Corruption Kills: Turkey Earthquake

E. Oya Özarslan
Board Member of Transparency International
Founding Chair of TI-Turkey

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

We have seen a number of incidents showing how corruption can be deadly. Remember the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh where 1,134 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 longstanding corruption and mismanagement at the port, causing 218 people’s death.

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

The latest example of an earthquake turning into a deadly human disaster is the recent earthquake in Turkey that happened on February 6, 2023. Earth shaking with a magnitude of 7,7 affected the area where 13,5 million people live. So far, the death toll is over 31,000 and 120,940 housing units have collapsed or are highly damaged. The country experienced another deadly earthquake in 1999 where 18,373 people died. It seems that no lessons were learned. What actually happened in these 24 years?

The construction industry has been booming in the last 20 years of the 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 were 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 that collapsed.

Since Turkey is also a very high risk country for earthquakes, it is clear that structural legal reforms needed to be made urgently. After the 1999 disaster, new building regulations for earthquake resistant buildings were issued, but implementation has been very poor. The fact that a high number of newly constructed 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.

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

Disasters are true testing times to realise 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 lose their very basic capacity. And this is exactly what is happening to the institutions mandated to rescue people and organise humanitarian aid in the country now. Thousands of people on the ground cry out that rescue authorities were not on time and lacked organisational skills that actually caused a great number of people to lose their lives. 

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…

Reproduced in part with permission

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