Two days after a devastating earthquake struck, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited one of the worst-affected areas and declared that it was “not possible to be prepared for such a disaster.”
Certainly the scale of the destruction was unforeseen. The death toll from the earthquakes of February 6, 2023, that struck Turkey and Northern Syria is still climbing. But one week on, it has been documented that over 35,000 people were killed, with more than 50,000 injured and over 1,000,000 receiving aid for survival in bitter cold conditions. The magnitude 7.7 earthquake hit while many were sleeping in the town of Pazarcık in Kahramanmaraş, Southern Turkey—the epicenter of the quake. It was followed nine hours later by a major aftershock in Elbistan, a town about 50 miles from the initial quake, sending buildings weakened in the first shock to total collapse.
The final death tolls are likely to place these two successive earthquakes among the worst natural disasters that have been witnessed in the world.
The sobering question to us, as disaster mitigation scholars, is whether this enormous loss of lives, homes, and livelihoods could have been avoided. There is no way to prevent an earthquake from occurring, but what can be prevented—or at least curtailed—is the scale of the calamity caused by these inevitable tremors.
In our view, any suggestion that a country cannot “be prepared” for an earthquake of the magnitude that hit Turkey and Northern Syria is a political statement—that is, it reflects the political choices that were made rather than the science. In Turkey, the lack of preparedness contrasts sharply with the known conditions of seismic risk that the country faces.
According to the Turkey Earthquake Hazard Map, which was revised and published in 2018, nearly all of Turkey is vulnerable to seismic risk, with two significant fault lines—the East Anatolian Fault zone and the North Anatolian Fault zone—crisscrossing the country.
The North Anatolian Fault, 870 miles (1,400 kilometers) long, runs east to west across the northern half of the country, menacing the major cities of Ankara, the country’s capital, and Istanbul, and threatening the most industrialized section of the country. The East Anatolian Fault, about 620 miles (nearly 1,000 kilometers) in length, runs diagonally across the southeastern part of the country. It covers an area of smaller cities and villages, but millions of people are at risk in the region.
Turkey has made repeated efforts to address this fundamental seismic risk. In 1959, the Turkish parliament passed Disaster Law 7269, establishing a plan to institute disaster preparedness regulations at national, provincial, and municipal levels. The law raised awareness to some degree, but five significant earthquakes in the 1990s shattered any expectations that existing preparedness measures were sufficient to protect the growing population from death and destruction.
After the devastating 1999 earthquakes in the Marmara region of Northwestern Turkey—in which more than 17,000 died—the Turkish government instituted a major program of recovery and rebuilding intended to strengthen building codes and improve cross-jurisdictional coordination. Yet, this ambitious program was hampered by chronic corruption and weak implementation of the building codes.
The Turkish government also levied an “earthquake tax” after the 1999 disaster, purportedly to raise funds to better prepare the country for future quakes. Since it was passed, an estimated $4.6 billion has been raised through the levy. But there are serious questions over how the money has been spent.