Turkey/Syria earthquake: natural disaster and human failures
The impacts of the natural catastrophe of the 6 February earthquakes were magnified by human factors. They struck two countries where civic space is heavily repressed and civil society has been weakened by conflict and authoritarianism. The death toll was undoubtedly influenced by corruption, the lack of accountability and petty political calculations that hampered the speed and effectiveness of the response. The governments involved can’t deal with the emergency and subsequent reconstruction on their own and need as much help as possible – including from the civil society they’ve attacked for years. Rather than resent and attack civil society, they should work with it.
The impacts of the twin earthquakes that struck Syria and Turkey on 6 February were devastating and will be long lasting. The consequences have been much worse than might have been because the earthquakes hit two countries plagued by conflict and authoritarianism.
This was the deadliest earthquake in Turkey’s modern history and the worst anywhere in the world since that which hit Haiti in 2010. By early March, almost 46,000 deaths had been confirmed in Turkey. More than 4,500 deaths were reported in Syria, although the toll is likely much higher.
High-magnitude earthquakes of the kind that struck the two countries are natural disasters, but their impact depends on multiple human factors, such as population density, building standards and the ability to deliver an effective emergency response – which can depend on the availability of response services and the speed they can be mobilised with.
In this instance, the conditions could hardly have been worse. This was only the latest calamity to hit north-west Syria and south-east Turkey. More than four million Syrians reliant on humanitarian aid live in the worst-hit area.
Turkey, the world’s biggest refugee host country, is home to about 3.6 million Syrians who’ve fled a civil war now in its 12th year. Many of them live in the south-eastern Turkish provinces of Hatay and Kahramanmaraş, the worst hit. According to the United Nations (UN), about 1.9 million people were left homeless in Turkey, and 2.5 million children are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.
In Syria, a country with a record 6.8 million internally displaced people, including almost three million children, over 60 per cent of those affected by the earthquake were already displaced, and many faced a cholera outbreak on top of particularly harsh winter weather. Ninety per cent of Syrians live below the poverty line, and the earthquake struck one of the poorest parts of Syria. It forced over half a million people from their homes.
The human factor
Following the earthquakes, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared a three-month state of emergency in several affected provinces. But for a variety of reasons ranging from lack of preparedness to bad weather, aid was slow to arrive in remote areas and precious days – the early period when people can still be rescued alive – were lost. In Hatay province, where many government buildings were destroyed, including the local offices of the disaster relief agency, people complained that much search-and-rescue work was left to volunteers, with survivors digging out family members trapped under rubble.
As he toured the epicentre two days after the earthquake, Erdoğan seemed to fall back on well-worn rhetoric rather than offer a message of empathy and action: he urged people to ignore ‘provocateurs’ fanning anger over the ‘alleged’ shortcomings of the rescue operation.
Erdoğan knows such disasters can have political repercussions. The earthquake that struck close to Istanbul in 1999, killing around 17,000 people, played a big role in bringing him to power. He won comfortably at the next election in 2002, promising transparency and construction-driven economic progress.
There’s been precious little transparency as Erdoğan has ruthlessly concentrated power on himself and moved to repress dissent, including through a programme of widescale detentions. He can claim to have overseen an infrastructure-led economic boom, at least until economic crisis hit in 2022. But now there are question marks over much of the construction of recent years.
In the aftermath of the 1990 disaster, the government established an ‘earthquake tax’ meant to improve preparedness – but it isn’t clear how the billions raised were spent. It adopted some of the strictest building regulations and safety standards in the world – but didn’t properly enforce them. A lack of enforcement helped keep costs low, while endemic corruption created a wide gap between regulations on paper and reality.
Rather than enforcing the rules, the government held periodic ‘construction amnesties’, collecting billions in fines from those lacking proper safety certifications. Tens of thousands of buildings where fines were paid to make up for noncompliance have now been destroyed, among them hospitals and many private homes.
Turkey’s next general election is due in May. Erdoğan’s political future may depend on how well he handles the fallout.
Civil society steps in
As the earthquakes hit, the first to show were those already there: local civil society staff and volunteers directly affected by the disaster. They were soon joined by civil society organisations (CSOs) from other parts of the country, including Akut, Turkey’s largest search-and-rescue CSO.
CSOs were quick to identify the needs of the groups they work with – including children, women, LGBTQI+ people, people with disabilities and migrants and refugees – and worked to share information and coordinate efforts. A week later, as hopes of finding survivors faded, focus switched to securing shelter, food and schooling. Professional groups – architects, construction workers, healthcare professionals, social workers – also brought in their expertise through unions and professional organisations.
