Turkish/Syrian earthquake: Poorly constructed buildings, corruption, profiteering, lack of official coordination & resources

Widespread deaths and destruction also followed an earthquake in Turkey in 2011 (Photo: CC)

A devastating earthquake – with a magnitude of 7.7, at a relatively shallow depth -struck south-eastern Turkey in the early hours of 6th February, killing more than 11,000 people in Turkey and Syria, so far, and leaving thousands injured. This earthquake was followed by more than 648 aftershocks, including one earthquake that was almost as large as the first one. The epicenter of the earthquake is Kahramanmaras, a city close to Syria.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 23 million people are affected by this earthquake in one of the most deprived regions of Turkey and in war-torn northern Syria and that the death toll is likely to exceed 20,000.

This is the biggest and most destructive earthquake in Turkey since the Izmit earthquake of 1999 near Istanbul, which killed more than 17,000 people.

This recent earthquake shows that nothing has fundamentally changed in 24 years. Yet again, thousands of buildings that do not comply with building codes have collapsed and the state has failed to respond to rescue people and provide the basic necessities for people who survived.

The government aid agency said that they are more than 11,000 buildings reported to be collapsed, with only about 6000 confirmed, so far.

Even hospitals collapsed, and airports and motorways could not be used in the first few days because they were severely damaged.

Shockingly, locals report the collapse of newly built buildings. Despite the belated new construction standards after 1999, there was a lack of enforcement as the corrupt governments turned a blind eye to the violations. Profiteering property developers and construction companies used shortcuts and cheap materials to save costs rather than constructing earthquake-resilient buildings.

Moreover, video footage of care patients waiting outside in the freezing cold, with no state or local authority assistance, has gone viral on social media on the first day.

But they are not the only ones. It is estimated that 13.5 million people in Turkey are affected by these earthquakes across 10 cities. In these cities, towns, and villages ruined by the earthquakes, reports suggest that more than 150,000 are still trapped beneath the rubble.

The failure of the government to send adequate rescue teams is criminal. Many people trapped under the rubble are dying while waiting for help. Locals and volunteers are trying to help their families, in most cases using their bare hands as there are no tools or equipment provided by the authorities.

Hatay, a multicultural city that borders Syria, has been one of the worst affected cities, with thousands still under the rubble of collapsed buildings, and still waiting for rescue teams to arrive.

On the TV, Gokhan Zan, a famous football coach in Hatay, pleaded with officials to use the unused excavators in the city.  We would add that all forklifts and other vehicles and equipment that would be of use should be expropriated from construction companies.

There are severe shortages of fuel, food, water, toilet facilities, medicines, tents, electricity, and many more necessities in the regions affected.

Most people are still sleeping in their cars or staying outside in the freezing cold. Empty properties and rooms in hotels must be taken over to house the many people left homeless.

In his televised speech on the third day, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan admitted that the government couldn’t respond effectively on the first two days. However, it was those two days when proper planning, coordination, and rescue operations were needed to save lives from the rubble.

It took 60 hours for specially trained, experienced miners from Zonguldak (a coal mining city in northern Turkey) to be transported to the affected region.

Only three days after the earthquake, there were more rescue teams as international aid teams reached Turkey. Still, many families are waiting for rescue teams to arrive.

Inevitably many questions about the buildings and how the government responded to this crisis will be asked. There should be an independent inquiry by trade unions and local communities to identify the property developers and government officials responsible for this disaster.

Turkey and Syria are earthquake-prone countries. But it is not necessarily the earthquakes that kill: it is the weakly constructed buildings, profiteering, and the lack of planning, coordination, and resources that kills. In other words, it is capitalism that kills.

The horrible scenes we are witnessing are yet another indictment of the failings of the rotten capitalist system that puts profit first rather than the safety of people.

‘Where is the state?’

‘Where is the state,’ is repeated many times by people across Turkey. The lack of enforcement of building codes and the abysmal response from the state, together with poor planning and coordination, is likely to add to the growing resentment against Erdogan. Erdogan’s popularity was already historically low as a result of high inflation which is predicted to stand at 121 percent as of January 2023.

Trade unions, left-wing organizations, community groups, and thousands of volunteers are trying to rescue trapped people from the rubble and provide basic necessities for people who survived. These initiatives are very promising and can be a stepping stone for the formation of democratic local neighbourhood teams made out of workers and local communities for greater coordination in rescue operations and provision of basic necessities in the immediate term.

There is an incredible mobilisation of ordinary people across Turkey, and also from other parts of the world, to send basic necessities to affected areas. Ordinary people are making donations to non-governmental organisations that do not have links with the government. Although Erdogan’s party still leads the polls by a small margin, this is a reflection of low levels of trust in the government following the earthquake.

Despite being one of the richest countries in the world with huge resources and skills, Turkey has failed to respond to this disaster miserably. Rather than investing in communities and making sure all buildings are earthquake resilient, the profiteering rich pocketed the money. There was no plan or preparation to deal with such an event, as the government and big businesses are interested in their short-term interests.

Not only the government ignored the construction companies that violated the building codes, but Erdogan’s government issued a zoning amnesty in 2018 for illegally constructed buildings without making sure they are safe to be inhabited. The government made $3 billion in revenues from applicants who registered their illegal buildings.

State of emergency 

President Erdogan declared a state of emergency in cities that are affected by the earthquake. The state of emergency will cover 10 cities and will last for 3 months, ending just before the Presidential and parliamentary elections due to be held on 14 May.

The government wants to silence any opposition and does not want the spread of any information that exposes the government’s incompetence. This gives sweeping powers for the police to conduct stop and search in the area, and it prohibits any protest and production and distribution of unauthorized newspapers and leaflets.

Erdogan and the ruling party will use the earthquake as an opportunity to increase their powers and trample on democratic rights. Given the appalling response from the government, it cannot be ruled out that the May elections could be canceled or postponed.

The failure of a decaying capitalist system is graphically illustrated in this earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria. Officials in both countries have failed to provide homes, safety, and basic resources for people affected by such disasters.

In war-torn Syria, infrastructure was already very weak because of the civil war. And both the government-held and rebel-held areas in northern Syria failed to respond to the crisis. Thousands of people have died so far and people who survived are sleeping outside in the cold. There are reports of a lack of access to clean water.

Western governments and the mass media have largely ignored or treated as secondary the plight of the people of Syria hit by the earthquake. Yet the western powers’ military interventions in the long-running civil war helped bring Syria to its knees.  The Biden administration maintains its sanctions against President Assad’s regime, which are a barrier to relief reaching the earthquake disaster areas.

In Turkey, the scale of this disaster was made worse by the incompetence of Erdogan’s regime who ignored building codes and had no plan to rescue people. Not only that, but they put bureaucratic obstacles in front of ordinary people and organisations who wanted to help.

Socialist policies, such as an emergency mass, earthquake resilient, affordable house-building programme, and fully funded national health service with inflation-proof pay rises for health workers, is required to begin to heal this tragedy. Alongside these immediate measures, the nationalisation of housing, food, and water supply industries under democratic working-class control is necessary, in order to stop profiteering of big businesses.

Without any doubt, this earthquake will deepen the crisis for Erdogan’s regime and Turkish capitalism. It is too early to gauge the mood in Turkish society, but the anger against the regime is already clearly visible.

Only in a socialist planned economy, with production and distribution under the control of the working class, can we create a world where the needs of the society are met rather than the billionaires, in order to avoid these tragedies, in the first place.


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February 2023