The most recent earthquake in Türkiye (and the northern part of Syria) is one of the most devastating natural disasters ever.
The earthquake struck 10 provinces in south/southeast Anatolia which is home to around 13-14 million. As of 11 February, the number of people who perished is over 20.000, and very sadly, it looks like the final number of losses will be much more.
The 7.8 magnitude earthquake came at 04.17 in the very early morning on February 6, at a time when almost everyone was in deep sleep. Some ran into the street or rode out the earthquake in their homes, praying that the walls would not collapse on them. After waiting for hours in the cold, many people returned to their homes, if they were standing. Nine hours after the first one, in what experts say is very rare, the entire zone was again struck by a second earthquake at a magnitude of 7.6. People who managed to escape the first time were caught by the second quake.
Scenes from the cities which were hit resemble a war zone. Tens of thousands of search and rescue people are desperately going through the rubble to dig out survivors. It is a race against time and very harsh weather conditions, with snow minus 10-15 degrees. Each passing day reduces the chances of survival. As in many parts of the globe, winter came to Türkiye very late this year. Until a couple of weeks ago Turks were making wishes for much snow so as not to face drought later on. Now we are all praying that it stops snowing for the sake of survivors.
People from all over Türkiye have mobilized to help their compatriots in the devastated earthquake region. Turks from all ages and walks of life, all over the country, are forming human chains and passing aid packages of all sorts to the next in the chain to load into trucks to be sent to the disaster area.
The international community has once again put aside political differences and responded in solidarity. Earthquake diplomacy is once again in play. For instance, leaders of the countries with which Türkiye has somewhat uneasy relations, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and President Abdel Fattah al Sisi of Egypt called President Erdoğan and offered support. More than 7.500 rescuers from 64 countries are presently working side by side with Turkish rescue teams to save lives and deliver relief assistance. In the joint effort, rescuers have managed to pull more than 88.000 people out of the rubble. Aid from all over the globe is pouring in. If only this international cooperation environment could be the case always and not only in times of such catastrophes.\
Turkish Ministers and officials from all government agencies are dispatched to the region. President Erdoğan said that his government is doing everything possible but that it is impossible to be fully prepared for a catastrophe of this magnitude.
The Turkish President has a point in the sense that the area where the earthquake struck is huge, with around 110.000 square kilometers. Pursuing rescue efforts and trying to ensure the safety of hundreds of thousands of survivors is an incredible challenge.
Even so, these circumstances, however difficult they may be, do not remove questions and criticisms as to whether the government was properly prepared for such a potential crisis in a country located in an area where earthquakes strike.
President Erdoğan lashed out at critics against the government’s handling of the crisis as cheap attempts at political exploitation. He also targeted “those who attempt to cause social chaos”. He said that prosecutors are identifying perpetrators spreading fake news and when the day comes, the files on these people will be opened.
The opposition political parties realize and appreciate all difficulties, but they criticize the government for not being well prepared. They blame it for being sloppy, negligent, disorganized, and incompetent. They also regard the declaration of a state of emergency in the 10 provinces as yet another indication of the intention to suppress any criticism rather than apply it as an instrument to enable better conditions to facilitate the relief effort. The earthquake has brought about a number of very serious issues on different fronts.
Firstly, whether more could have been done in terms of preparedness is already being debated. Earthquakes are a reality in Türkiye and this is not the first time it has happened. Experts have even pinpointed potential earthquake spots, including the places where this particular earthquake struck. There may be no way of preventing an earthquake and knowing when exactly it will strike, but necessary measures and preparedness would have kept the loss at a minimum.
Secondly, building regulations especially in earthquake areas are being questioned. The problem is probably a deficiency in proper implementation and enforcement of regulations and improper inspection. The so-called “construction amnesties”, a populist and frequently applied election gift of the ruling political parties, is also blamed as an important part of the problem.
Thirdly, whether they are contractors cheating on the building material or government and municipality officials who do not do their work as they should, people expect those responsible to be prosecuted. The contractor of the luxury 12-floor apartment block built in 2012 in Antakya which collapsed with hundreds of people in it, has been detained in Istanbul airport while getting ready to board a plane to Montenegro. But he is only one man among the many who must be brought to justice.
Fourthly, the state of the economy, which has been a major problem in Türkiye in recent times, has taken another hit. It is impossible to make a precise calculation of the economic cost at this stage but an educated estimate puts it around at least 30 billion dollars.
The region will have to be rebuilt. A great number of buildings (the official figure as of today is 6.444) have collapsed and some have been damaged to the extent which necessitates demolition. President Erdoğan said that TOKI (Housing Development Administration of the Republic of Türkiye) will replace the collapsed buildings in one year.
Fifthly, parliamentary and Presidential elections are around the corner. The date was set for June 18. President Erdoğan later talked about holding the elections a little bit earlier on May 14th. The government was already going to face its probably most challenging election up to date and the earthquake may have made it even more difficult for Erdoğan. There is now speculation that the elections may be postponed. To do that, the constitution needs to be amended by the Parliament and 400 plus votes (out of 600) are needed. The ruling party and its partner can not come up with this number. They need the opposition’s support to make the necessary change in the constitution. Regardless of its outcome, I expect this issue to surface for open debate soon.
The earthquake also struck war-torn Syria. The opposition-held northeastern parts of the country and the regime-held Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, were hit hardest.
The Asad regime said that it will allow international assistance into what it calls “areas controlled by terrorists outside the control of the Syrian state”.
The United Nations could deliver aid only three days after the earthquake because the only border gate (Cilvegözü) on the Turkish side was authorized to be used for international aid delivery and the 4.5 kilometers long road between Cilvegözü and Bab al Hawwa on the Syrian side suffered damages. These areas had to be cleared of rubble for the safe passage of aid convoys. The first UN aid convoy of 6 trucks crossed into Syria on February 9 and the second convoy of 10 trucks on February 10.
The Turkish Foreign Minister stated that Türkiye is facilitating third-party aid delivery into Syria and encouraging the opening of two more border crossings in the closeby Kilis area for earthquake victims. Türkiye has also opened its airspace for the same purpose flights destined for Aleppo airport.
On a final note, political parties across the political spectrum in Türkiye agree that now is the time for national unity and the healing of wounds. But everyone has a lot to say and they will certainly do that when it is time.
Aftershocks of this devastating earthquake will be with the people of Türkiye for a long time and dealing with the aftermath will be tough.
Omer Onhon is former Turkish Ambassador to Spain.