Erdoğan’s plan to earthquake-proof Turkey hamstrung by lack of cash

After a series of earthquakes killed 41 people in the east Turkish provinces of Elazığ and Malatya and another nine in Van province on the border with Iran, scientists have raised the alarm that Turkey faces the danger of even more destructive tremors in the near future.

The last major earthquake to hit western Turkey killed some 15,000 people when it struck the Marmara region on Aug. 17, 1999. But the quakes this year have shown the extent that the government has neglected taking the necessary precautions in the 20 years since.

For one thing, it appears the money gathered in the special earthquake tax that was introduced after the 1999 quake, and became permanent in 2004, has been spent in unrelated areas, despite being earmarked for possible disasters. The opposition believes the amount raised in these taxes exceeds $36 billion, and they received a furious response from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan when they raised the matter in parliament.

But Erdoğan’s comments on the matter showed his government lacks a concrete plan to tackle looming disasters – the most recent relevant project the president was able to reference went back five years.

Instead, Erdoğan called on the country to unite to renew the country’s vulnerable housing stock, which he said amounted to some 6.7 million units. To meet this challenge, he vowed to construct 300,000 new houses each year.

At that rate, it will take 22 years to replace all the residential buildings that are in danger of collapse in an earthquake.

Erdoğan said that more than 19,000 buildings in Elazığ and nearly 4,500 residences in Malatya had been identified as cases for urgent demolition and reconstruction. He said 960 in Elazığ and 678 in Malatya would be ready by the end of the year.

But it is not only unsafe buildings that are under serious risk – construction licencing figures for residential buildings published by Turkey’s state statistical institute on Feb. 24 revealed the entire construction sector to be on the verge of collapse. Just 305,000 building licences were issued in 2019, compared to 663,000 the previous year and 1.4 million in 2017.

The slump is the result of a currency crisis that struck in the summer of 2018, leading to a technical recession by the year’s end. Turkey’s government has taken drastic measures to reinvigorate the economy since, including a campaign to encourage property sales by slashing mortgage interest rates, but the construction sector is still struggling.

Even those contractors who still apply for licences do not necessarily begin work immediately after receiving them. Work on a large number of the 306,000 projects licenced last year may not begin until the contractors deem Turkey’s economic conditions to be favourable, and that could take years.

This is bad news for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has used the construction sector as the engine for a large part of its economic success. The number of licences issued was 162,000 when the party came to power in 2002, rising to 330,000 in 2004 and continuing to balloon until it surpassed 1 million in 2014, staying above this level until 2017.

So, the 305,000 licences issued last year was below the level 16 years ago, near the beginning of the AKP’s reign. This spells hard times for the sector that has buoyed the party for nearly two decades.

This is why the sector lacks both the power and the funding to demolish and rebuild 6.7 million homes, regardless of the warnings from scientists and Erdoğan’s demands.

Turkey’s most densely populated and economically important cities – Istanbul, Izmir, Bursa, Kocaeli – require swift mobilisation to safeguard against earthquakes. So do the east, southeast and Black Sea regions, each of which rests on significant fault lines.

But the government’s plan to replace just 300,000 homes per year will take 22 years to come to fruition. Moreover, Erdoğan has said that while 22 million citizens’ homes are currently earthquake resistant, he wishes to raise that figure to 35 million. At the current rate, that would take 43 years.

And this is being asked of a housing sector that is on the verge of collapse and has been unable to shift its current housing stock of 1.3 million. For this to happen, contractors would require vast support from the government.

But there is no money in the budget to fund the construction of some 300,000 earthquake-resistant homes per year. Even the state’s everyday expenses are being covered through Treasury loans. Meanwhile, the government requires even more funding for its military adventures in Libya and Syria.

This leaves little for the millions of people left behind in Turkey awaiting the next large-scale earthquake to do, but to trust their fate.


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.