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Not built to withstand: Could Turkey have prevented the scale of disaster?

In the early hours of Monday, 6th February, two earthquakes of magnitude(s) 7.8 and 7.5 took the lives of over 44,000 people (as of writing) in Turkey and Syria have inundated news feeds worldwide. Now, with the aftershocks (of a 6.4 magnitude) felt early on Monday evening, the devastation has only grown. Southern Turkey and Northern Syria sit on the East Anatolian fault line between the Anatolian and Arabian plates. These plates moved in what is known as a "left-lateral" motion, creating a chasm with either side moving leftwards away from the existing fault line— with rupture lines cutting straight through settlements and even buildings.

Two fault lines– the North and East Anatolian fault lines– run across Turkey. This has made the nation prone to earthquakes for centuries. The worst one in recent memory is the 7.6 magnitude earthquake in 1999 that hit the northern province of Izmit. The recent disaster occurred in the region opposite Izmit and borders Syria. The Turkish areas worst impacted by the quake were densely populated with Syrian Refugees, who were housed in shoddily constructed and generally neglected buildings. Infrastructure affected within Syrian borders was also poorly constructed and weakened by years of conflict.

However, as the dust settles, critics consider whether the scale of suffering could have been lessened beyond the epicentre. The magnitudes of the earthquakes alone were cause for severe destruction. Yet, with more information regarding years of corruption and ignorance of safety regulations on the part of the Turkish government, many are asking the question: How man-made was this natural disaster?

With developments in modern architecture and safety regulations, in a known seismic hotspot, buildings should have been built to ensure the safety of their residents. It is estimated that over 3450 buildings have collapsed in southern Turkey. Most of the buildings in the region appear to have been built with weak concrete and little to no seismic reinforcement. Turkish seismic codes are up to standard and should have protected most buildings from collapsing if followed. The issues lie with the structural integrity of these buildings.

In fact, viral videos show the structural collapse of buildings in what experts call a "pancake mode". This type of structural collapse is top-down, meaning the upper floors collapse on the lower floors, crushing them in the process. This is one of the most dangerous forms of structural collapse as it causes the most damage and can complicate rescue efforts with people trapped under piles of rubble. In Turkey's case, this could've been what made this natural disaster one of the deadliest in recent history.

The buildings most prone to destruction were 'soft story structures' most commonly found in nations like Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Turkey. Soft story buildings are large structures with multiple floors but with an open plan at the bottom which usually acts as a garage or extra space for a garden, small business or additional homes. These buildings are an easy solution for countries with large populations and overcrowding. However, they do an abysmal job of withstanding medium to powerful earthquakes as the lower floors are made of brittle concrete and have fewer walls or pillars that are not connected to walls which weakens the structural integrity of the building. The lowest floor cannot support the heavier ones above it in the case of an earthquake where the entire building shakes, and the bottom floor collapses under the weight of the more serious upper floors trapping and crushing people amid all the debris.

This is what took place in both the earthquakes of 1999 and 2023, which suggests that the Turkish government had prior warning of the damage such buildings could cause. A report released after the 1999 earthquake claimed that 85-90% of all buildings that collapsed were soft-story structures, exacerbating the fatalities of the disaster. In the aftermath, the Turkish government reformed building safety codes. However, they were not adequately enforced due to corruption— ignoring expert recommendations, President Erdogan's government approved 7.4mn applications in 2018-19, providing 'amnesty' to buildings that had breached a broad set of basic licensing, design, and safety rules. According to the environment ministry, this scheme raised $4.2bn in registration fees. Before the earthquake, another round of similar 'amnesty' was being deliberated in the Turkish parliament.

Moreover, most buildings in Turkey were built before the 1999 disaster, so they could only be strengthened and protected retroactively. Retroactive fittings for soft story buildings are possible such as reinforced steel columns and walls and steel bolts and braces attached to the foundation of the buildings. So, if the structure is shaken, the lower floor stands firmly in support. Unfortunately, retroactive fittings are costly, with the world bank estimating the scale of retrofitting that needs to take place amounting to $465bn. This is simply not feasible for a nation likely Turkey, which likely had more pressing issues to solve on its priority list, not to mention the monumental costs of such a mammoth task.

Moreover, the BBC found residential buildings shown on video collapsed in a pancake manner, were recently built and advertised to be up to the most recent building and earthquake safety regulations. These buildings would not have had to be fitted retroactively as constructed newly. Their collapse cannot be blamed on expenses but simply corruption by the builders and government regulators.

It is clear that despite being a well-known seismic hotspot, Turkey was severely unprepared for this disaster. The government and building corporations' blatant disregard for public safety has cost people their lives. While an earthquake of such a magnitude and scale was bound to leave disaster in its wake, the scale of suffering could have been lessened had the Turkish government, with all the resources at its disposal, prioritised the people who elected them to power over greed. Unfortunately, this tragedy is the perfect example of innocent people facing the consequences of a government that will look the other way as long as it turns a profit.

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