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Turkey quake: 'People were killed under state supervision'

February 16, 2023

As the dust begins to settle in Turkey, questions are being asked about construction scams and the politics that allowed unsafe structures to be built.

Miners from Zonguldak are seen during search and rescue work
Miners from Zonguldak are seen during search and rescue work in the earthquake zone.Image: Murat Kocabas/ZUMA/IMAGO

In southeastern Turkey, despair is turning into righteous indignation. On February 6, an area roughly the size of mainland Portugal was struck by two powerful earthquakes. The first, at 4:17 a.m. local time (0117 GMT), measured 7.8 on the Richter scale; the second, just nine hours later, measured 7.6. 

 The earthquake, which also hit northern Syria, claimed more than 35,000 lives in Turkey and 6,000 in Syria. Those numbers have been rising by the hour. 

According to Turkish authorities, nearly 13 million people in 10 cities have been affected, and at least 33,143 buildings have either collapsed, been severely damaged or require immediate demolition. The number is likely to rise as officials continue to assess the damage. 

An estimated 1 million people are currently without shelter. Most of them are living in tents or student dormitories.

Drone footage shows AFAD tents set up in the stadium of Kahramanmaras following the earthquake, in Kahramanmaras, Turkey
Tent accommodation has been provided to many survivors, as here in the stadium in KahramanmarasImage: Issam Abdallah/REUTERS

Now, as the public's initial shock wears off and the dust settles, the sheer scale of the devastation is becoming even more apparent. And with that also comes the question of who is to blame.  

"Destiny's plan includes such things," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told an earthquake victim during his brief visit to the region, 56 hours after the disaster.

In response, many locals asked on social media, "Why doesn't destiny ever visit Japan?"

Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay pointed the finger at 134 builders from the region who have been arrested across the country on suspicion of shoddy or negligent construction. Some were arrested at airports as they attempted to flee the country with large sums of cash. 

The Ministry of Justice sent a letter to prosecutors to establish "Earthquake Crime Investigation Offices."

But the recent history of earthquake investigations in Turkey raises the question of whether senior officials, who were allegedly negligent in the inspection and approval processes, will actually be punished. That has not been the case in the past.

Scars of history 

This is not the first time Turkey has woken to such a disaster. 

On August 17, 1999, a 7.4 magnitude earthquake struck just 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Istanbul, killing more than 18,000 people. That disaster left scars on the nation, and in 2001, new legislation was enacted for the inspection and construction of earthquake-resistant buildings. These regulations were updated in 2018 to adapt to more recent technical and scientific standards. 

"We thought that, in good faith, the buildings built after 2001 were less risky throughout the country. But the data we received from the region has changed our perspective," said Haluk Sucuoglu, a professor of engineering at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara and director of the Structural and Earthquake Engineering Laboratory there. He added that there are plenty of plans, laws and regulations but no action. 

"It's like having a great judicial system, but no law enforcement to catch criminals," he said.   

According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, 51% of the citizens of 10 provinces affected by the earthquake lived in buildings built after 2001. 

Fraud and political influence 

Sucuoglu says that even the officials responsible for enforcing the laws have admitted to him many times that construction companies, especially in smaller cities, have political influence and use it to avoid being supervised. The companies are more focused on maximizing their profits than on building safety, he says.

According to regulations introduced in 2001, buildings have to be inspected by expert auditing firms. But until recently, auditing firms were selected and paid for by the contractors themselves. This, of course, creates a conflict of interest. 

Satellitenansicht Kahramanmaras | Vorher-Nachher
Satellite images of Kahramanmaras, the epicenter of the earthquake, show buildings built after 2004. They were supposed to be earthquake-resistant. Many of these buildings collapsed after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck on February 6.Image: Google/Maxar Technologies

"We know that construction companies even opened the auditing firms and inspected their own construction standards," Sucuoglu said.

But the auditing firms are not the only ones responsible for approving construction. The municipality also issues a license for the building. If the municipality does not, then the central administration in Ankara can. 

