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In Turkey, questions about country's preparedness after massive earthquake

Only 0.5% of spending from the central government budget last year went to programs related to urban improvements and disaster management in quake-prone Turkey.
Collapsed buildings are seen in Hatay, following the two earthquakes that hit on Monday, Turkey, Feb. 7, 2023.

The colossal devastation caused by two powerful earthquakes in southern Turkey has rekindled soul-searching and criticism on how prepared the country is for big temblors, even though 70% of its territory is at risk, crisscrossed by fault lines. 

The quakes, which struck with magnitudes of 7.8 and 7.5 nine hours apart on Monday and were followed by numerous aftershocks, affected 13.5 million people in 10 provinces, claiming more than 3,500 lives and destroying 5,600 buildings, according to official figures as of Tuesday afternoon. 

Desperate survivors fumed at the shortfall of rescuers and equipment, pleading for help to save relatives trapped under the rubble, as first responders had yet to reach many neighborhoods 24 hours after the two quakes. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said 8,000 people had been pulled alive from the debris.

“Sadly, [the number of collapsed buildings] has reached 6,000 in cities across a distance of 330 kilometers [205 miles]. With only 245 rescue teams, Turkey’s administration and the [emergency agency] AFAD have fallen short in rescuing people from the debris,” prominent seismologist Ahmet Ercan tweeted, warning that many of those trapped in the rubble could freeze to death before rescuers arrive.

For seismologists and engineering experts, the rows of pancaked buildings across the affected region show that substandard construction and inadequate quake precautions remain rampant problems in Turkey despite the lessons taught by two big quakes in the country’s northwest in 1999, in which some 20,000 people perished.

Budget data, meanwhile, show how little the government has spent on urban improvements and disaster management in a country where sound construction and other quake precautions are vital. Last year, 21.2 billion Turkish liras (some $1.3 billion) were spent on programs related to “urban affairs and risk-focused integrated disaster management,” which amounts to only about 0.5% of spending from the central government budget, according to official figures. In comparison, funds allocated to interest payments and the financing of a deposit scheme to prop up the embattled Turkish lira, for instance, amounted to 14% of spending. Even the funds that went to religious training and services outstripped those devoted to disaster preparedness.

Also, the government’s “urban transformation” drive, designed to ensure that buildings are disaster-resilient in high-risk areas, chief among them Istanbul, appears to have underperformed. The presidency’s annual program for 2023 said that more than 870,000 independent housing units have been designated as risky across the country since 2021. "The increased number and size of areas requiring urban transformation have caused financial, administrative and technical hardships in simultaneously carrying out the transformation work,” it conceded. 

Public facilities, including hospitals and airports, as well as buildings that were supposedly built in line with quake-resilience standards were among the structures that either collapsed or were damaged in the temblors.

Naci Gorur, a respected geologist, questioned how seriously politicians and administrators take the warnings of scientists. “We, geologists, were tired of repeatedly writing and saying that this earthquake was coming. No one reacted to even ask us what we were talking about,” he tweeted. 

A tally by journalist Mehmet Kizmaz suggests that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been largely indifferent to parliamentary proposals to probe quake-related issues. Out of 75 such proposals since 2018, only five have been approved by the AKP-dominated parliament.

Efforts to raise awareness among the public appear inadequate as well. Last year, only 54% of apartments in the country were reportedly covered by the special quake insurance introduced after the 1999 earthquakes. Topping the list is the northwest, Turkey’s industrial heartland including Istanbul, where the rate stands at 62.7%. 

The southern regions hit the worst by Monday’s quakes contribute about 12% of Turkey’s gross domestic product (GDP), ranking in the middle on the country’s development scale. GDP per capita in the three subregions in the area ranged from about $5,600 to some $7,000 in 2021, well below the national average of $9,592.

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