Lessons for building a disaster-prepared living environment

Experts warned Turkish authorities about an expected earthquake along the East Anatolia Fault (EAF), but the warnings were not heeded. The catastrophe that remains following the February 6 quake is not a fate but a natural disaster, one from which governing authorities must learn to reduce devastation. The tools required will be an understanding of nature, plans to track science, and the honesty and goodwill of all parties involved.

History can predict the future

Throughout its seismic history, Turkey has experienced similar devastations after almost any powerful quake. The highest risk areas lie along the fault lines between the tectonic plates. The Marmara Earthquake, which damaged the Marmara region of northwestern Turkey in 1999, killed more than 17,000 people. The Marmara Quake affected a densely populated industrial and residential strip 200 kilometers (124.27 miles) long. The scientists prepared detailed reports and warned the political authorities about the dangers of residential settlements and industrial developments on the quake fault line around mid-century when the area was not densely populated. The scientific reports were not followed resulting in a not well-planned urban development in the Marmara region, the densest settled industrial and residential zone in Turkey right on the North Anatolian Fault line (NAF). (1)

The destruction from the current quake is similar. The hardest hit 10 provinces stretch approximately 500 kilometers. This is almost the same distance from Boston to Philadelphia or New York to Washington, D.C., in the United States of America or Paris to Amsterdam in Europe.

Turkish cities experienced rapid industrialization and urbanization due to population growth and an increase in density after the 1950s. Most of the cities lost their low-rise, single-family traditional houses and they were replaced with mid-rise multifamily buildings. The typical multifamily housing stock in most of Turkey including in the quake-damaged disaster area consists of approximately four- to ten-story reinforced concrete buildings with brick or concrete masonry unit non-load-bearing exterior walls and interior partitions.

A very high percentage of the residential buildings, 60% or more as miscellaneous authorities report, are built without proper permits or with no accordance with building codes. The earthquakes would be less destructive if seismic codes and geological surveys had been implemented properly and settlements were not allowed on the fault lines, and corrupted construction processes with weak control of constructions prevalent in Turkey’s construction sector were abandoned.

Disrupting the ‘construction peace’

After the 1999 quake, there has been extensive academic and professional research resulting in detailed reports and projects on architectural and structural design in earthquake-prone areas to raise awareness. (2) The governmental authorities issued revisions to the seismic building codes and prepared development plans following disaster risks during the period after the 1999 earthquake. The intentions looked promising in controlling the seismic hazards and protecting the public against earthquakes. Unfortunately, shortly before the elections in 2018, the government introduced an amnesty program called ‘construction peace’ legalizing constructions built without permits that were not in compliance with the current building codes. The amnesty program legalizing unsafe buildings by paying a fine was highly criticized.

Another important planning tool introduced to prepare risky buildings for earthquakes and other natural disasters like floods and landslides was an urban regeneration program commonly known as the Urban Regeneration Law enacted in 2012. The concept of urban regeneration in risky areas, providing the residents of these areas with earthquake-safe buildings sounded promising in the beginning. In the end, the process of urban regeneration turned into a catastrophic path due to its not clearly defined nature bringing the revenue-thirsty construction firms and the apartment unit owners trying to protect their rights face to face.

Commercial advertisements for some of the collapsed residential buildings in the recent earthquake carried expressions like ‘built by the current seismic codes’, and ‘a corner of paradise’. They were built only a few years before the earthquake. Buyers were impressed by the advertisement campaigns such as ‘modern looking attractive facades’ and ‘prestigious’ brand kitchen tiles. Unfortunately, this type of marketing technique attracted buyers. The earthquake has taken its toll.

Education and awareness are essential

Coordination between disciplines involved in the construction of the built environment would provide a holistic and scientific approach to creating a disaster-safe environment. The main role stands with the decision-making governing bodies, central and local. Existing seismic building codes and regulations would suffice if all parties worked with no ‘looting’ and no ‘corruption’.

The long road to a disaster-safe living environment involves many parties but can lead to fewer deaths and less destruction.


(1) Ihsan Ketin, a Turkish geoscientist, prepared a detailed report on the North Anatolian Fault line in 1948 and pointed out problems associated with this area in northern Turkey according to many sources. He authored articles on the North Anatolian Fault: Ketin, I., ‘Kuzey Anadolu Fayi Hakkinda (On the North Anatolian Fault)’, Maden Tetkik ve Arama Dergisi, Vol. 72 Issue 72, 1-27, 1969.

(2) Among many others, ‘Modular House’ is a low-rise project developed as a social responsibility initiative by the author with his architectural group S+ ARCHITECTURE, providing minimal housing solution for refugee population and/or for natural disaster survivors. Economically feasible, modularly produced housing units offer suitability to living and cultural habits, compatible for use in earthquake zones.

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