One of the elements that adversely affect life on Earth is natural disasters, which lead to thousands of casualties, as well as serious economic losses. According to data from the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), an average of 350 disasters have occurred annually over the last two decades, resulting in the deaths of 1.5 million people.
Losses are four times higher in low-income countries compared to high-income ones and according to World Bank estimates, they are two times higher in upper-middle-income countries, including our country. Moreover, some 4 billion people have been affected by these disasters, whose catastrophic impact has led to approximately $3 trillion in financial losses.
While 58% of disaster-related casualties have stemmed from earthquakes, six out of the 10 largest disasters that have taken place have been in the form of earthquakes.
It is rather hard to detect and predict earthquakes because they occur deep underground – which renders the need for more effective measures.
However, the advancing technology enables us to analyze the positions and length of faults that lead to earthquakes, as well as the potential energy that they can carry and hence their destructive impacts, albeit roughly, and develop measures accordingly.
How an earthquake occurs?
An earthquake is the sudden and intense shaking of Earth's crust. The quake is caused by movements in the outermost layer of Earth. Although Earth seems to be in a rigid and robust structure, in fact, it is not.
It has a very dynamic structure in its layers after the crust layer. It basically consists of four layers: a rigid crust at the outermost, an almost-rigid hot mantle, a liquid outer core and a rigid inner core.
The rigid crust of the mantle and the upper rigid layer form the layer called the lithosphere. This layer does not surround Earth completely but is made up of giant puzzle pieces called tectonic plates. These plates change as they drift over the viscous at the bottom, i.e., the mantle layer that flows slowly. These movements continue without interruption, eventually creating tension on Earth's crust. A growth in tension leads to fractures called fault lines.
The movement of plates also causes these faults to move and displace and such sudden movement causes an earthquake.
It is the motion of a wave and vibration just like the ripple created by a rock thrown into the water.
Therefore, its effects are seen the most at the epicenter (the origin of the earthquake), but sometimes they can be felt at a distance of hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles.
When a ruler is bent, there is an accumulation of energy in it. If it's bent too much, it eventually cracks or breaks, and the shaking of the broken parts and the sound it makes is called an energy discharge. This is exactly what happens in an earthquake.
For instance, the shaking amplitude of a 7-magnitude earthquake is 10 times that of a 6-magnitude one, and the energy released is 30 times more in the former.
Likewise, the shaking amplitude of a 7-magnitude earthquake is 100 times that of a 5-magnitude one and the energy released is 900 times more in the former.
As is the case across the world, earthquakes, among other natural disasters, cause the most devastation in Turkey. According to the Turkish Disaster Data Bank (TABB) data, one-third of the 50,000 natural disasters that hit our country were in the form of landslides. More than 100,000 lives were lost in these disasters and over 60,000 were injured. In addition, a total of 1.3 million buildings were damaged during this period, 600,000 of which were severely damaged (or became unusable), while 108,000 others were destroyed.
Unfortunately, half of these lives were lost in two major earthquakes alone. Of these, the 1939 earthquake in the eastern province of Erzincan, also known as the Great Anatolian earthquake, in which we lost 33,000 lives, was the most severe, followed by the Marmara earthquake of Aug. 17, 1999, which is still fresh in our memories.
Road to urban renewal
After 1950, rural-urban migrations in our country laid the housing stock bare. As a result of the failure to ensure the balance of supply and demand, people produced their own solutions, giving rise to squatting.
In order to prevent this, the “anti-squatting law” was enacted, which was followed by the “condominium law” introduced in the 1960s. This regulation paved the way for a large number of residences to be built in the same building. In the 1980s, the Housing Development Administration (TOKI) was founded in order to ensure the construction of houses by the government, but it had a limited impact.
After the 1999 Marmara earthquake, new standards were developed for the construction of earthquake-resistant housing and the relevant legal infrastructure was improved. In this same era,the Natural Disaster Insurance Agency (DASK) was introduced, publicly known as compulsory earthquake insurance, in order to remedy earthquake-related damages.