Lawyer Murat Kemal Gunduz says that the Ministry of Environment can issue licenses for large projects and mass housing. Gunduz also emphasizes that, according to the law, the ministry's main responsibility is to monitor all licenses issued.

Winning votes

The phrase "Imar Barisi" or "construction amnesty" is a term that is often heard before elections in Turkey. It refers to any regulation that legalizes previously illegal constructions. It grants amnesty — in exchange for a fee — to buildings that don't have permits or comply with building codes. Experts say governments use it as a way to win votes before elections. 

"Construction amnesty means unsafe structures," says Eyup Muhcu, president of the Chamber of Architects of Turkey. The Chamber's own building was the only one left standing in its part of the city of Kahramanmaras.

According to the latest related regulations, initiated on June 8, 2018, and signed by Erdogan, buildings that violate zoning laws will be legalized "in accordance with the home owner's declaration," allowing the state to withdraw from any responsibility. 

Muhcu believes that it is the duty of the state to ensure the safety of citizens' lives and property and that such regulations contradict that duty. He says the regulation should be considered null and void because it acts against the Turkish state's basic responsibilities.

"The reason there is illegal construction in this country is because of those who issue these amnesties, namely the government," says Muhcu.  "Some people are making money from these illegal constructions; some resources are being transferred somewhere. In fact, these people were killed under the supervision of the state itself."  

Solving problems 

At a 2019 rally in Kahramanmaras, Erdogan boasted that thanks to the construction amnesty rules, his government had solved problems that around 144,000 locals faced. 

A total of 7,085,969 building registration certificates were issued across Turkey, of which 5,848,927 were for residential units, according to Environment Minister Murat Kurum. In a statement last year, he said: "The target has been reached in the construction amnesty: 25.592 billion Turkish lira have entered the state coffers."

That equalled $4.1 billion or €3.8 billion at the time. Enough to build earthquake-resistant apartments for 600,000 people, according to Dr. Bugra Gokce, a city planner working for the municipality of Istanbul. 

In the 10 provinces hit by the recent earthquake, 294,165 buildings had been issued legalization certificates. Experts believe thousands died in these buildings. Instead of being fortified or demolished, they were subject to amnesty under the new regulations. 

Amnesty laws have created an understanding in society that "building violations are tolerated." This has led to an increase in unauthorized construction and the legitimization of illegal building. It is considered to be one of the most significant sectors for corruption in society. 

Turkey: 'Waiting for their loved ones to be retrieved'

Erdogan's ruling alliance had previously asked the Turkish parliament to discuss a new "construction amnesty" law. But that discussion has now been postponed due to the Kahramanmaras earthquake, and there is even discussion about whether or not the elections, slated to be held this May, can be held.

Driver of economic growth 

The construction sector has been a significant part of the Turkey's economic growth during Erdogan's rule. It is a labor-intensive sector that creates many jobs, especially for low-skilled workers. It is also a driving force behind the growth of other sectors, and the government has implemented policies to support the construction sector by offering favorable financing. 

In 2002, when Erdogan's AKP party came to power after the traumatic 1999 earthquake, building cooperatives built one out of every three apartments in Turkey. The share of cooperatives fell to 9% in 2010 and to just 1% in 2021, leaving the housing sector almost completely in the hands of a loosely regulated market. 

More votes vs citizen safety? 

Haluk Sucuoglu from the Middle East Technical University  says that over the past two decades, the government has chosen to invest more in visible structures such as roads and bridges because these earn political credit in the eyes of voters. 

"Reducing the risk of earthquakes does not give you any added [political] value," he told DW. "The resources you put into it just create a labor force for a while. But it is not like opening an industrial plant or a transportation facility."  

"But when an earthquake happens, you lose a lot," he concluded. "These decisions should be made correctly, in the light of information and science."

Erdogan's Directorate of Communication has said Turkey is facing the "disaster of the century." 

But many experts in the country believe that this was a preventable catastrophe and that what the country is in fact facing is the "negligence of the century." 

Pelin Ünker and Gülsen Solaker contributed to this report.

Edited by: Cathrin Schaer