Türkiye ignored 2021 warnings and had lax policing of building codes before earthquake, say experts
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Türkiye's lax enforcement in modern construction codes — which experts in geology and engineering have long warned about — is coming under renewed scrutiny in the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes which flattened thousands of buildings and killed more than 25,000 people across Türkiye and Syria last week.
The back-to-back earthquakes that damaged or entirely demolished at least 12,000 buildings were extremely powerful – their force magnified by the fact that they occurred at shallow depths – and the early hour at which the first magnitude-7.8 quake struck made it difficult for people to escape their buildings.
But experts now point to a mountain of evidence — and rubble — as to what made the quakes so deadly. Even though Türkiye has, on paper, construction codes that meet current earthquake-engineering standards, they are too rarely enforced, explaining why thousands of buildings crumbled.
"This is a disaster caused by shoddy construction, not by an earthquake," said David Alexander, a professor of emergency planning at University College London.
It is common knowledge that many buildings in the areas pummelled by the two massive earthquakes were built with inferior materials and methods, and often did not comply with government standards, said Eyup Muhcu, president of the Chamber of Architects of Türkiye.
He said that includes many old buildings, but also apartments erected in recent years — nearly two decades after the country brought its building codes up to modern standards.
"The building stock in the area was weak and not sturdy, despite the reality of earthquakes," Mr Muhcu said.
Many of Türkiye's modern buildings failed in a "pancake mode" of structural collapse following the earthquake. Was it simply the enormous magnitude and violence of the quake, or is the problem with the buildings?
Many believe the problem was largely ignored because addressing it would be expensive, unpopular, and restrain a key engine of the country's economic growth.
Following the 1999 earthquakes that hit north-west Türkiye killing some 18,000 people, building codes in the country were tightened; but upgrades haven't happened fast enough, particularly in poorer cities.
Builders commonly use lower quality materials, hire fewer professionals to oversee projects, and don't adhere to various regulations as a way of keeping costs down, according to Mr Muhcu.
He said the Turkish government's so-called "construction peace" introduced before the 2018 general elections as a way to secure votes has, in effect, legalised unsafe buildings.
"We are paying for it with thousands of deaths, the destruction of thousands of buildings, economic losses," said Mr Muchu.
Since the disaster, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has acknowledged "shortcomings" in the country's response.
According to justice minister Bekir Bozdag, "those who have been negligent, at fault and responsible for the destruction following the earthquake will answer to justice."
But several experts said any serious investigation into the root of weak enforcement of building codes must include a hard look at the policies of Mr Erdogan, as well as regional and local officials, who oversaw — and promoted — a construction boom that helped drive economic growth.
Shortly before Türkiye's last presidential and parliamentary election in 2018, the government unveiled a sweeping program to grant amnesty to companies and individuals responsible for certain violations of the country's building codes.
Türkiye's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan admits there were problems with his government's initial response to the devastating earthquakes in his nation's south.
By paying a fine, violators could avoid having to bring their buildings up to code. Such amnesties have been used by previous governments ahead of elections as well.
As part of that amnesty program, the government agency responsible for enforcing building codes acknowledged that more than half of all buildings in Türkiye — accounting for some 13 million apartments— were not in compliance with current standards.
The types of violations cited in that report by the Ministry of Environment and Urbanisation were wide-ranging, including homes built without permits, buildings that added extra floors or expanded balconies without authorisation, and the existence of so-called squatter homes inhabited by low-income families.
The report did not specify how many buildings were in violation of codes related to earthquake-proofing or basic structural integrity, but the reality was clear.
The current head of the Ministry of Environment and Urbanisation, Murat Kurum, foreshadowed the dire consequences in 2019:
"Construction amnesty doesn't mean the building is sturdy."
In 2021, the Chamber of Geological Engineers of Türkiye published a series of reports raising red flags about existing buildings and new construction taking place in areas levelled by this week's quakes, and urged the government to conduct studies to ensure that buildings were up to code and built on safe locations.
A year prior, the organisation issued a report that directly called out policies of "slum amnesty, construction amnesty" as dangerous, and warned that "indifference to disaster safety culture" would lead to preventable deaths.
The devastation across Türkiye comes at a sensitive time for Mr Erdogan, who faces tough parliamentary and presidential elections in May amid an economic downturn and high inflation.
Mr Erdogan regularly touts the country's construction boom over the past two decades, including new airports, roads, bridges and hospitals, as proof of his success during more than two decades in power.
On his tour of the devastation, Mr Erdogan pledged to rebuild destroyed homes within the year.
"We know how to do this business," he said.
"We are a government that has proved itself on these issues. We will."
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