Erdogan’s rush to rebuild in wake of Turkey’s earthquakes prompts fears of history repeating itself

The Turkish president is under pressure to deal with the fallout from the devastating tremors, but is he moving too fast? By Borzou Daragahi

Monday 06 March 2023 12:04 GMT
<p>Destroyed homes in Samandag, southern Turkey</p>

Destroyed homes in Samandag, southern Turkey

The rush by Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to build tens of thousands of housing units within months in areas struck by earthquakes could lead to further catastrophe, experts have warned.

Even as recovery efforts are continuing, Turkey’s major contractors, some with close ties to the government of Mr Erdogan, are preparing to redevelop and rebuild. The president, facing a tough re-election contest on 14 May, has promised to transform the quake-stricken region over the next year. During a visit to the area on Tuesday, he vowed to rebuild 309,000 new housing units in “just a few months”. On Wednesday, Mr Erdogan promised more than 400,000 new housing units, with construction beginning this month.

However, urban planning experts worry that building at such a fast pace in a region that is still suffering aftershocks will yield the same kind of substandard construction that they believe contributed to the enormous death toll of the earthquakes.

Geologists and urban planners said it was a grave mistake to rush into building projects without thorough geological surveys in an area where the earth has yet to settle. Seismologists have recorded nearly 10,000 aftershocks since 6 February and warn that tremors could continue for up to two years.

Geophysicist Savas Karabulut told The Independent that studies must be conducted before any construction should take place. Teams of civil engineers, geologists, urban planners, and architects must assess each afflicted area. Water and sewage infrastructure as well as transport and communications systems must be taken into account, as well as the possibility of future quakes. Soil assessments need to be taken.

“Early warning and emergency management stations should be installed and observed continuously,” he said. “The central authority has declared that we will resolve all these problems in only one year. It’s not possible to accept this non-scientific solution. Otherwise, the next earthquake can result in a greater catastrophe.”

Mr Erdogan has faced a wave of criticism over his government's handling of the deadly quakes – more than 45,000 people have died, along with another 6,000 reported dead in northern Syria. The Turkish leader has defended Ankara's response, saying it had been caught up in “a storm of earthquakes”, but there has been pressure to act quickly, with hundreds of thousands left homeless.

Some 164,000 buildings in the quake zone were either demolished by the quake or so badly damaged they will need to be torn down, with tens of thousands more damaged. On Monday, at least two people were killed when a significant aftershock hit Turkey’s southeastern Malatya province.

Satellites reveal before and after shots of damage from earthquake in Turkey

The Turkish news agency Anka has accessed plans according to which some 85,000 housing units totaling 23,426,000 square metres are to be built in five earthquake-damaged provinces in the coming months.

On Wednesday, Mr Erdogan said: “We will remove the debris, we will heal the wounds. We will improve on what was destroyed and present a better life for our people.” The president also said a so-called National Risk Shield meeting would convene on Friday to review the country’s building stock that do not comply with construction codes.

Authorities allegedly began signing no-bid contracts for reconstruction within days of the quake, preparing a “Disaster Area Design Areas Guide” to rebuild parts of Kahramanmaraş, Malatya, Osmaniye, Hatay and Adana provinces. Nine companies “close to the government” were named in the document, according to Anka.

Much of the construction linked to Turkey’s biggest and most well-connected contractors and the powerful housing authority, called Toki, withstood the earthquakes.

President Erdogan addresses members of his ruling party during a meeting at the parliament in Ankara on Wednesday

Ankara political insiders say that Mr Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are desperate to shore up their prospects ahead of 14 May elections that the president himself confirmed on Wednesday should take place as scheduled. “This nation will do what is necessary on May 14, God willing,” Mr Erdogan said.

The most recent polls suggest that Mr Erdogan and his party have suffered as a result of what is widely-perceived as a botched initial response to the disaster, but not as much as he and his supporters may have feared. The latest polls expect a close contest, although some potential rivals for Mr Erdogan are yet to declare they will run. But a minor surge in his popularity spurred by several spending programmes launched before the quake appears to have fallen away.

Political opponents of Mr Erdogan appear to have been emboldened by the backlash against his handling of the quakes. At two major football matches this week in Istanbul, fans chanted, “Government resign!” One of the teams whose fans shouted the critcism, Fenerbahce, have been banned from attending this weekend’s game against Kayserispor.

“They need to reconstruct fast,” says Selim Sazak, an adviser for the opposition Iyi Party. “It’s the only way they could contain and offset some of the political damage.”

Mr Erdogan has admitted shortcomings in the initial quake response and has asked survivors for their “blessing” or forgiveness. He was seen in the earthquake zone this week handing cash to survivors in what critics called a crude stunt.

Several regions affected by the quake are AKP strongholds. Mr Sazak said quick reconstruction not only helps stanch the loss in support, but may shore up political networks ahead of the election.

“State companies give the money to the contractors, and contractors give part of it to the party,” he said.

Another worry is that the quick reconstruction will result in buildings that lack character, essentially wiping away historic areas of the country, including regions like Antakya, historic Antioch, which is among the most lively multicultural provinces of Turkey. 

“They are going to transform the urban character of these places,” said Mr Sazak. “They don’t care if Antakya ends up being a ‘little Dubai’ with no character and no cosmopolitanism.”

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