The photos flooding news agencies in the wake of the earthquake that shook the Turkish-Syrian area resemble the work of a both evil and sloppy Gaudi: wavy floors, curved walls, missing facades – exposing interiors as bare as the earthquake left them. Perhaps only the photos taken of Dresden after the 1945 bombing paint a more suggestive picture of an urban disaster. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are entire areas in remote corners of the country leveled to the ground, which neither photographers or rescue teams, for that matter, have yet reached.
By the time I’m writing this piece (February 8, 1 PM), the earthquake that rocked Turkey and Syria in the early hours of Monday have killed over two thousand people in Syria and at least three times as much in Turkey. Drawing on the nefarious experience of regional earthquakes, the total number of victims may well reach 20,000, the World Health Organization estimated. The quake occurred in a known quake-sensitive area. In the early phase, the telluric movements measured 7.8 on the Richter scale, followed by a number of aftershocks, one of which exceeded 7 degrees. The affected area on the Turkish-Syrian border is the scene of a violent conflict that has been waging on for years – and which is bound to worsen the scale of this natural catastrophe.
The earthquakes in Asia Minor – more deadly than those in other seismic areas
Earthquakes of similar magnitude are reported in other areas on the globe, although they do not produce the same number of fatalities. For instance, a 7-degree quake shook the Fukushima area in Japan on March 16, 2022. Four people died. Exactly a year earlier, a 7+degree tremor rocked Honshu island, resulting in zero casualties. In February 2021, also in the Fukushima area, a similar earthquake killed a single person. Another area famous for its seismic activity is California. It is here that in 1992 a 7.2-degree earthquake occurred, followed by several 6-degree aftershocks. The quake produced significant material damage, but not a single soul perished.
Conversely, the August 1999 earthquake that struck the vicinity of İzmit, a city located at the junction of the Marmara and Black Seas, killed over 17,000 people. Of course, the depth of the quake should also be factored in, but even if those tremors occurring along the Anatolian fault occurred at lower depth (which is not always the case), the discrepancy in terms of the aftermath is quite huge. What makes earthquakes in Anatolia so deadly? If we are to refer to the latest quake, two particular aspects stand out. First, the magnitude. In the last ten years, only two other earthquakes similar in magnitude (or higher) have occurred at global level. Then there’s the time of the earthquake – the early morning hours, when people are usually at home, sleeping. Had the earthquake occurred during the day, when most people are active and move about the city, the mortality rate would have been significantly lower.
However, in the particular case of the February 6 quake, there’s one additional element to be considered: the war in Syria. In one of the cities hit the hardest by the quake, Idlib, the last rebel stronghold standing up to the Damascus government, hundreds of people died. Idlib is a transit hub for millions of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war, people who live in makeshift dwellings in bad enough conditions. Another city in the region, Aleppo, the second-largest in Syria, is under government control, but has reported an equal number of victims as Idlib. That’s largely because living standards here have been seriously impacted by the war, with repeated power outages and fuel shortages making life difficult, to say nothing of the prolonged bombings that have eroded the sturdiness of people’s houses. Another affected area in northeastern Syria is controlled by the Kurds, but here another problem arises: humanitarian aid must go through Turkish-held territories, and Turkey sees Kurds as terrorists. The only routes viable for transporting humanitarian aid can only cross Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Turkey seems to have learned very little from its own tragedies
The areas that were most affected by the February 6 earthquake are in Turkey, in eastern Anatolia. Seismologists have drawn up a map of the quake, with a number of Turkish cities now marking the margins of the epicenter. Photos on social media depicted the Roman castle in Gaziantep before and after the earthquake: the images of the castle before the disaster showed walls rising a few meters high, whereas after the quake the castle was reduced to a pile of debris. In Urfa, a city close to the Syrian border, a four-story building left standing, apparently unaffected by the quake, collapsed a few hours later, trapping new victims within its walls. Overall, images of residential buildings turned into building materials scattered all over the place by the sheer force of the quake made headlines in local and world media. For Turkey, the war is less an excuse as it is for Syria, and still many Turkish buildings in the risk area have collapsed. Moreover, Turkey and Syria are aware that both countries are fatefully situated on the Anatolian plate, which the Arabian Plate is shifting westwards. Turkey and Syria are thus the epicenter of a seismic area by definition, something which has been common knowledge for hundreds of years, as early as the 1138 earthquake that razed Aleppo to the ground, or as recently as the 1999 İzmit quake that killed thousands.
After the quake in the Marmara Sea, Ankara introduced a number of building code provisions designed to reduce seismic risk. More specifically, in 2002, after Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power, a first blow was dealt to the corruption and laxity governing the construction sector in Turkey. Harsher laws were passed as well as specific penalties applicable to those that don’t abide by them. At the same time, the government also kicked off a program meant to consolidate seismic-sensitive buildings. In total, some three million homes were rehabilitated under this program. Turkey’s history of earthquakes bares many similarities with Romania’s own experience after 1990, the key difference being that Romania was spared the test of high-magnitude earthquakes during this period, whereas Turkey was not. Yet what the Erdoğan administration achieved with one hand it destroyed with the other. Around the 2018 elections, the government gave zoning amnesty to non-compliant buildings. Some 9 million home owners at the time denounced themselves in order to comply with the law. How many of these houses have now been leveled by the February 6 quake? It’s hard to say. What is certain, however, is that they further push up the death toll that rises by the hour.
The authorities’ response to the earthquake could decide Erdoğan’s political future
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited southern Turkey, which was particularly affected by the quake, giving assurances that, after a number of drawbacks, “the state is now doing its job” in terms of providing post-disaster aid. We have heard criticism against the government, people blaming state institutions for not responding fast enough to help the victims’ families.
People are also disgruntled with Turkey’s overall economic situation, now ravaged by rampant inflation, which reached 80% in the last year. Pundits have yet noticed a fundamental difference between the biggest earthquakes of 1999 and 2023. The former occurred in the north, in Turkey’s more developed areas in terms of industry and tourism. The latter, on the contrary, struck Turkey’s poorest region, the southeast, where the economic effects are felt differently compared to the north.
This difference might be instrumental to the outcome of the elections in Turkey, scheduled for May. An overarching disaster-relief effort might consolidate Erdoğan’s image as a national leader. The success or failure of this effort could decisively impact the upcoming vote.