Unenforced Building Codes Worsened the Impacts of Turkey and Syria’s Earthquake

Turkey and Syria’s fragile infrastructure combines multiple layers of dismissal on the region’s vulnerability to earthquakes.

2 points

When the world’s deadliest earthquake in a decade struck northern Syria and southern Turkey, many blamed fragile infrastructure and unfortunately, they may be right. The magnitude of building destruction brings years of negligence to the surface.

In early February 2023, an earthquake of magnitude 7.8 struck down in northern Syria and southern Turkey, followed by a 7.5 magnitude event, damaging infrastructure and killing almost 60,000 people. This was one of the deadliest sets of earthquake events Turkey and Syria have seen in the last century. The region is one of the most earthquake-prone in the world, lying where three tectonic plates meet. After years of civil war, infrastructure in Syria was already fragile, dealing with its own lack of resources and government attention being devoted elsewhere. At least 160,000 buildings crumbled during February’s event in Turkey alone. With buildings marketed as “luxury” and “earthquake safe” pancaked during the disaster, the death toll rose and impacts became widespread. The tragedy speaks to the importance of a fundamental but often forgotten human right: safe and up-to-code housing.

The region is being blamed for having codes that allowed high-rise structures to be built quickly and without earthquakes in mind. While these newly built housing structures were a huge component to the catastrophe, they don’t tell the full story. Enhancing the resilience of housing involves many moving components, including the enforcement of codes and retrofitting, which is exactly what Turkey and Syria could have largely benefited from. 

Following the 1999 Izmit earthquake in Turkey, the country updated building codes that would allow buildings to be constructed where they were designed to “bend” in the case of an earthquake to avoid severe damage and life-threatening destruction. Post-Izmit building codes were instituted to work against the normalized use of concrete and masonry infill for construction, which make buildings unable to bend and absorb shock. In Turkey and Syria, the degree to which buildings in the 2023 earthquake were destroyed raised concerns over how sturdy they were to begin with. The Guardian describes “social media awash with examples of newly built residential complexes that have collapsed like sandcastles.”

Why weren’t buildings built after these new codes durable?

High housing demands in Turkey’s cities didn’t make long planning processes and inspection periods any easier. After the Izmit tragedy in 1999, experts warned of the dangers associated with rapid and unplanned urbanization in areas where earthquakes present higher magnitudes of damage to infrastructure. But rapid urbanization was exactly what happened in the region. Three metropolitan areas make up nearly one third of Turkey’s population, and urban migration began expanding in the period after the Izmit earthquake. Buildings were built quickly to accommodate, and now these structures need to be rebuilt again, further delaying opportunities for the country to meet its urban housing demand. Considering many of these buildings were labeled as luxury apartments equipped and supposedly designed with the latest earthquake safety standards, survivors are doubting the compliance of the structures and the effectiveness of the regulation they were marketed to comply with.

Although there were incentives in place for compliance of new buildings like insurance coverage from the Turkish government, the unforeseeable possibility of another natural disaster left developers weighing the pros and cons of engaging in compliant building when enforcement was not widespread. Many owners opted to take the easy way out.  

How were so many buildings so far from adhering to building codes? Government programs in Turkey allowed builders and owners to pay fines instead of adhering to codes for years leading up to the 2023 tragedy. One valuable lesson taken from Turkey and Syria’s disaster is that agencies enforcing methods that allow responsible parties to “pay their way out” of creating safe and resilient infrastructure are especially neglectful for areas under threat. These practices aren’t justifiable in a world facing occurrences of natural disasters influenced by climate change. An estimated 13 million structures were out of compliance due to the option of paying fines. Now, the country must rebuild these urban areas that already were on the verge of housing shortages from rapid population growth. 

Another problem lies in the fact that newer buildings, even the ones that were built quickly and out of code, did not make up the majority of infrastructure. Many of the destroyed structures were built before these codes were instituted. Turkey’s government even claimed that this number was close to 98%. The territory continues to face a larger task: bringing older buildings up to code. Retrofitting a city is a difficult task, but an important and very possible one. Codes in Turkey were updated again in 2018, but new buildings can only carry cities with large amounts of older “legacy” buildings so far when it comes to earthquake resilience. Turkey has had time to fix the issue though, and at least retrofit a decent amount of the city’s infrastructure and build on weakened infrastructure. For example, cities could have proactively encouraged steel reinforcement of buildings to enhance durability. This wasn’t happening at a rate that would save Turkey from an extremely deadly earthquake. 

The task of retrofitting cities to enhance earthquake resilience was coupled with the need for widespread enforcement of the new codes. And with the unpredictable nature of earthquakes, administrations chose to neglect the enforcement of earthquake safety standards outlined in building codes. A large portion of the buildings constructed before the codes were noncompliant with current standards, but were left alone without improvements. Furthermore, new buildings being constructed were also non-compliant, expanding the city’s supply of built infrastructure considered out of compliance, compounding the problem. Incentives for “seismic upgrades”, which enhance earthquake resilience through steel reinforcement and other methods, and retrofitting to bring buildings up to code were not accessible and advertised. 

Cities in the region wanted to expand their stock of housing and yet did not want to devote resources to ensuring something like this wouldn’t happen to the degree that it did. Disaster management isn’t just about who intervenes and what happens after an earthquake strikes, but there is also a large preventative component to it. Now Turkey is pouring billions of dollars into earthquake-resilient infrastructure, and areas worldwide can do this to better prepare before natural disasters. If cities with a large proportion of older buildings devote resources to retrofits instead of all to new buildings, and use resources they devote to new projects wisely and with implemented enforcement, the damage could be much less severe.

The case of the Turkey and Syria earthquake does not stand in isolation. Many cities across the world continue to sprawl without adequate enforcement and resources to take care of the existing housing stock. The good news is that we can improve. It is possible to both expand housing to account for higher demand as urban populations grow, while also making sure that housing is able to withstand disasters that the surrounding environment may throw at it. It’s not a trade off. Some places, like in the case of Syria, have larger issues like civil war that contribute to degraded housing. But other areas have resources but may be thinking the likelihood of a disaster sweeping through is slim. What we have seen with climate change is that it not only alters the intensity of events like earthquakes, landslides, and tsunamis, but also their degree of unpredictability. This is why, now more than ever, resilient housing should be a priority when governments and cities plan for the future.

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2 points
Hallie Cordingley
Hallie is an undergraduate student at Boston University majoring in both Environmental Analysis & Policy and Economics.


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