Construction specialists have pointed out that both old and new constructions were built with “inferior” materials and methods and without meeting standards; the Turkish Ministry of Justice has announced an investigation into this.
By Zeynep Bilginsoy and Suzan Fraser
Istanbul, February 10 (AP).— For years Turkey tempted to the destination to the No do achieve the modern building standards while It allows —and in some cases encourages— a real estate boom in earthquake prone areasthe experts warn.
Lax code enforcement, which geology and engineering experts have long warned about, is now under scrutiny in the wake of devastating earthquakes this week that toppled thousands of buildings and killed more than 20,000 people in Turkey. and Syria.
“This is a disaster caused by shoddy construction, not an earthquake,” said David Alexander, Professor of Emergency Planning at University College London.
It is well known that many buildings in the areas hit by the two massive earthquakes this week were built with inferior materials and methods and generally did not meet government standards, said Eyup Muhcu, president of the Turkish Chamber of Architects.
Muhcu added that that includes many older buildings, but also apartments built in recent years, nearly two decades after the country brought its building codes up to modern standards. “Construction in the area was poor and not firm, despite the reality of the earthquakes,” Muhcu added.
According to experts, the problem was largely ignored as tackling it would be costly, unpopular and slow down a key driver of the country’s economic growth.
To be sure, the successive earthquakes that demolished or damaged at least 12,000 buildings were extremely powerful: their force was magnified by the fact that they occurred at shallow depths. The first 7.8 magnitude quake struck at 4:17 a.m., making it even more difficult for people to get out of buildings as the ground shook violently. And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has acknowledged “deficiencies” in the country’s response.
But experts have pointed out that there is a mountain of evidence — and debris — pointing to a stark reality about what made the quakes so deadly: While Turkey has, in theory, building codes that meet current standards seismic engineering, are rarely applied, which explains why thousands of buildings have collapsed.
In a country traversed by geological fault lines, people worry about not knowing when and where the next earthquake might strike, particularly in Istanbul, a city of more than 15 million people that is vulnerable to earthquakes.
Following the disaster, Erdogan’s Justice Minister announced that he will investigate what was behind the destroyed buildings.
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“Those who have been negligent, guilty and responsible for the destruction after the earthquake will answer to justice,” Bekir Bozdag warned Thursday.
But several experts said any serious investigation into the root of weak building code enforcement must include a close look at Erdogan’s policies, as well as the regional and local authorities who oversaw — and promoted — a housing boom that helped to boost economic growth.
Shortly before Turkey’s last presidential and parliamentary elections 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. By paying a fine, violators could avoid having to bring their buildings up to code. Such amnesties have also been used by previous governments before elections.
As part of that amnesty program, the government agency responsible for enforcing building codes acknowledged that more than half of all construction in Turkey — representing some 13 million apartments — did not meet current standards.
The types of violations mentioned in that report from the Ministry of the Environment and Urban Planning were very varied, including houses built without permits, buildings that added additional floors or expanded balconies without authorization, and the existence of so-called precarious housing for low-income families.
The report did not specify how many buildings violated codes related to earthquake protection or basic structural integrity, but the reality was clear.
“The construction amnesty does not mean that a property is firm,” warned the current head of the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization, Murat Kurum, in 2019.
In 2021, the Turkish Chamber of Geological Engineers published a series of reports warning about existing buildings and new construction in areas destroyed by this week’s earthquakes, including Kahramanmaras, Hatay and Osmaniye. The Chamber urged the Government to carry out studies to guarantee that the properties complied with the codes and were built in safe areas.
A year earlier, the House issued a report that directly labeled the “slum amnesty, construction amnesty” policies dangerous and warned that “indifference to disaster safety culture” would lead to preventable deaths.
Since 1999, when two powerful earthquakes struck northwestern Turkey near Istanbul, the strongest one killing some 18,000 people, building codes have been tightened and a process of urban renewal has begun, but improvements are not happening often. fast enough, especially in poorer cities.
Builders often use lower-quality materials, hire fewer professionals to oversee projects and fail to comply with various regulations in order to keep costs down, according to Muhcu, president of the country’s Chamber of Architects.
He noted that the Turkish government’s so-called “peace-building” introduced ahead of the 2018 elections as a way to secure votes has, in effect, legalized unsafe real estate. “We are paying for it with thousands of deaths, the destruction of thousands of buildings and economic losses,” he asserted.
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Even new apartment buildings advertised as safe were devastated by the quake.
In Hatay province, where the death toll was highest and an airport runway and two public hospitals were destroyed, survivor Bestami Coskuner said many new buildings collapsed, including “flashy” new ones.
In Antakya, a historic city in Hatay, a 12-story, 250-unit building that was completed in 2013 collapsed, leaving untold numbers dead or trapped alive. The Ronesans Residence was considered one of the “luxury” buildings in the area, according to Turkish media, and was promoted on social media as “a piece of heaven.”
Another building destroyed in Antakya is the Guclu Bahce, whose construction began in 2017 and was inaugurated to much fanfare in 2019 at a ceremony attended by the Hatay mayor and other municipal officials, according to the fact-checking website Dogrulukpayi.
In Malatya, Asur’s new apartments — claimed in advertisements to be earthquake-proof — were damaged in the first of the quakes, but residents were unscathed. Some residents who returned to the building to collect their belongings made a second lucky escape when the second strong quake hit, causing the building to lean to one side, according to a video posted on TikTok and confirmed by the verification website Teyit facts.
The devastation across Turkey comes at a delicate time for President Erdogan, who faces difficult parliamentary and presidential elections in May amid an economic downturn and high inflation.
Erdogan has regularly touted 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.
In his tour of the devastated areas on Wednesday and Thursday, Erdogan vowed to rebuild the destroyed houses within a year. “We know how to do this business,” he declared. “We are a government that has demonstrated its capacity on these issues. We will do it.”