Turkey earthquake : A year on, empty promises, broken lives

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

February 6 marks one year since a deadly earthquake, described as the “disaster of the century,” struck Turkey’s southern region. At 4:17 a.m. local time, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Turkey's Gaziantep province. Hours later, Turkey's Kahramanmaras province was hit by a 7.5 magnitude quake. Some eleven provinces in total were affected. The authorities issued a level 4 warning — the highest level of warning used for emergencies and very serious hazards — and asked for international assistance.

Officially, the earthquake abruptly ended the lives of some 50,000 residents, wounded over 100,000 and upended the lives of hundreds of thousands more who continue living in container cities and tents a year on. A total of 37,000 buildings were officially destroyed across all provinces. An evaluation report issued in March 2023 indicated that, while 18,000 more buildings were identified as in need of an immediate and total reconstruction, 650,000 buildings were identified as damaged. The earthquake also cost the country’s economy more than USD 10 billion, leaving over 650,000 people unemployed. At the time, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promised to have people return to normalcy in a year’s time, with housing provided by the authorities upon their completion. The president pledged 319,000 new homes by February 2024 and a total 680,000 by 2025. But, according to the Environment and Urbanization Ministry, only 46,000 homes have been finalized thus far, leaving many earthquake survivors in temporary shelters, containers and tents.

Unkept promises

When the earthquake struck, authorities promised to respond quickly and rebuild the destruction caused as a result. It was just months ahead of general elections, and so these promises were what garnered support among those hit the hardest to vote the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as well as the incumbent president.

Ample reports of government failure to prevent the extent of the damage were forgotten even though, it was the same government that passed 19 zoning amnesty laws since 1948 granting pardons (for a fee) to building contractors who failed to meet safety standards. Many of the registered post-earthquake assembly zones for tents and a humanitarian responses disappeared with the construction boom. Over the years, the AKP rejected 58 motions by opposition politicians asking for an independent oversight committee to oversee building safety. Warnings by the experts from the Chamber of Geological Engineer rang hollow.

According to Human Rights Watch, although “trials of real estate developers, building controllers, and technical personnel have opened in recent months, … not a single public official, elected mayor, or city council member has yet faced trial for their role in approving numerous construction projects that fell far short of safe building standards or for failing to take measures to protect people living in buildings known to have structural problems in a region with a high risk of seismic activity.”

None of this, however, changed the voting results. According to TurkeyRecap's overview at the time of the elections last year, “the disaster did not produce dramatic shifts in voting preferences.”

Now, a year later, and a month ahead of local, municipal elections, the ruling party with the president at its helm is delivering more promises with the hope of securing votes in the upcoming election. Speaking in Hatay on the anniversary of the earthquake, President Erdoğan vowed to deliver 75,000 housing units over the course of the next two months across the earthquake affected provinces, and an additional 200,000 units by the end of 2024.

But the president also delivered another overt pre-election message: unless the people of Hatay vote for AKP candidates, the services will remain delayed. Hatay was one of the worst-hit provinces during the February earthquake where the absence of search and rescue operations was heavily criticized both by the public and experts for its lack of adequate emergency response, but also over its dismissal of recommendations and reports handed in by engineers and earthquake experts.

Housing, however, is just one of many other problems local residents continue to face. The agricultural sector took a heavy toll in the aftermath of the earthquake — “the toxic dust, affected water supplies, low quality harvests, reduced sales due to mass population displacement” are just some of these, according to reporting by Turkey Recap. And, despite significant aid support for agriculture farmers over the past year, the environmental impact of the earthquake remains.

In January 2024, an expert report prepared by the Konya Technical University for two residential complexes in Kahramanmaras — Palmiye and Hamidiye — concluded that it was public officials who were primarily at fault in the damage of the two residential blocks. The report concluded that Hamidiye was “approved by relevant authorities,” and “implemented without questioning,” despite being built “in violation of engineering principles,” failing to comply “with both the 1975 and 1998 earthquake regulations and norms.” Similarly, the expert report concluded that there was “deliberate negligence of public officials” involved in the approval and construction of the Palmiye residential blocks.

It remains to be seen whether justice will be served and officials held accountable. Mesut Hancer, who lost his 15 year-old daughter in the earthquake in the city of Kahramanmaras, does not believe justice will ever knock on their doors. According to expert reports, the building in which his daughter died, “was built on unstable ground, using poor quality material and concrete that could be crumbled into little pieces by hand.” But the Hancer family did not file a court case, certain their attempts would prove futile.

There is no central repository for data on the earthquake. As such, much of the data is gathered based on news reports, official statements and statistical data. This makes statements like the one made by Murat Kurum, the AKP Istanbul candidate for mayoral elections even more confusing. Speaking on television, Kurum, who served as the country’s minister of environment between 2018 and 2023, said that, in total, 130,000 people died after the February 6 earthquake. The quote was picked up by local media and opposition parties criticizing the state for covering up the actual death toll. Kurum later said the number was not in reference to February 6 earthquake, but the total number of deaths the country has experienced in all of the earthquakes thus far. The latter however, does not hold true if taking into account available statistics, according to journalist Murat Agirel. In a screenshot of all recorded deaths in the past earthquakes, Agirel tweeted, “According to this data, excluding the February 6 earthquake, the number of lives lost in the earthquakes is 77,852 people.”

The official death toll, expert reports, promises and statements — a year on, none of these are going to be bring back lives lost, broken futures or any expectations of going back to normalcy.

As one resident of Antakya, the capital of Hatay province, said in an interview with The Guardian, “We don’t expect Antakya to be back on its feet for at least another five years.” And even then, the uncertainty of how long will it take, if at all, for Turkey to recover from the trauma of the earthquake of the century remains to be seen. Especially not when earthquake experts anticipate heavier tremors hitting cities like Istanbul — a city considered a lifeline for much of the country.

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