The earthquake that hit Van on Sunday has shown once again that the best defense against quakes is the construction of strong buildings that can withstand tremors and won’t collapse when the earth moves, and the Turkish government has vowed to adopt new policies to ensure there are more quality constructions in the future. However, experts say that little that can change unless there is public awareness on the importance construction practices.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to tear down all shoddy buildings and illegal construction across the country, “even if we lose votes,” speaking at his Justice and Development Party (AK Party) group meeting on Wednesday.
According to figures from the Prime Ministry’s Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD), the death toll after the Van earthquake stood at 534 as of Thursday morning. AFAD also said a further 1,650 people were injured in the magnitude 7.2 quake. A further 185 people have been rescued from the rubble of collapsed buildings.
Industry experts say the government’s determination is not enough because homeowners and building contractors try to cut costs by economizing on the quality of materials and avoiding inspections on building standards whenever possible.
Experts say in the last six months of 2010, thousands of builders in 62 provinces -- where the enforcement of newly adopted inspection laws was delayed until 2011 -- obtained permits to construct buildings over the next two to three years. Some individuals and companies who initially had no plans of starting new construction in the near future also applied for permits, hoping to take advantage of old permit conditions. Officials from construction inspection companies and laboratories say in the last six months of 2010, the number of building permits obtained was equivalent to the average for three to four years. This means that hundreds of new buildings may be constructed with these permits and may never have to undergo the inspections specified by new legislation.
Officials say under the law, municipalities have 15 days to respond to a permit request, which is valid for a period of five years. This means that it is not necessarily old buildings that constitute the real threat in earthquakes, but new ones with these new permits that will go up in the next few years. This time limitation on municipalities means that they try to work as fast as they can to issue new permits.
İbrahim Sağır, an official from Van Gölü Construction Quality Control Laboratory, which operates in the eastern provinces of Van and Bitlis, says there have been days in which as many as 200 permits were granted to applicants prior to 2011. “The average was 70 permits per day before that. But you have days where hundreds of permits were granted between July 30, 2010 and Dec. 31, 2010,” the deadline before the new construction quality standards went into force.
Sağır noted: “These permits were secured specifically to avoid future construction inspections. The people who received these permits haven’t even started any construction. When they finally do, they will not be subject to quality inspections because they obtained their permits before 2011.”
Ali Yavuz Dere of Dermen Construction Laboratory, which operates in Kütahya, which also experienced a powerful earthquake in May, says the same thing happened in that province. “Municipalities just issued permits in order not to put the applicants into a difficult situation because so many were applying. People wanted to avoid both inspections and the associated costs. They got what they wanted. Municipalities avoided giving them a hard time. This poses a huge danger for future construction because these permits are good for five years.”
Mehmet Kaşdaş, from Muş Building Inspection, said his company had formally expressed their concerns to the Ministry of Public Works and Settlement, now known as the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning. “We filed complaints, but the ministry said there was nothing they could do legally. They said the law didn’t afford them the authority to intervene. People just grabbed any permits they could get, even if they weren’t planning to build. This creates serious concern regarding the quality of buildings that will be constructed in the future with those permits.”
Safa Building Inspection’s Muhammet Yılmaz, whose company is located in Elazığ, says the most important factor in the high number of opportunistic applicants for permits was to avoid costs. However, Yılmaz noted that the Elazığ Municipality did not compromise on building control.
Faruk Aydın, acting chairman of the Union of Building Inspection Agencies, said the law gives little leeway to municipalities to take any initiatives on permits. He said the only way to avoid shoddy and low-quality construction was public awareness. “People should understand what they are avoiding. If they are avoiding inspections, then they will find a way to get approval without fulfilling the necessary criteria even if they have to undergo inspections. They are not avoiding the law here; the only thing they are avoiding is spending more money.” He said there wasn’t anything anybody could do as long as people didn’t understand the importance of quality construction.
Aydın said his union had also alerted the ministry. Noting that the new construction quality control legislation was adopted in July 2010 but went into force on Dec. 31, 2010, Aydın said one way to undo the damage could be subjecting permits issued between these dates to quality control inspections by way of a Cabinet decision.