Voices from the frontline
Gözde Kazaz is Communications Officer at Support to Life, a Turkish humanitarian CSO that helps disaster-affected communities meet their basic needs and advance their rights by providing emergency assistance, refugee support, child protection and capacity building.
Many CSOs that have useful expertise and work on disasters, Support to Life included, came together to form the Turkish Local NGO Humanitarian Forum to coordinate delivery of aid and help meet the enormous needs we see in the field. Dividing responsibilities for various response areas according to each one’s expertise was an effective way to avoid duplication and deploy resources effectively.
In addition, another coalition, the Disaster Platform, is active in the response. It is just not possible to respond to such a large-scale disaster effectively without civil society, and particularly without grassroots organisations active at the local level.
Responding to disasters is one of the main things Support to Life does, so our emergency aid teams arrived in Hatay, one of the most affected provinces, right after the earthquakes hit on 6 February. We immediately deployed a humanitarian aid operation in the cities of Adana, Diyarbakır, Şanlıurfa, and particularly in Hatay. Soon after, we expanded towards Adıyaman and Kahramanmaraş.
We worked with partners to conduct needs assessments in affected areas, which we continue to carry out on an ongoing basis in order to monitor the response. Since the outset, the Greenpeace Mediterranean and Amnesty International call centre teams were particularly helpful in enabling the general due diligence and rapid needs assessment required in disaster-affected rural areas.
We have focused much of our efforts on WASH – water, sanitation and hygiene – by working to establish water and sanitation infrastructure in temporary shelters. We have also prioritised shelter, food security and the provision of mental health and psychosocial support.
Humanitarian CSOs working in the field, Support to Life included, have noted that this is not a one-off or short-term but a continuous, long-term situation. We need to think about recovery, which will require lots of resources. This means a lot more financial support will be needed.
This disaster once again showed the importance of international solidarity and international support channelled through both government and civil society. Responding to a disaster of this magnitude is only possible if there is a great deal of international solidarity that translates into resources.
This is an edited extract of our conversation with Gözde. Read the full interview here.
Then came the Turkish government’s Disaster and Emergency Management Agency (AFAD). Several UN agencies also stepped in, particularly the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which worked to reunite children with families.
Many states, including China, the USA and several European Union (EU) states, committed to sending help, and some flew in search teams, equipment and supplies. Help has also come from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and countless international relief organisations that have deployed their teams or supported civil society on the ground. These include Doctors Without Borders, the International Rescue Committee and Save the Children, among many others.
Global Giving, which connects CSOs to donors, launched the Turkey and Syria Earthquake Relief Fund to raise funds to help meet immediate food, shelter and water needs, with anything raised above the initial US$5 million goal, which is about to be met, pledged to supporting longer-term recovery efforts.
Donations have been collected by AFAD and the Turkish Red Crescent, but also by local CSOs. Individual giving has increased, with many looking to donate to organisations they judge to be most effective, transparent and accountable. Many have taken to social media to vent their anger and distrust in the government and urge that donations be sent to CSOs instead of state agencies, and particularly to the Foundation of Anatolian People and Peace Platform (AHBAP).
The Turkish diaspora has mobilised support, as have those with no immediate connection to the country. Perhaps the most striking show of solidarity came from Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Despite having little to spare, they scrambled to collect donations for earthquake survivors because, as one of them put it, they knew ‘how it feels to lose everything’.
But all of this isn’t nearly enough. Ten days after the earthquake, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs launched a three-month flash appeal for US$1 billion for Turkey, aimed at supporting the government-led response and enabling humanitarian agencies to provide assistance. But by the end of the month, barely seven per cent of funds had materialised and serious humanitarian needs remain unaddressed, from emergency shelter to water and sanitation, food and other essential items.
Shoot the messenger
While visiting a tented community in Kahramanmaraş, Erdoğan made an impossible promise – possibly with an eye on the coming election – to complete reconstruction within a year. A few days later, the vice president announced warrants had been issued for the detention of 131 people in construction suspected of negligence contributing to buildings collapsing. The justice ministry announced the creation of earthquake criminal investigation units.
The best way to ensure accountability, at the highest levels, for those responsible for shoddy construction is through an active and independent civil society and media, free to investigate and expose wrongdoing. But predictably the government threatened media outlets and arrested journalists instead.
On the day of the earthquake the head of Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council, an instrument of censorship that previously fined media for covering the 2021 wildfires, reminded journalists and media outlets of their legal obligation not to share information that could harm search-and-rescue efforts, cause panic or spread disinformation, and accused some of failing to comply. While declaring the state of emergency the next day, Erdoğan threatened legal repercussions for those allegedly spreading ‘disinformation’ about the earthquakes and the official response.
