By Dr. Ian Ralby, Rohini Ralby, Dr. David Soud
As tensions between anxious families and rescue workers grew in Gaziantep, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed: “It impossible to prepare for disasters this big.” That, however, depends on how one defines preparation. The magnitude 7.8 earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria on Monday, the 6th of February 2023, was ferocious but not unforeseeable. Indeed, seismologists had predicted this earthquake – extremely accurately as to both magnitude and location – days before it occurred. Those alerts, if heeded, would have allowed for preparatory warnings and mobilization of response. In addition to this prediction, people throughout the Turkish areas that have been hardest hit have been paying taxes to fund earthquake preparedness for years. Economists estimate that the value of the government account devoted to earthquake preparation and response should be somewhere around $36 billion, so using a lack of resources as an excuse for a lack of preparation does not hold up. Given President Erdogan’s own efforts to peddle a narrative of Turkish exceptionalism, the failures of both preparation and response in Gaziantep may therefore have to be attributed to a lack of interest and care for the people who reside there. Perhaps not coincidentally, many of those people are Syrian.
While this was the strongest in over a century, Turkey is no stranger to earthquakes. Scientists constantly monitor the fault lines in the region, and Dutch seismologist Frank Hoogerbeets tweeted a prediction on the 3rd of February that there would be a roughly 7.5 magnitude earthquake in south central Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, identifying the epicenter as just southwest of Gaziantep. Despite this warning, and despite an earthquake preparedness tax on residents of the area, Turkish authorities showed a surprising lack of urgency in the critical first 48 hours after the quake. Amid freezing temperatures and massive devastation, the window for finding survivors was limited from the outset. In neighboring Syria, as Yousra ElBagir of Sky News reported, the “White Helmets,” who have saved countless lives from bombed buildings during the war, have found themselves completely overwhelmed, only able to respond to 30 of nearly 700 requests for assistance. Given that the White Helmets are an NGO operating in rebel-held Syria amid an ongoing conflict, it is hard to understand why Turkey, a NATO ally and global economic power, failed to muster a more robust response.
Turkey’s geography places it at the intersection of three tectonic plates, two continents, and a geopolitical powder keg that has been flaring with tensions for decades. Turkish areas near its borders with Syria, Iraq, Iran and Armenia have absorbed millions of refugees over the decades of conflict that have plagued the region. When the earthquake hit, Turkey was home to roughly 3.6 million Syrian refugees who had fled the war over the last twelve years. Gaziantep alone is host to roughly 462,000 of those refugees, making up 21.6% of the city’s population. While Turkey has been given credit for being host to the largest refugee population in the world, since 2019 and particularly in recent months, the Turkish public has grown increasingly intolerant of this situation.
The grossly inadequate and sluggish response of Turkish authorities to this earthquake can only be explained in one of four ways. The first would be incompetence – namely that the government lacks the ability to organize a response. Given Turkish performance as a NATO ally and regional power, that explanation does not fit. The second would be that the response has been impeded by mismanagement, including possible re-allocation to other policy ends of the money steered to earthquake preparedness, leaving the government unable to muster a response. Third is that corruption robbed both the Turkish treasury of the funds for earthquake preparation and installed individuals in critical positions of responsibility on account of their connections rather than their competence. The last possible reason would be that the Turkish government had the capacity to respond, but for whatever reason did not feel the urgency to do so. That lack of urgency will need to be examined as the painful work of recovery begins.