The devastating earthquake that hit Van last Sunday, which has so far resulted in the death of nearly 600 people, raises the question of where Turkey went wrong in terms of earthquake readiness yet again. Legislators and experts agree that introducing new laws and inspection rules are still necessary, but there's little that can change without public awareness.
Part of the problem in raising awareness is the general approach toward earthquakes, according to Necati Şahin, president of the Bursa branch of the Chamber of Civil Engineers (İMO), who warned: “We should avoid turning earthquakes into tabloid material. We should emphasize the [importance of] buildings and not the fault lines.”
Speaking last week at the Bursa Union of Academic Chambers, he said the Van earthquake had shown once again where Turkey has failed in preparing for natural disaster. “We went to Van and Erciş [the district that suffered the most damage] shortly after the earthquake. We studied all the buildings that had partial damage or that had come down completely. It was like a civil engineering lab. The low quality of construction material and inadequacies in engineering are the causes of disaster of such a scale,” he said.
“The only consolation is that Erciş was included in the scope of the new building quality inspection legislation in 2011. We saw that there were no problems in buildings that were constructed according to the new legislation. If everybody had built according to the legislation, the loss of lives would have been at a minimum. But the problem is that the regulations adopted were never applied,” he noted, highlighting the problem of public awareness.
Şahin said his chamber predicted that the death toll will be around 1,500, once all the rubble is removed. “The wrong materials were used in too many buildings in Erciş. For example, we saw a building in which sand from a river bed was used. We also came across low quality iron.”
He said the Marmara region, which is home to a quarter of the country's population, 50 percent of the country's industrial facilities and 70 percent of Turkey's added value, was under huge earthquake risk, a fact experts have been stating for many years now. “Serious risk is posed by industrial plants built before 1999, particularly chemical facilities,” he said, as these were constructed before the more earthquake-savvy laws Turkey adopted following the devastating 1999 earthquake that claimed 18,000 lives according to official figures. He said Turkey should quickly act to implement the National Earthquake Strategy Action Plan, a project the government introduced earlier. “Contracting norms, zoning plans, tender processes, architectural and engineering aspects, building inspection and urban renewal plans should all be restructured in a way that is in keeping with scientific norms.”
In earthquakes in Turkey over the past 100 years, 100,000 people have died and 600,000 buildings collapsed, according to İMO. “The consequences of a potential earthquake in the Marmara region will be ruinous. You can't be a developed country, or have a ‘brand city' when you lose so many people to natural disasters. We call on the government to quickly pass the necessary legislation and on local authorities to implement these. If the regulations needed aren't passed and if local authorities continue to ignore their responsibilities as they have done until today, we will continue to talk about the same things after every earthquake. As the İMO Bursa branch, we are tired of saying the same things again and again.”
It is either that local officials are not aware of the grave consequences in store for Turkey if it fails to protect Marmara better against an earthquake, or they simply do not care. Luckily, Bursa Mayor Recep Altepe, who is also the head of the Union of Marmara Municipalities, showed that not all local authorities are that much in the dark, saying: “The earthquake in Van has shown, painfully, that there can be no compromises from planning, zoning and building inspections. Seventy percent of the country's economy is in our region. It will be the end of Turkey should Marmara collapse.”
İstanbul's potential disaster
İstanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş also highlighted the risk in the Marmara area by saying: “The emperor has no clothes. We need to say it like it is. We need to build a new city. We are under serious threat.”
Topbaş told the Akşam daily last week that the municipality has spent TL 1.1 billion in earthquake investment. “We have reinforced buildings, viaducts and bridges. We have bought technological equipment and devices to reach trapped people in search and rescue efforts,” but, he said, citizens should be reinforcing their own buildings. “The municipality does not have the resources to contribute to individual buildings. We can't give loans. There is no such example anywhere in the world. People should reinforce their own buildings,” reiterating yet again that without raising public awareness, little can improve.
Topbaş said: “There are about 1.6 million buildings in İstanbul. Those built before 1998 should be inspected because İstanbul was classified until 1998 as a second degree earthquake zone and the buildings constructed before that time were designed according to this. In addition, they are turning the bottom floors into stores or automobile galleries. Sea sand, ordinary iron and other low quality materials were used in these buildings, so these have to be inspected.”
He said another method ordinary citizens could use to reinforce buildings against earthquakes could be to take down the top floors. “By removing one or two floors off a tall building, you could lighten the load on the system of the building.”
Problems with legislation
Environment and Urban Planning Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar last Thursday announced that radical measures would be taken to rebuild Turkey's buildings. Like Topbaş, he pointed out that buildings with first floors converted to shops or retailers were at higher risk, saying most of the buildings that collapsed in Van had undergone such alterations. “So you see that the connection between beams and columns are either too weak or not there at all. There should be a serious penalty for removing a column. You see this often in automobile galleries; the columns are usually removed, and then the building comes down. There are currently no sanctions against this.”
He said urban renewal is the answer for a permanent solution, but those projects have been ripped apart by architectural and engineering chambers for having lost their true purpose and for being an instrument for corrupt officials and landowning profiteers to fill their pockets.
“Instead of creating new projects for looters under the banner of urban renewal, our cities should be better prepared for natural disasters,” said the Chamber of Architects as part of a list of measures that need to be implemented to minimize damage in the next big earthquake that will hit Turkey.
The minister noted that they were planning changes to the current construction laws. “A building should be brought down and rebuilt if 70 percent of apartment owners are in favor of this. Currently, even if a single person raises an objection, this can't be done.”
There are currently 19 million buildings in Turkey. The Ministry of Urban Planning has vowed to start with the shoddiest buildings as part of a systematic renewal plan from villages to cities. “What we have to do is be very strict with inspections. The way we'll organize this will focus on inspections.” He said in addition to the building owner and the contractor, the engineer who approves a building as well as the foreman and the master builder and the municipality will be held accountable.