Construction Practices

Izzy Finkel

‘In politics, you leave the way you came in.’ In Turkey the phrase is attributed to Süleyman Demirel, the seven-time prime minister and president in 1999 when a magnitude 7.6 earthquake struck just east of Istanbul. Voters, resolving to punish officials who’d been complicit in construction practices that killed 17,500 people in their beds, used the next election to install Erdoğan’s AK Party for the first time.

Twenty-four years later, some are returning to Demirel’s words after the twin earthquakes that hit southern Turkey and north-west Syria on 6 February. Despite freezing temperatures, rare survivors are still being disentombed from the rubble more than a week later. Each rescue is a relief and an indictment. With a more effective disaster response, many more might have been saved.

The earthquakes were made deadlier by the heavy snows, and because they struck some of Turkey’s fastest growing cities, with populations swelled by refugees from twelve years of war in Syria. No one can help the fact that Turkey sits at the meeting point of three continental plates. Yet the toll has also been exacerbated by shoddy construction, of the kind which not so long ago provoked so many to say ‘never again’.

Now homes that were advertised as meeting the highest earthquake standards lie flattened. Survivors are asking for accountability from those who built them and from those who allowed them to get built.

The earthquakes have exposed the Turkish government’s lethal habit of overruling the experts. The runway of Hatay airport was ripped apart, delaying critical relief efforts: it straddled a fault line where the authorities had been warned not to site it. Members of the confederation of professional bodies for architects and engineers (TMMOB) are among those used to being ignored. But the sight of a TMMOB branch still standing amid the ruins in Kahramanmaraş is emblematic of the fact that building safely is a choice.

Gönenç Gürkaynak, a lawyer who in normal times acts for clients like Twitter, used the microblogging site to co-ordinate the delivery of aid to remote villages in rented off-road vehicles – one of many volunteer operations that jumped into action when government agencies were overwhelmed. ‘First I’m going to get back to trying to raise donations,’ Gürkaynak wrote, after days of that work. ‘Then it will be time to engage using the law.’ The police have started to arrest contractors, as they ought. But after the 1999 quake few arrests led to convictions.

Sinan Kurmuş used to work in construction. According to his calculations, the difference in cost between a building that obeys the regulations and one that crumbles under stress is around £40 per square metre. Lethally shortchanging a housing project, he has worked out, hoards a contractor enough profit to buy a medium-sized car. I asked him if a building built to code could withstand a magnitude 7.8 earthquake. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Unless you’re sitting directly on the fault line. But if you’re building to code you won’t be on the fault line.’

After the 1999 quake, zoning laws and building standards were meant to be strictly enforced. But as recently as 2018 – just before the last general election – the government held a lucrative nationwide amnesty, pardoning more than seven million buildings that weren’t to code. Legislation for another amnesty had been going through parliament before last week’s disaster. A general election was mooted for May. Before the earthquake, a sixth victory for the AKP was far from guaranteed. It is too early to speculate whether voters will honour Demirel’s dictum and blame the ruling party at the ballot box. It is too early even to say if the vote can go ahead. Many of the dead have yet to be buried. Still more have yet to be found. The president has batted away criticism, calling it a time for national unity. But the grieving will not be silenced.

WHO officials are calling this the worst natural disaster in the European region for a century. It is inadequate to speak of the earthquake’s destruction in geographic terms (the damage covers an area the size of the UK), or in numbers (the confirmed death toll of more than 35,000 represents a fraction of the dead). The scale of the grief is such that to speak of it at all is inadequate. And yet not to speak about it suits those who should be held to account.


  • 15 February 2023 at 7:38pm
    alum bati says:
    Nothing in the post can be faulted but I would add three critical points:
    1. The death toll would have been big even if the building codes had been followed - the majority of the collapsed buildings were pre-Erdogan constructions.
    2. Of all the criticism of Erdogan made by the Western media since his coming to power, rarely have I heard comments about corruption. For me, this has always been the most negative aspect of his time in power but instead the Western media obsesses about the status of Aya Sofia and the prickly nature of the President.
    3. AKP might well be defeated at the polls but is that going to be in the interest of Turkey? The opposition has no programme at all to fix the country's ills and every single pre-AKP government has been corrupt. Will things change for the better?

    • 23 February 2023 at 2:32am
      Delaide says: @ alum bati
      Illuminating post, thank you. Prompted by an article in today’s Guardian highlighting fines for media, Fox included, for unfavourable reporting of the government’s response to the earthquake, can you advise whether opposition parties are likely to be less nationalistic and authoritarian than the Ergogan government? This seems to be, from my distant perspective, a principle concern of the West. Though I can understand if corruption is a bigger issue for people actually living in Turkey.