Turkish cities still unprepared 20 years after İzmit earthquake

Saturday is the 20th anniversary of the August 17, 1999, 7.9-magnitude earthquake that struck the northwestern province of Kocaeli, killing at least 17,480 people as it devastated the city centre of İzmit and impacted an area large enough to include Istanbul.

The trauma of the earthquake is unforgettable for those who lived through it: they were woken when their buildings began to rock at 3:00 a.m., had to cling to whatever was at hand for nearly a minute before it stopped, all the while hearing the terrible roar as the earth moved.

Once people could gather outside, the rush began to find out news of the disaster. Phone lines were dead, and people were frantic to get word from their loved ones. By daybreak the scale of the earthquake had become clear – at 7.4 magnitude, this was called the disaster of the century.

Two decades later, the heartache of that night and the search that followed is still fresh in many peoples’ minds. 

But experts have said there has been nowhere near sufficient work done to prepare for future earthquakes.

The Chamber of Geological Engineers says that natural occurrences including earthquakes, floods, landslides and rock falls are still being turned into full-blown disasters thanks to human activity. 

As recently as August 8, a 5.7-magnitude earthquake that struck the southwestern province of Denizli severely damaged over 100 houses. The chamber said this damage demonstrated that Turkey had not taken necessary measures to reduce the risk of natural disasters.

Officials at the chamber recalled that, even though these did not come under its area of expertise, the General Directorate of Highways had been assigned with wide ranging duties to make earthquake preparations on everything from pipelines to airports. 

The moves by parliament to transfer important duties from the Disaster and Emergency Management President (AFAD) to other institutions have been motivated by the ruling party’s political needs, the chamber said.

This has been clearly demonstrated by the long-running “construction amnesty”, a move introduced by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) before crucial national elections in 2018 that allows the owners of illegal buildings to register them.

The amnesty may have won the AKP votes and generated revenue from the applicants to the scheme, but it has also negated whatever limited steps have been taken to address the threat of earthquakes, the chamber said.

This could prove a fatal mistake, the Chamber of Civil Engineers’ Istanbul branch warned.

“Two thirds of our country is located in first or second-degree seismic zones. The 11 large cities that hold 70 percent of our population and 75 percent of our major industrial institutions are under risk of earthquakes”, the chamber’s statement warned.

A large portion of buildings in Turkey required urgent repair and consolidation work as they were far beneath standards and had been made without the necessary permits or oversight by engineers, it said.

The 1999 earthquake, in which much of the devastation and loss of life was caused by these kinds of building practices, had shown the dismal state of Turkey’s building stock.

But the two decades since have seen a complete failure to address the problem, the chamber said, calling them “lost decades”.

 “It is not only we, but government officials themselves who accept that 1 million houses in Istanbul are unsafe, in other words, have been built illegally, without permits and without any work by engineers or any kind of mechanism for oversight”, the chamber said.

These figures mean that at least half the population of the city live in houses that are at risk from earthquakes – a figure that the chamber places at 10 million people. 

“Despite this, regulations for earthquake gathering zones and communication centres are still not sufficient. Statements from the central and local administrations on gathering areas do not reflect the truth”, it said, adding that many of the school playgrounds, parks and other areas demarcated for this use were not suitable.

The civil engineers shared numerous examples since 2017 that demonstrated the dangers posed by the lax construction regulations, even without any earthquake.

These ranged from a building that suddenly gave way and collapsed in Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu district in January 2017, killing one person, to a wall that collapsed in a primary school in the Sancaktepe district in July 2018. If the schoolchildren had not been on holiday, the collapse could have caused a terrible tragedy. 

The situation is hardly any better in Kocaeli, the Chamber of Civil Engineers’ branch in the province says.

“Even though 20 years has passed, we can’t say there’s been much progress in the structures of Kocaeli. Nearly half our building stock is not built to withstand an earthquake”, said Kahraman Bulut, the head of the branch.

This leaves around a million people in unsafe housing, including in 30 buildings that have been left standing for the last two decades despite being severely damaged in the 1999 earthquake, he said.

In fact, of the 4,000 buildings that suffered moderate damage in 1999, only 2,000 have been strengthened, Bulut said, with the rest still in use.

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