Erdoğan faces backlash over building standards in earthquake-ravaged city

Earthquake Turkey-Syria 2023

Turkey’s president’s role in allowing lax regulation to flourish will be put to the test after the Adıyaman disaster

Sunday 19 February 2023 at 06:00 GMT

In the midst of a brick-and-iron-strewn wasteland and a city reeling from unfathomable losses, a lonely new building stands unscathed. The European Cultural Center in the heart of Adıyaman looks like a place that the earthquake bypassed; the bangs of nearby excavators echo off its sturdy walls, and images of passing rescuers are reflected in its pristine glass facade.

The center is seen by some as a monument to survival that somehow survived a cataclysm that destroyed almost everything around it. But for a growing number of others, it is a sign of what should have been a ruined city for the rest.

Almost two grueling weeks after the devastation in southeastern Turkey and Syria, shock and despair are slowly giving way to a search for answers. The first question is how an estimated 85,000 buildings in the earthquake zone collapsed or were badly damaged, killing 44,000 people and maiming tens of thousands more.

Ghanaian footballer Christian Atsu was found dead after an earthquake hit Turkey

The homes of Adıyaman residents have collapsed like houses of cards, and much of the cityscape is now heaps where 12-story buildings once stood. The city is now all but uninhabitable, along with swathes of major cities in southeastern Turkey.

At the forefront of a growing debate is how buildings that could not withstand a major earthquake were allowed to be built. The widespread destruction has raised questions about corruption in the construction industry and its role in the devastation. Equally urgent is the role played by a permissive regulatory environment that allowed developers to capitalize on building affordable housing for Turkey’s dwindling middle class.

A 2019 amnesty retroactively legalized thousands of buildings that did not meet earthquake building standards while fines were paid. The move came despite warnings from engineers and architects. According to the Istanbul Union of Chambers of Engineers and Urban Planners, up to 75,000 buildings in the earthquake area were granted such a stay. Across the earthquake zone, developments slipped off their foundations or splintered upon themselves, crushing residents and burying thousands.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s reign is closely tied to his promise of a construction boom after he came to power in 2003 after another deadly earthquake in 1999 that killed more than 17,000 people.

A girl with food distributed by Ergün Demiray’s volunteers in Adıyaman. Photo: Ismail Kaya/The Observer

The dominance of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) stemmed in part from its ability to mobilize the construction sector, and in the years immediately following his election, state permits for housing tripled. In March 2019, a month before local elections, the Turkish government introduced the nationwide construction amnesty for illegal construction, despite warnings from local engineers and architects that it was jeopardizing the safety of citizens.

Erdoğan has defended the amnesty, claiming a week after this month’s quake that 98% of the collapsed buildings were built before 1999. The Turkish leader, who faces elections expected in May, promised a reconstruction campaign which he said would make the cities livable again within a year.

In Adıyaman this seems unlikely. At the center of the devastation, an 800-year-old mosque lies in ruins, along with a Syrian church and thousands of homes and businesses. Opposite the EU cultural center were two 12-story hotels, both of which collapsed in the quake. A group of 39 Turkish Cypriots who came to a youth volleyball tournament stayed in one called Isia. All died.

On Saturday, the developers of Hotel Isia were arrested, a local official in Adıyaman said. At least 113 construction workers have been rounded up across the country in recent days.

One of those arrested was Mehmet Yaşar Coşkun, who was arrested at Istanbul Airport and suspected of trying to flee to Montenegro. Coşkun’s Renaissance apartment building in Hatay province slipped off its foundations and collapsed with an estimated 1,000 people inside, though he told prosecutors he didn’t know why the building collapsed.

The wave of arrests involved many far away from the earthquake area: The building contractor Hasan Alpargün was arrested in the Turkish-controlled part of the Cypriot capital Nicosia after the public prosecutor’s office had accused him of “reckless murder and bodily harm”.

The role that some developers have played, and where regulators at the regional and national levels fit into the disaster, will likely be at the heart of the election. With political backlash mounting over building standards and his government’s response to the disaster, Erdoğan faces a difficult task of convincing a shocked nation that the state has done enough to protect its people from a man-made disaster.

By then, the people of Adıyaman and much of south-eastern Turkey will be forced to pick up the pieces. By the end of last week, bulldozers had cleared streets, plowing away debris like snow and exposing gaping holes in the buildings, some of which still stood. Men sat around burning oil drums at the entrance to their streets, an icy mist enveloping them as they guarded the ruins from looters.

Not far away, Chinese and Iranian rescue teams worked side by side to retrieve bodies from a collapsed building. The teams used ropes and rock saws to dislodge a woman in her nightgown from the mattress she was lying on, then a man from what resembled a bed. Both were gently placed in black body bags, a ritual performed thousands of times in this city of 270,000 where up to 10% of the population is said to have died.

“The cemeteries are full,” said Ergun Demiray, hospitality director for Shaya Group, which operates the Shake Shack and Starbucks franchises in Turkey. Demiray had driven a convoy of trucks to Adıyaman to distribute hamburgers and coffee to the homeless. “We will do whatever we can to help people recover. They need to know that they were not left alone.”


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