When Erdoğan said disinformation, he meant criticism. The Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into two journalists who criticised the government’s response as insufficient, accusing them of ‘inciting the public to hatred and enmity’. In Adana, a newspaper correspondent was detained for trying to speak with hospital patients’ relatives. Several more were detained in other parts of Turkey. In Diyarbakır, police prevented local journalists from reporting on search-and-rescue efforts, citing the state of emergency.
On 8 February, Twitter access was restricted – and not because of any connectivity issues linked to the earthquake. With phone lines overloaded, people were intensely using social media to seek and offer help, check in with family and friends and try to locate missing loved ones. But the government reacted to criticism by cutting them off.
Erdoğan and his officials have also worked to discredit CSOs. Not surprisingly, its growing popularity made AHBAP a target. Journalists at government-funded media outlets smeared it and its founder, singer Haluk Levent. Many feared the government would seize it and confiscate its assets.
CSOs and media have been targeted because their work has made clear the government’s lack of preparedness and the inadequacy of its response. The government also sees CSOs as competitors for resources it believes should have been channelled through AFAD.
The Syrian disaster
If responding in Turkey has been hard, it’s been only more challenging in Syria, where a protracted civil war brought a different kind of chaos long before the earthquake hit. Syria is ruled by a repressive authoritarian leader, Bashar al-Assad, in power for over two decades, but the Syrian government doesn’t control all the state’s territory.
Northwest Syria, the area that borders Turkey and impacted on by the earthquake, is still under rebel control. Its only border crossing that could be used to bring aid directly to affected areas was damaged by the earthquake. For a whole week, very limited humanitarian assistance could be brought in.
In this context, local groups were vital in leading the early response, among them the White Helmets, deploying the skills they’ve developed in rescuing people from bombed buildings to search for victims among the earthquake rubble. The group also criticised the lack of international help.
On 10 February, the USA temporarily eased sanctions on Syria in an attempt to speed up aid delivery, but disagreement followed between the Assad government and rebel groups on how to deliver it. Rebel groups didn’t trust the government and demanded a direct route for international aid to reach affected areas through border crossings, unmediated by the government. International donors urged the government to create safe corridors in an area often targeted with airstrikes, and to reopen additional border crossings leading to rebel-held areas.
On 13 February, Assad finally agreed to open two additional border crossings between Turkey and the rebel-controlled Idlib province to allow in emergency aid. The next day, the UN issued a flash appeal for US$397 million for Syria.
But as in Turkey, funding has fallen short: as of 1 March, less than half had been provided. Funding to first responders has been slow and inadequate. Hospitals lack basic supplies. People remain in dire need of shelter. And the absence of a vibrant, enabled civil society has made itself felt: 12 years of civil war have put the few CSOs able to continue operating under a great deal of stress, with very limited resources. To mobilise additional support, a EU-hosted donors’ conference is planned for 16 March.
Civil society a matter of life and death
Experience has shown how big a difference an enabled civil society can make, as highlighted by a comparison between the earthquake experiences of India in 2001 and Haiti in 2010. Home to plenty of longstanding, deeply rooted CSOs, India’s Gujarat state recovered relatively quickly, while Haiti’s thwarted recovery has been obstructed by long-term, systematic undermining of local civil society, which no amount of international resources has been able to make up for.
In Syria and Turkey, the earthquakes struck two countries where civic space is heavily repressed and civil society has been weakened by conflict and authoritarianism. In Turkey, legal regulations and restrictions on receiving foreign funding have limited civil society’s ability to respond, and many CSOs have been forced to shut down.
CSOs and media have been targeted because their work has made clear the government’s lack of preparedness and the inadequacy of its response.
In both countries the governments clearly can’t deal with the emergency and the subsequent reconstruction on their own and need as much help as they can get – including from the civil society they’ve attacked for years. But authoritarians fear civil society, because civil society seeks to hold them to account.
As well as potentially hampering the humanitarian response, this is an approach that will make it harder to learn the lessons that need to be acted on before the next disaster strikes – and more will surely come.
It isn’t too late to change tack. In Turkey in particular, given the coming election, Erdoğan should show some willingness to embrace criticism, learn the lessons and work with civil society. Otherwise, a regime that owes its origins to a badly handled earthquake could end up being ousted for identical reasons by another.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The Turkish government should eliminate restrictions on civil society and improve cooperation with civil society organisations responding on the ground.
The state of emergency declared in the earthquake zone must not become an excuse to restrict fundamental rights and should be lifted as soon as possible.
The Syrian government must ensure unfettered access to affected areas to enable long-term humanitarian and reconstruction aid.
Cover photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images