Corruption Kills: Turkey Earthquake

Photo by Can Erok / AFP

E. Oya Özarslan

We know that corruption takes away resources, damages the environment, impoverishes the people, but it also kills!

We have seen a number of incidents how corruption can be deadly. Remember 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh where 1134 people died in one building because warnings were ignored and the workers forced into a building full of cracks. Or the explosion in Beirut in 2020. It was the result of the actions and omission of official conduct in a longstanding corruption and mismanagement at the port, causing 218 people’s death.

According to a study[1] released at the anniversary of Haiti earthquake, it is calculated that 83% of all deaths from building collapses in earthquakes for the past 30 years occured in countries that are extremely corrupt. The answer to question of how an earthquake magnititude over 7 causes much more fatalities in countries like, Indonesia, China, Iran and others, indeed lies in the corruption. Poorly constructred buildings, lack of implementation of the regulations, use of substandard materials, improper site buildings, etc are all sign of serious wrong doings in the process.

Latest example of an earthquake turning into deadly human disaster is the recent earthquake in Turkey happened in February 6, 2023. Earth shaking with a magnititude of 7,7 affected the area where 13,5 million people live. So far, the death toll is over 31.000 (and counting[2]) and 120.940 housing units are collapsed or highly damaged. The country already experienced another deadly earthquake in 1999 where 18.373 people died. It seem that no lessons were learned all this time, but, what actually happened in this 24 years?

Construction industry has been booming in the last 20 years of AKP government. While construction is known as one of the most corrupt industries around the world, it flourished in Turkey with major government concessions of roads, airports, bridges, hospitals etc. However, the roads and airports in the earthquake areas, some of which built recklessly on top of the fault, collapsed along with critical public buildings like hospitals. Ironically, even the AFAD (Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate) was among the state buildings collapsed.

A number of reasons can be easily mentioned for current tragedy in the country, i.e., greedy constructors, lack of audits, impunity for the previous wrongdoings, conflict of interests between the construction firms and auditing firms, and so on. They are all different forms of corruption, which is very rampant in the country. Let’s remember that Turkey is one of the countries constantly dropping in Corruption Perception Index[3] in the last 10 years, currently having a score of 36 and ranking 101st in 180 countries.

Since Turkey is also very high risk country for earthquake, it is clear that structural legal reforms needed to be made urgently. After 1999 disaster, new building regulations for earthquake resistent buildings were issued, but its implementation has been very poor. The fact that high number of newly constructred buildings also collapsed in this earthquake may be just the proof of this lack of implementation. Also, it is a well known fact that zoning regulations have often been changed due to populist moves by the central and local governments.

Latest catastrophic step in the whole system was the Zoning Amnesty regulations issued in 2018 in spite of strong objections from the experts and civil society. This amnesty regulation targeted legalizations of illegally made constructions by just paying a fee to the government. According the Environment and City Planning Ministry, close to 9 millions people applied for it. More critically, this process has not included any earthquake screening and compliance with the earthquake building standards left to the owners’ responsibility. Even the buildings carrying previous demolishing notices due to incompliance were included within the scope of regulations, which apparently proved itself as a fatal mistake.

Another peculiarity was that the special purpose tax collected from Turkish people after 1999 earthquake, amounting to $38,4 billions, have not been used for earthquake prevention measures. As declared by the ex-finance ministers, this money was used for other public works, i.e., building roads, airports and hospitals, unfortunately, first to collapse in this earthquake.

Disasters are true testing times to realize how good governance plays a critical factor in affecting the capacity of the state to deal with the crisis. Institutions weakened by appointments which are not based on merits loose their very basic capacity. And this is what exactly is happening to the institutions mandated to rescue people and organize humanitarian aid in the country now. Thousands of people on the ground cry out that rescue authorities were not on time and lacked organizational skills that actually caused a great number of people loosing their lives. Apparently, financial capacity of AFAD has also been reduced by a recent cut in 2023 state budget by 32%[4]. For a country whose majority regions are under the high earthquake risk, this clearly does not appear to be a farsighted management as well.

Natural disasters may be inevitable, but corruption, mismanagement and bad governance are not.

Common narrative in Turkey is that “it is not the earthquake killing us, it is the buildings”. It is about time to change this to “it is not the earthquake killing us, it is the corruption…


[2] According to sources in UN, death toll is estimated to double this figure.





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