In the early hours of February 6, Turkey was hit by one of the largest earthquakes in its history, with a magnitude of 7.7 on the Richter scale. Ten cities and hundreds of villages in the southeast of the country were hit. In the following hours, a second earthquake struck the same area, this time of magnitude 7.4, according to the seismographs.
The epicenter of the earthquake was the city of Maras, and the main urban centers heavily affected were Antep, Urfa, Diyarbakir, Adana, Hatay, Kilis, and Adiyaman. This is an area populated by about three million people and located on the Syrian-Iraqi border. There are also numerous victims on the other side of the border, on Syrian territory: a few hours after the earthquakes, the dead were already at more than 1,500.
In a press release on the causes of this tragic toll in human lives, the Public Employment Workers’ Union (KESK) points out how widespread the culture of building speculation is throughout the country, along with unbridled urbanization, the result of rapid abandonment of rural areas.
For years, both the non-governmental and academic worlds have been trying to alert the central Turkish government and local administrators to the impending danger. Only a few days ago, university professor and science popularizer Naci Gorur, a member of the Bilim Akademisi independent science collective, had made a series of statements about the damage that earthquakes – which were known to be years overdue – could do to southeastern Turkey, given the precarious and fragile state of the building stock.
As first responders streamed into the area from a number of other cities and some countries announced their readiness to send in first response teams, Huseyin Alan, the President of the Association of Geological Engineers, stood before the cameras and told the nation the details of a very grim reality. We spoke with him about the events.
Were the consequences of today’s earthquake avoidable?
After the Elazig earthquake in 2020, we created a working group involving a number of university professors and experts with the aim of preparing a prevention and analysis plan for the whole area. We did thorough monitoring work in 24 cities, 110 districts and more than 500 villages, all in a large area at risk of earthquakes above magnitude 5.5. We ended up sending hundreds of reports, first of all to the President of the Republic, but also to all ministers, parliamentarians, prefects and mayors. We received no response.
What were the critical issues you found?
First of all, there are either no controls at all or insufficient controls on the construction sites for new buildings. From the foundations to the top floors of the buildings, this is an out-of-control situation in a highly earthquake-prone zone. So we saw it as a very risky and worrisome situation.
What did you do after you saw that you were not getting any response?
We continued to work, issue new reports and contact local and national authorities directly. The last detailed report we prepared for the city of Antep was from November 22 last year, while for the city of Maras, which was the epicenter of these earthquakes, our last report was two months ago.
So, would something have changed if the authorities had taken your reports into account two years ago?
The images we are seeing today are making us realize that it was absolutely necessary to take urgent action, analyzing the buildings at risk, making the necessary changes and increasing controls on new construction. Unfortunately, today we can say that our concerns and analyses were not unfounded.