Building Standards in Turkiye: A Gap Between Principles and Practice?

By Esma Mesihovic  

Over 28,000 people have been killed in the recent earthquake which struck Turkiye (previously Turkey) near its border with Syria. The death toll is expected to keep rising. 


With a magnitude of 7.8, this earthquake was the result of movement between the Anatolian and Arabian plates. It afflicted an area that is not new to major quakes. A quick look at the USGS map shows how frequently earthquakes occur in that area. But while the earthquake was predictable, its magnitude, seemingly, was not


The level of preparedness was extremely low. The quake destroyed thousands of buildings—including ones that were said to have complied with recent earthquake regulations. A recently published BBC article displayed pictures of several structures that had collapsed, all of which were supposedly following building standards. 


Ironically, only a few days before the devastating earthquake, a new draft law for zoning amnesties was pending approval in the parliamentary Grand National Assembly of Turkiye. These laws were aimed at eliminating the grievances experienced by owners of buildings on private property, which meant dismissing registration documents, administrative fines, and criminal lawsuits filed against them. 


If anything, this earthquake has taught us the danger of being lenient with building regulations. In the words of Celal Şengör, one of Turkiye’s leading geoscientists, “zoning amnesty in an earthquake country is murder.” 


But has Turkiye not learned its lesson from before? In 1999, the Izmit earthquake caused the deaths of over 17,000 people. Following it, new rules required structures to be built with high-quality concrete, steel reinforcements, and other preconditions. But enforcement of these requirements was weak.


The result? Millions of buildings were constructed against the regulations, posing a serious hazard to residents. The impact of earthquakes would be, and are, absolutely devastating. We’re now wrought with countless videos of rescue teams digging people out from concrete rubble, along with an image of a father holding the hand of his 15-year-old daughter as she lay under a flattened building. 


Catastrophic earthquakes like this are never predictable. But preparation is still necessary. These effects could have been mitigated had stricter measures been implemented; following the fatal effects of the 1999 earthquake, citizens should have been consistently educated on the liability of living in that area and strict enforcement of engineering solutions should have been enforced by the government. 


This is not to say that Turkiye has not been involved in improving Earthquake engineering before. Turkish members of the International Association for Earthquake Engineering have notably contributed to publishing several articles from varied engineering backgrounds to meet safety needs. They have also developed comprehensive models for Earthquake mitigation in Turkiye—specifically accounting for serious economic drawbacks in the country which include annual inflation rising to record-high rates. Additionally, new building codes have been routinely revised and published for the UNDRR.   


The issue, however, was not a priority, as demonstrated by the zoning amnesties and the number of deaths that this earthquake caused. 


The government is aware of the dangers and has created laws to mitigate the effects. According to a Turkish article, “column cutting” is a common practice in Turkiye. This is where people shear columns inside their apartments to create more space and redesign their rooms. However, the consequences of this practice, according to Turkish specialists, are deadly. This is one area the government can improve on by tightening regulations and increasing the frequency of building inspections. The same article mentions that a person can be imprisoned for over 22 years if they cut columns, which shows that the government is aware of the danger. But they simply did not regulate and inspect in a detailed manner. 


The question then remains: could the government have funded and initiated projects for rebuilding the structures that were not earthquake-resistant? Many of the buildings that collapsed in this earthquake were very old, including historically significant monuments like the Gaziantep Castle. In this case, “outdated” building methods almost sound like an understatement. 


It seems unlikely that it would be possible—it is a completely arduous undertaking, especially for two countries known to be the cradles of civilization (which comes with various ramifications). So President Erdogan’s statement about the impossibility of preparing for disasters this big is not entirely far from the truth. 


If we compare it to the Izmit earthquake in 1999, an area next to the North Anatolia faultline, measures were taken right after the earthquake to strengthen public infrastructure, and a “Planned Urbanization and Housing Production Mobilization” strategy was introduced, along with other preparation systems. But this seems specific to the Izmit area—which is not near the province of this week’s quake. Because many other areas in Turkiye are earthquake-prone, nationwide reform is difficult. 


Syria is a whole other story, as infrastructure was already crumbling from years of the 21st-century proxy war


Ultimately, however, it is no excuse. Turkiye’s government is responsible for protecting its citizens’ lives as dictated by its constitution.


To the very least, a national program should be developed to systematically regularly warn and educate people about the earthquake-prone areas they live in. If people become sharply aware of the earthquake danger—even years after this catastrophe, there is a higher chance the amount of corruption in building homes will also decrease. 


As many people in the Islamic community would state—ultimately, the fate of God is upon us. “Qadr” is the Arabic word for it. But perhaps this fate can be changed if the community united and started considering more deeply the correct courses of action—one that will revolutionize integrity towards natural disaster preparation in general. 


Alongside sending donations and prayers to the people affected, we should strongly advocate for establishing stricter policies that don’t create gaps between principle and practice. It is imperative that the government of Turkiye uses this disaster as a wake-up call that will fuel preparedness in all earthquake-prone regions in the country. 

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