As part of the “Planned Urbanization and Housing Production Mobilization” introduced in 2002, TOKI's effectiveness improved. From 2002 to 2011 alone, 500,000 houses were built and handed over to their owners.
For the first time in 2004, a “Draft Law on Urban Renewal and Development” was presented to Parliament. Municipal Law No. 5393 and Metropolitan Municipality Law No. 5216 were issued and local governments were given the authority to carry out urban renewal. However, these authorities have not been very effective.
In July 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning was established. The main goal was the preservation of environmental values and the development of urbanization.
Three months later, we were rocked by another disaster. On Oct. 23, 2011, a devastating 7.2-magnitude earthquake hit Turkey's eastern province of Van, in which 604 people died.
Subsequently, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave the good news that urban renewal would be carried out and that risky areas of the country would be rebuilt at the expense of losing power. In the following period, Law No. 6306 on “The Renewal of Areas at Risk of Disaster” known by the public as the "Urban Renewal Law,” came into force.
Mobilization for urban renewal
However, it did not prove as successful as intended, since there were many players involved in the process. On one side was the ministry, on the other hand, were local administrations – the main interlocutors of the issue. There were also the real owners and rights holders and contractors who sought to take advantage of this business.
Certainly, progress remained limited as it became a money-related issue rather than one about the safety and protection of property. Here again, problems relevant to hierarchy and bureaucracy arose, especially on a local government basis.
We have seen that local governments, one of the main players of urban renewal, did not focus on the issue enough. We figured out that municipalities did not embrace the issue enough and they remained indifferent.
However, this issue has now become a matter of life and death for our country, which is now a land of disasters. It is not an issue that can be weathered by day-saving politics. It is a supra-political issue, like the one about the environment.
The issue has become a deciding factor in who gets elected in the future. Now, the era in which the number of concerts held and the number of sculptures built mattered is over and should be over. There is now a need for administrators who really prioritize the safety of people's lives and properties and who offer them comfortable and peaceful living spaces.
During this period, the ministry took many initiatives but to no avail as the local governments were affiliated with other ministries. The effectiveness of the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning was limited, especially at the local government level. Another factor was that TOKI, which actually carried out the urban renewal, was affiliated with the prime minister’s office.
A planning ministry
These limited developments were also acknowledged by the top tiers of the government. They made a move to resolve the issues preventing the developments. After the presidential government system was introduced in 2018, TOKI and local governments were made an affiliate of the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning per the order of the president. This was undoubtedly a big step forward for urban renewal and development.
Developments came one after another. First, in September 2019, the ministry publicly disclosed the "Urban Renewal Strategy Document and Plan" that it announced as an urban renewal constitution. Of the 6.7 million houses needed to be renewed, at least 1.5 million are urgent and are expected to be completed by 2023.
So far, only a total of 1.4 million houses have been renewed as part of the 2012 plan to initiate urban renewal.
The new objective is to renew 1.5 million houses, all considered urgent, by the end of 2023, which marks the 100th anniversary of the Turkish republic. In other words, an average of around 400,000 houses will be renewed on an annual basis. This will require much greater perseverance, zeal, diligence and more efficient work and joint action.
The İzmir disaster
Just when we think it is over and will not happen again, danger once again shows its ugly face. This time, the westernmost point of our country after Elazığ was affected. Our beautiful İzmir was shaken by a 6.6-magnitude earthquake. Around 17 buildings were destroyed in the quake.
However, due to our country's experience in crisis management, the relevant ministers reached the earthquake-stricken area, as soon as possible, in accordance with the instructions of the president. Over 5,000 search and rescue teams combed the wreckage painstakingly, rescuing more than 100 people alive. Unfortunately, however, nearly 40 others died in the earthquake.
Here, too, the state has been working hand in hand with the public. Six ministers, including energy and justice ministers, are working in the field. The president and the speaker of Parliament were in the earthquake zone the next day, sharing the sorrow of the people and comforting the victims.
The management strategies
Our country has made a big breakthrough in recent years. Its speedy coordination and effective interventions in the face of disasters prevent the loss of life on-site. At this point, it is obvious that we are successful in crisis management, but we need to focus on risk management. We need to predict possible disasters, regions or structures that are at risk and the damage they may cause and develop measures accordingly.
