Istanbul woefully unprepared for when the big earthquake hits

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Scientists believe Istanbul’s next big earthquake is long overdue and it is not a question of if, but rather when. 

اضافة اعلان


The devastating magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck southern Turkey, killing tens of thousands and affecting millions in early February, has reminded Istanbul’s residents that they could be next.


Beyond a lack of preparedness and a government seemingly incapable of a proper response, lies the structural unreliability of city buildings. It is of little wonder that the city of 15 million, with a high population density and located on the north Anatolian fault line, is gripped with anxiety.


In a recent Ipsos survey, 81 percent of respondents were predominantly concerned about the possibility of an earthquake in the region, and 40 percent said earthquakes were the most pressing problem in Turkey. 


While fears are widespread, immediate solutions appear to be few. Many of the city’s lower- and middle-income residents are being forced to choose between excruciatingly high rents or buildings that are not quake-proof. 


Construction has been the backbone of Turkey’s economy and an industry the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has heavily relied on since coming to power in 2002. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration has given the green light to many construction projects, and by 2020 the industry accounted for 5.4 percent of national gross domestic product and employed 1.5 million people. 


Between 2000 and 2018, construction sites increased sevenfold in Istanbul alone. 


While growth is generally a good thing, how the industry has grown raises concern. Istanbul has lost 10 percent of its forests to urban projects in the past 18 years. Meanwhile, 78 areas designated for public gathering after an earthquake have been zoned for development.

81 percent of respondents were predominantly concerned about the possibility of an earthquake in the region, and 40 percent said earthquakes were the most pressing problem in Turkey.

Due to over construction and the privatization of green spaces, 67 percent of the city’s population lack open spaces to gather after an earthquake. The government made $85 billion from these sales and construction projects. With that money the AKP government could make Istanbul earthquake-proof four times over – yet nothing has been done.


Of the 1.16 million buildings in Istanbul today, about 800,000 were built after 2000. But it would be wrong to assume these relatively new structures are up to code to withstand a magnitude 7.8 earthquake. 


Even buildings certified earthquake-proof collapsed during the February disaster, which had its epicenter in Kahramanmaras and caused devastation in 11 provinces. A tragic example was Hatay’s Ronesans Rezidans, a luxury building complex with a hotel and 249 residential units, that was leveled, killing 750 residents.


It is unclear how many buildings in Istanbul would share the same fate. Have construction companies faked documents? Have they used subpar building materials? There is also the question of buildings that received a so-called zoning amnesty, which allows property owners to avoid code requirements by paying levies and taxes.  Unfortunately, information on these questions is unreliable due to the endemic corruption within the industry. 


Tayfun Kahraman, city planner and executive board chair of the Chamber of Urban Planners Istanbul Office, said he believes that 20 percent of buildings would be unusable after an earthquake in Istanbul, affecting 3 million people. According to Istanbul Municipality, 10,000 residents are living in 318 buildings about to collapse even without an earthquake. There are an additional 1,525 at-risk buildings that people call home.


Many living in at-risk dwellings are afraid to file for a “quake-resistance inspection” out of fear they will have to move and pay skyrocketing rents.  

Many living in at-risk dwellings are afraid to file for a “quake-resistance inspection” out of fear they will have to move and pay skyrocketing rents.

For example, the average rent in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district — an area susceptible to earthquakes — has gone from 4,000 lira five years ago to 30,000 lira. If a building is deemed structurally unsound, residents must evacuate within 90 days to allow for demolition. Those evicted receive 1,500 lira a month from the government for the 18 months, a paltry sum considering the city’s high cost of living.


Moreover, these building checks are time consuming and costly for property owners. Tenants had been prohibited from applying for quake-resistance inspections, but Istanbul Municipality has opened up that service. As of February 20, 40,000 applications had been filed. 


The government still has time to prepare. It could establish a “shakeout scenario” similar to the US state of California, where authorities are trained and have plans in place for a devastating earthquake. Istanbul Municipality’s 2019 earthquake mobilization plan lacks this foresight, establishing the possible outcome of an earthquake, but not preparing citizens for one. 


For example, what would emergency technicians need to prioritize? There needs to be a clearer plan set. In February’s quake, most first responders were from Istanbul. But how many citizens from outside the city have first responder training and will be able to come to Istanbul’s aid? Considering that Istanbul accounts for 35 percent of Turkey’s GDP, more value should be given to such a possible scenario.


Cornell professor Judith Hubbard has said there is a 30 to 70 percent chance of an earthquake taking place anywhere in the Sea of Marmara at any time in the next 140 years. 


In the light of what Turkey’s most devastating earthquake has revealed, it is natural to feel panic. 


Istanbul’s infrastructure is not prepared, nor is the government. Now is the time to be cautious and realistic, rather than bury one’s head in the sand. 


Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise, and Istanbul Art News. Twitter: @aedecramer

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