Turkey has been going through one of the worst catastrophes of its history since the February earthquakes. Two earthquakes centered in Maras with a magnitude of 7.8 and 7.5 hit the country and caused great destruction in 10 cities. While we were writing this piece, the death toll was approaching 46.000 in the country, and government workers were still removing the rubbles of building stocks mixed with the deceased people and animals. The loss is incalculable and already spans time.
One of the things that did not stop after the earthquakes was the state’s propaganda. The dominant state discourse was that “the earthquake should not be a political matter.” According to the government’s argument, the scale of the disaster was so massive that it was impossible to be prepared. The government frequently mobilized the magnitude of the earthquakes through numbers- 7.8, 7.6, or 6.5. These numbers have enabled them to compare the 2023 earthquakes with the previous ones and assert that any government in the world would have been inadequate if it had faced such a disaster.
Nonetheless, Turkey’s post-disaster era has not started with the February tremors. Since the North Anatolia Fault shook Erzincan in 1939 and claimed more than 32 thousand lives, the country has suffered numerous earthquakes. Our generation, in particular, has been inhabiting the post-disaster since the 1999 Izmit and Duzce earthquakes that have killed more than 18 thousand people and flattened cities in the East Marmara region. The 1999 disaster was different from others in terms of the natural-social effects that it has produced. After these earthquakes, scientists warned that another deadly quake would hit Istanbul and its surroundings. The anticipated earthquakes have triggered “a preparedness network” comprising of scientific institutions, technologies, non-governmental organizations, private companies, and citizens. The goal was to identify earthquake risks and prevent future disasters. Perhaps more importantly, this heterogenous collective has provoked and maintained public awareness about the country’s geology. Almost every citizen has eventually become familiar with the three tectonic plates that constitute Turkey’s territory and how they constantly pull and apart each other and produce earthquakes. At that time, the public authorities assured that the lessons were taken, and the sufferings of 1999 would not be repeated.
We have conducted fieldwork between 2016 and 2022 (discontinuously) among scientists, building contractors, and citizens about the anticipated earthquake in Istanbul. Our aim was to analyze how scientific knowledge has been produced about the expected disaster and how new markets and institutions have emerged to respond to the earthquake risk. In this essay, based on our ethnographic study in Istanbul, we want to discuss why earthquake preparedness has failed and, moreover, is destined to fail in the future because of the existing legal regulations.
Earthquakes test not only buildings but also political and legal orders. Turkey’s post-1999 order has failed the test tragically. We believe that the people in Turkey should have been in a much better situation when one considers the social traumas of the past earthquakes, international and national funds flown into the country in the name of preparedness and rising public awareness. Unfortunately, disaster preparedness policies have created more vulnerable cities. The laws and regulations regarding earthquake preparedness have long prioritized the interests of construction companies instead of observing the interest of people at risk. The enactment of Disaster Law in 2012 after the Van earthquake has been critical in producing such priority. While the law introduced a series of policies for getting prepared for the anticipated earthquakes, the same policies basically have paved the way for the exhaustive reconstruction of the pre-1999 buildings in certain regions of the country. The result was a giant construction industry that has swallowed several neighborhoods and left them vulnerable single-handedly. The Disaster Law has two fundamental functions.
The first one is the authority to identify risk zones. After shifting to the presidential regime in 2017, the president alone can determine any place as a risk zone. When a place is selected as a risk zone, all natural or historical preservation codes might be terminated, the rights of citizens and civil organizations to oppose any plans are cancelled, the demolition of certain buildings is enforced, and basic services, such as electricity and gas, might be cut off. In many neighborhoods of Istanbul, people are forced to leave their houses after their region is defined as risk zone. The below Istanbul map is revealing of how this authority has been implemented over the years. The yellow parts are the areas identified as risky by the Japanese scientific institution (JICA) in 2002. The red areas, however, are the risk zones determined by the Turkish government (Istanbul Planning Agency 2020, Cumhuriyet 2015). These maps illustrate how the government’s motive is not risk mitigation, but rather profit-making by opening up those central districts with high land values for construction. As a result, one or two-story buildings have been replaced with tower blocks, and the residents (mostly working class) had to leave their neighborhoods.
Risk zones also function as a political instrument by giving exceptional authority to the president to transform places inhabited by “undesired” communities. The old city of Diyarbakir is the most notorious example of how disaster preparedness was mobilized to neutralize public dissent. The historical area was announced as risky and “revived” after the clashes between Kurdish guerillas and Turkish armed forces in 2015.
The second aspect of the Disaster Law produces another mode of preparedness. According to the official discourse, the risk of the anticipated earthquake is so high and so much is at stake that no state regulation will ever be adequate. This perspective has become a justifying discourse as to how the state is absolved of its responsibilities and left its citizens to solve matters themselves. The notion of risky building, which was legally introduced by the law, has played a significant role in reinforcing such understanding. It aimed to determine, reconstruct, or retrofit the buildings at risk of collapse or major damage during an earthquake, and asked citizens to take the full responsibility and have their buildings risk tested. However, the application of the risky building assessment in the law has not fulfilled its original purpose, but again worked for the interests of construction companies (Kayaalp forthcoming).
According to the law, it suffices to have one of the property owners apply for a building risk assessment. Even if 100 people live in an apartment building, one property owner can apply for an official risk assessment. What is interesting in this procedure is that nearly every building constructed before 1999 is assessed risky under the law according to the new building regulations. These two pieces of information— (a) that it is sufficient for only one property owner in the building to file a legal application for the risk assessment to be carried out, and (b) that all buildings built before 1999 which are tested for their earthquake resistance will ultimately yield negative results—have led to the birth of a new market in the construction sector (Kayaalp forthcoming). Numerous construction companies have started buying apartments with the intention of demolishing and then reconstructing them, as they are so sure that the risk analysis results will all be negative. The companies file legal applications as one of the owners of the building and then force all the residents to deal with the demolition with that company then becoming responsible for the reconstruction. Rather than selecting the riskiest buildings, the construction companies cast their eyes on the buildings in districts where the income gained from real estate is high. In the end, the earthquake preparedness through the risk assessment enshrined under the law, which was originally based upon the motivation of identifying buildings-as-risk, in reality, has led to the demolition of buildings, which are not necessarily in bad shape.
Overall, instead of targeting specific areas and structures vulnerable to possible earthquake damage, the Disaster Law has aimed at demolishing and reconstructing all pre-1999 buildings. Legalities undoubtably are not the only factors that build environments. But this law, and other legal regulations before it, have produced a much vaster and more uncontrolled “investment area” for private capital. Since the 1999 disasters––at least for Istanbul and its surrounds––the problem has not been “a lack of preparedness,” insufficient funds, or inexperience. Especially the North Anatolian Fault has been enrolled in techno-social networks through risk discourses that have ultimately led to the expansion of state-corporate alliance. For two decades, mobilizing quantified earthquake risks, this preparedness network has shaped laws, ruined cities, and made invisible those who need protection and care.