented building laws can prevent deaths.
Erzin lies in northern Hatay, which has suffered the greatest loss of life in the now 11 affected provinces, some 110 kilometers (68 miles) from the epicenter of the 7.8 magnitude quake that struck in the early hours of Feb. 6.
Yet not a single building collapsed in the district of 42,000 people and there have been zero fatalities.
Construction engineers and earthquake scientists have said the town’s escape is at least partly due to the strict enforcement of building regulations, although its location and geology also played a role.
Mayor Okkes Elmasoglu, who was elected in 2019, says he has followed the policy of his predecessors in refusing to allow building contractors to cut corners.
“For my part, I have a very clear conscience [because] we did not allow illegal construction in any way,” he said. “I have not compromised in any way on this issue but there were those who did.”
Elmasoglu said a “total change of mentality” is needed in Turkey so people will “no longer expect concessions from the state about illegal structures.” The country has seen a number of building amnesties — the last just before elections in 2018 — that allowed the owners of dangerous structures to pay a fine to avoid having to bring their buildings up to standard.
The town also lacks the high-rise apartment blocks that led to catastrophic loss of life in other areas. The tallest structures are six stories but most are no more than four, Elmasoglu said.
The mayor, who represents the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) but was preceded in his role by a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), acknowledged that Erzin’s geology also played a part in protecting the town.
The town lies at the bottom of the western slopes of the Amanos mountains, which separate it from the nearest fault line 40 kilometers (25 miles) away. The town is also built on ground where the bedrock is close to the surface.
Geologist Naci Gorur said Turkey should aim to rebuild on sites similar to Erzin. “The geological structure, the tectonic position and the geological features of this region provide special protection from earthquakes,” he said.
The stark contrast between Erzin and the destruction in nearby towns and cities has served to highlight the slipshod building practices and a lack of regulatory oversight that compounded the loss of life.
Taner Yuzgec, president of the Chamber of Construction Engineers, told Al-Monitor that the problem is ubiquitous. “The housing amnesty has happened many times in Turkey, especially when elections are close,” he said. “We have always warned about these problems. We said it would be a disaster that amounts to a crime and the murder of people but we couldn’t make ourselves heard.”
Yuzgec said 65% of buildings in Turkey are considered at risk. In 2011 the government established a strategic plan to identify dangerous construction that should have been completed by 2017, leading to action to standardize or demolish faulty structures, he said. “Unfortunately, that wasn’t carried out.”
Speaking on Tuesday evening, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 47,000 buildings had been destroyed or were so badly damaged that they need to be demolished. However, the Environment and Urbanization Ministry stated earlier that more than 50,500 buildings required urgent demolition.
The president said reconstruction would begin in March. “Our aim is to complete the construction of high quality and safe buildings in a year to meet the housing need in the entire earthquake zone,” he stated.
Despite regular deadly earthquakes — 41 people were killed in Elazig, eastern Turkey, three years ago and a few months earlier 116 died when a quake struck the western city of Izmir — few serious measures seem to have been taken to tackle unsafe housing.
“The main reason for this disaster, for the level of catastrophe, stems from building construction,” Yuzgec said. “Of course earthquakes are a natural disaster but we can help reduce the effects. In many cases this didn’t happen.”
Following the disaster, many residents described how business occupying the ground floors of apartment buildings had removed supporting columns to increase their floor space.
In Diyarbakir, the easternmost province in the disaster zone, a block of 32 apartments collapsed while three other blocks in the same complex remained upright. Locals claimed this difference was due to illegal alterations made by retail outlets on the ground floor.
“Everyone knows they cut the columns in the ground floor and there was a lawsuit filed against them four months before the earthquake,” said Veysi Buldu, who lost his uncle in the building.
Dozens of building contractors have been detained since the disaster, according to Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag. However, Yuzgec noted that no officials who approved unsafe buildings are facing legal action.