Leader: The lessons that must be learned from this disaster

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IT IS now clear beyond doubt that, in terms of loss of life and material devastation, not to mention its sheer strength, Tuesday's earthquake in Turkey was one of the very worst in recent times. At 7.4 on the Richter scale, with a death toll running into the tens of thousands, and economic damage likely to total tens of billions of dollars, Izmit 1999 will take a high place in the catalogue of this century's natural disasters.

In many of them a grim pattern may be discerned: first, numbed shock at what has happened, followed by an outpouring of grief, and then a search for those to blame. Invariably, the instant culprits are governments accused of incompetent organisation, and building contractors held to have violated every safety norm in the search for quick profits. So it has been this week, and not without reason. Turkey is an especially dangerous seismic zone, and scientists have long warned that sooner or later a major earthquake was bound to strike its highly populated and economically vital north- western region. But in the desperate early days after a disaster, the overwhelming priority is help, not recrimination. And never more so than now.

Set aside for a moment the colossal human suffering which demands - and is securing - a massive international relief effort, and consider the wider context. The political and social consequences of an earthquake can, of course, be no more predicted than the earthquake itself. But suffice to point out that the deep faultlines upon which Turkey sits are not only geological, but cultural, economic and geopolitical as well.

Powerful nationalist and Islamic currents course through the country's politics, of which the military remains the ultimate arbiter. Even before the earthquake laid low the north-western cities which account for a third of its industrial output, Turkey had been in the throes of rampant "stagflation" - soaring inflation and a recession that in the short term will be made more painful by the stabilisation agreement just worked out with the International Monetary Fund.

At the opposite, south-eastern end of the country, the Ankara government is under intense pressure to settle the decades-old Kurdish insurgency that spills over into Iraq and Iran. And all this against the background of renewed concern over the Cyprus question, the related issue of Turkey's ties with Western Europe, and the country's enduring importance as a strategic sheet-anchor of Nato, just to the south of Russia and next door to the ever-volatile Middle East, where Turkey has forged a quiet but influential partnership with Israel. We do not know how the earthquake will impact on any or all of these issues. Perhaps it will make little difference. Perhaps the disaster will concentrate the minds of bickering politicians. Conceivably, reconstruction from the earthquake could even hasten recovery from recession. Plainly, however, the country's continued stability is of huge importance to the West.

Later, once the immediate emergency is past, the lessons from the calamity must be drawn and acted upon. They are lessons not just for Turkey, but for other populous and industrialising countries - Mexico and Iran are just two which come to mind - that are highly vulnerable to earthquakes. Tremors like the one which struck in the small hours of Tuesday morning cannot be prevented, or even predicted with sufficient accuracy to allow prior evacuation of the local population. But their effects can be contained, if contingency plans have been drawn up and, better still, refined by practice emergency drills of the type carried out in Japan. Indeed, such low-cost exercises should be automatic in regions of high earthquake risk.

The second lesson is less easily applied. It is one thing to enact legislation stipulating that every new building must conform to strict standards of construction to make them as tremor-resistant as possible. Turkey, one may be sure, has such statutes by the shelf-ful. But it is quite another to make sure they are enforced against the competing daily pressures imposed by rapid industrialisation and exploding populations.

How wonderful it would be if everywhere were like rich and civic-minded California, well prepared for the inevitable Big One. But the reality, in less fortunate countries where poverty is greater and trust in authority so much less, is very different. Rightly, there is outcry now at the unscrupulous builders who cut corners by diluting cement with sand, and employing iron "strengthening" rods which were as weak and brittle as straws.

But the proof that something has changed in Turkey will only come with the next earthquake, if the replacements of the blocks of flats which crumpled this week withstand the shock. In the meantime, we in the West, for reasons of self-interest as well as simple humanity, must give all the aid we can.