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The Turkey/Syria Earthquake Was a Natural Disaster – Murderous Corruption Caused So Many Deaths

Corner-cutting contractors sold buildings as safe that then collapsed. But just as culpable are officials who offered permits and lax controls

A woman sitting amid the rubble of her house in Kahramanmaraş, Turkey, 14 February 2023.,Photograph: Nir Elias/Reuters

The death toll from the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria has now surpassed 37,000. Tens of thousands of people are still missing, and social media feeds are awash with examples of newly built residential complexes that have collapsed like sandcastles, burying occupants under the rubble. Many of these buildings were sold as luxury housing “compliant with the latest earthquake safety standards”.

Some of the contractors responsible have tried to flee Turkey. Warrants have been issued for more than 130 people over alleged breaches of safety codes, and several construction company owners have been arrested. Turkey’s justice minister, Bekir Bozdağ, vowed that “all those who are at fault will be held accountable”.

But this kind of greed and blatant profiteering are not solitary crimes. These residential complexes could not have been built without state-issued building permits and licences, without the approving signatures of nominally independent building inspectors, and without the necessary reports from laboratories doing quality control of construction materials. They could not have gone ahead without the government’s many changes to construction and real estate legislation, all meant to facilitate the bloated growth of a destructive and insatiable construction sector.

This is not the first time in Turkey that destructive earthquakes have exposed a corrupt, incapable government. However, the AKP has been in power for over 20 years. It had the time and the means to tackle a notoriously fraudulent construction sector, rein in irresponsible contractors and provide safe, healthy housing for all citizens in an earthquake-prone country. It chose not to.

Instead, it focused on massive infrastructure and construction projects as the main motor of economic growth, no matter the societal and environmental costs. From 2004 on, the government passed substantive legal and institutional reforms in the fields of construction, real estate, local governance and housing finance. This included new extensive powers for metropolitan and district municipalities to implement urban renewal projects, to establish partnerships with private companies and to sell publicly owned land and assets to private developers.

As a result, tens of thousands of people – often those who were marginalised or poor – have been evicted from their homes. Communities and solidarity networks have been destroyed to make space for luxury housing and other high-profit real estate. Urban renewal did little to make housing resilient against earthquakes and other disasters. According to numbers published by the environment and urbanisation ministry in 2018, more than half of the buildings in Turkey – equivalent to almost 13m buildings – violate construction and safety regulations. Local politicians and experts have warned for years that cities and towns would not withstand violent tremors, but their voices have been ignored.

And not only that. While the state authorities encouraged unfettered development and construction, turning a blind eye to irregularities, the AKP critically weakened all independent expert oversight. Trade chambers were constantly disparaged as spoilsports, traitors, even terrorists for exposing construction flaws and opening court cases against problematic or dangerous projects. Laws passed in 2011 and 2013 – the latter likely petty revenge for the involvement of trade chamber leaders in the Gezi protests – specifically excluded chamber professionals such as civil engineers, architects and urban planners from the process of approving and inspecting construction projects. Architect Mücella Yapıcı, lawyer Can Atalay and urban planner Tayfun Kahraman, all prominent members of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Architects and Engineers (TMMOB) and longstanding critics of the AKP government, have all been thrown in jail on bogus conspiracy charges.

Meanwhile, the government has left its responsibility to ensure safe and regulated construction to the forces of the free market. Building inspections have been privatised, prioritising profit over expertise. Contractors not given to pangs of conscience and engineers willing to work for peanuts make inspections nothing more than a formality. This constant cutting of corners has led to an increase of illegally built and unsafe buildings. It’s a deadly race to the bottom: long-term unemployed engineers and architects have begun to hire out their university diplomas to the highest bidders, often subcontractors who want to cut through the red tape and cheaply finalise construction projects without the “obstacle” of an expert opinion.

Furthermore, existing buildings have benefited from so-called construction amnesties. First widely applied to informal housing in 1984 and framed as a “gift” from the government to its citizens, these official pardons have provided (for a fee paid to the government) permits for all illegally built or altered structures. The latest such amnesty was passed in 2018, in the run-up to general elections. Lauded by the AKP as the biggest construction pardon in the history of the republic, it encompassed almost 7.4m buildings and yielded 24.19bn TL (at the time about $4.2bn) in government revenue. According to the environment and urbanisation ministry, this money is supposed to be used for making buildings more earthquake-proof.

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The government argues that these amnesties provide low-income and small-scale homeowners with the legal means to hook up their houses to municipal infrastructure, but critics say that they promote the construction of unsafe and unregulated housing. Construction amnesties do not distinguish between a one-storey gecekondu and an 18-storey luxury housing estate.

Up to 294,000 buildings across the region affected by last week’s earthquakes have been given construction amnesties, according to numbers made accessible by the urban planner Buğra Gökçe, a senior Istanbul municipality official. At the time of the earthquakes on 6 February, another amnesty draft law was pending parliamentary approval.

How many of the deadly buildings were included in the amnesty is still unclear. While rescue teams are still digging for survivors, the search for evidence has begun. In the aftermath of the earthquakes, experts have warned, it is imperative that independent legal committees collect samples of concrete, beams and steel support rods from collapsed buildings, and to demand the buildings’ permits and licensing paperwork from municipalities, as well as proof that subcontractors have adhered to all current building safety standards and regulations. Lawyers dispatched to the earthquake zone have already alerted colleagues and the public to attempts to make such evidence disappear.

If all those responsible for this disaster are to be held to account, it is this net of corruption, nepotism and greed that has to be untangled first.

  • Constanze Letsch is a former Turkey correspondent for the Guardian and has recently finished a PhD on urban renewal in a central Istanbul neighbourhood