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A Closer Look at the Turkey-Syria Earthquake

On February 6th, southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria were hit by a 7.8 earthquake that was shortly followed by aftershocks with magnitudes as high as 7.5. The bordering nations sit right above the Anatolian, Arabian, and African tectonic plates, making the region earthquake-prone. The recent quake was caused by the northward movement of the Arabian plate, which created enough pressure for an earthquake as it pushed the Anatolian plate westwards. With the death toll rising to over 41000, the two countries are struggling to deal with the crisis at hand. 

Roughly 36000 of the total deaths are from Turkish residents. In fact, Syrian deaths (6000) make up only about 13% of the total. While there are many factors to consider for the difference in death tolls, one of the most important aspects would be the state of each country’s infrastructure. Most researchers find that 60-75% of all deaths in earthquakes are the result of structural collapses. Syria, a country plagued by war for over a decade, should technically have fewer deaths as much of the country’s infrastructure is already destroyed and existing structures are sparse. Compared to Syria, Turkey is much more developed. But is this truly a numbers game, or is there more to consider when analyzing this event?  

Turkey’s last catastrophic earthquake was the 7.6 İzmit earthquake in 1999. The Grand National Assembly of Turkey estimated the final death count to be 18,373 and the number of injuries was placed at around 50,000. Bridges, tunnels, overpasses, and viaducts faced lots of damage. Over 100,000 homes were destroyed, leaving about 250,000 Turkish residents homeless from the extensive structural damage. The biggest cause behind the residential damages was the use of cheap materials and lack of legal enforcement. Contractors used cheap construction materials to build homes, and they faced little to no legal punishment when investigated. All of this combined with the $10+ billion in damages motivated many Turkish residents, politicians, and engineers to make better earthquake-conscious decisions.

Unfortunately, politically motivated urban policies and businessmen-turned-politicians quickly killed this effort. Among such policies lies the 2018 zoning amnesty law, which grants buildings built before 2017 licenses in exchange for a fee. At first glance, this seems like a way to generate national revenue, which it did. The fee from the 13-something million structures that gained licenses through this law supplied the Turkish government with billions of lira. The real issue is with the timing. Seismic building codes are updated every 10 years, and the last revision of these codes was in 2017. The 2018 zoning amnesty law allows Turkish structures built before 2017, most of which aren’t in compliance with the updated building codes, to exist.  This means that there are hospitals, schools, airports, and bridges in Turkey today that might not be earthquake safe.

Having realized this, there’s been widespread public outrage and criticism of the rescue effort organized by the Turkish government. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says the public’s remarks are “uncalled for,” and said, “This is a time for unity, solidarity. In a period like this, I cannot stomach people conducting negative campaigns for political interest.” Erdoğan’s first major political position began with the mayorship in Istanbul, which was followed by the national positions of prime minister, vice president, and president (2014-). Among his recent statements, the most controversial was his belief that it was “not possible to be prepared for such a disaster.” Combined with his comments and the $84-something billion in damages that Turkey is expected to face, Erdoğan’s chances at re-election continue to diminish.    

Ranked among the deadliest earthquakes since 1950, the damage from the Turkey-Syria earthquake has overwhelmed both nations. The UN has already provided $50 million to the cause, but it’s not enough. In an effort to help affected Syrians, the UN is appealing for $397 million in humanitarian aid and has formed a similar appeal for Turkey. More aid from the UN is expected to be sent to Turkey and Syria, and many international rescue teams have been helping find and tend to survivors.

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