According to the Earthquake Map of Turkey published by the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) and in force since early 2019, about 66% of our territory is unfortunately located in areas with a high risk of earthquakes. The vast majority of our population, more than 70%, resides in these areas.
Our cities such as Istanbul, the center of finance, Kocaeli and Bursa, the heart of the industry and others like İzmir, Hatay and Adana, which account for an overwhelming majority of Turkey’s industrial production, are located in areas with high earthquake risk.
Antalya, Aydın and Muğla are also at risk. These popular vacation spots are vital for the tourism sector in Turkey, which ranks sixth in the world in its number of visiting tourists, with nearly 46 million in 2018 and 50 million in 2019, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) data. In other words, most of our income is generated in risky areas. So, we have to change and lead the change.
This is how things are in the world. One of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), set by the United Nations for 2030 is sustainable cities. Our cities need to be self-sufficient, not only in housing but also in transportation, education, health and economy.
At this point, urban renewal should be the top priority for our country. However, we do not see the implementation of it on the ground enough. We see that local authorities, who are mainly responsible for the issue, are incapable of shouldering the responsibility.
However, we must act with sincerity. Local governments, contractors and people should not be concerned about money, on the contrary, they should highlight the safety of life and property.
Our goal is not just to replace the demolished buildings but to renew the entire area to make it resistant to natural disasters.
We have to build structures and settlements in accordance with our own architecture and culture, which is also the focus of our ministry's efforts. We have always attached great importance to cities, and they have become the symbol of our civilization and Anatolia is the home of the first settlements in history.
We no longer need the likes of the French architect Henry Prost, whom we once appealed to for help and regarded as a savior of Istanbul or the German architect and urban planner Hermann Jansen, to whom we submitted Ankara, the capital of our sovereignty. Yes, earthquake preparedness does not involve strengthening housing alone.
The renewal of the city, rather than of buildings individually, should be ensured. It should also cover issues such as transport, communication, infrastructure and green spaces.
The goal of renewal should be to do better in all aspects. First of all, endurance and then efficient use of resources such as energy and water should be at the forefront. Renewals should be done using renewable energy sources, smarts systems and zero waste. Solar panels can now be used on rooftops. Our country has a rich potential in terms of solar energy.
We have buildings that produce their own energy, buildings that collect and recycle rainwater and buildings that use water resources efficiently with gray water applications. Besides, green spaces should also be given due importance.
New regulations should be introduced to allocate 10 square meters of green space per person, as the World Health Organization (WHO) stipulates. City centers should be equipped with greenery, preventing the formation of heat islands.
In addition, periodic inspections should be carried out and identification documents should be developed for buildings. Just issuing licenses should not be considered enough. Regular inspections should be carried out to observe the change in structure at certain times.
Note that the energy identity certificate application has begun. “Certificate A” is given to the buildings that use energy efficiently, while “Certificate G” is given to the buildings that waste energy. This regulation is aimed at encouraging more efficient use of energy and ensuring that people can predict the energy costs of houses that they will buy or rent.
In the same way, an identification certificate or label should be issued about the durability of buildings, based on certain information such as the quality of workmanship, the quantity, quality and durability of the material used.
So, people can act accordingly when buying and selling a house. We must now stop overpaying for buildings just for the sake of their location, where unskilled laborers are hired and poor-quality materials are used.
Let’s be part of solution
We must become a part of the solution. Indeed, a house that you buy with the money that you save with years of labor, thinking that you will comfortably live in it, can put you in grave danger.
Just as Japan, another earthquake-prone country, has learned to live with earthquakes and has built cities accordingly, our country must develop ways to cope with earthquakes and other natural disasters. We have the power, will and capacity.
We can achieve it as long as we want it, as long as we move in with peace of mind and as long as we develop sustainable solutions that can be used for generations. We must be part of the solution, not the problem.
*Deputy minister at the Republic of Turkey's Ministry of Environment and Urbanization, chief climate change envoy