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Earthquakes and the blame

“Pancaked buildings” ... A residential high-rise flat that collapsed during the recent earthquake in Turkey.

If you are trying to dodge the blame for a great disaster, the best policy is to say that it was God’s will. So Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, visiting one of the 6 000 buildings that collapsed on their sleeping residents in eastern Turkey last week, said: “Such things have always happened. It’s part of destiny’s plan.”

An angry Turkish woman on the television news had a simpler explanation for the 33 000 dead already found under the wreckage and the many more to come: “Earthquakes don’t kill people! Buildings kill people!”

To be precise, cheaply built high-rise housing that flouts the regulations about making dwellings earthquake-proof kills people — by the tens of thousands. But it is possible to construct high-rise buildings that will not “pancake” down on their residents in an earthquake.

In Japan, for example, where they have enforced the building regs since the great 1929 Tokyo quake (140 000 killed), earthquakes of almost comparable power now kill in the low hundreds or even in single digits.

 Strong concrete floors and vertical columns separating them, both steel-reinforced, cost a bit more, of course, but they keep your people alive. If you live in an earthquake zone, that’s what you do.

Turkey, like most earthquake zones, has strong regulations on building safety. However, it also has “construction amnesties” which register and legalise buildings that are put up without planning permissions and ignore fire and seismic codes. So build whatever you want, and wait for Erdoğan’s next amnesty to report it.

The 5,8 million residential buildings were regularised by the last amnesty, issued just before the presidential election of 2018. Another amnesty is planned for the near future, since there is another election coming up this May. Indeed, most of the victims of the recent Turkish earthquakes lived in buildings covered by the 2018 amnesty or earlier ones.

Politicians and developers have a mutually beneficial relationship in most countries, but Turkey is special. It’s not just kickbacks; Erdoğan’s government favours the industry with amnesties, low interest rates and the like because construction produces a quick hit of economic activity that helps him through the next election or other crisis.

He has quite a few little tics like that. Another is a fixed belief that a low interest rate makes the economy grow faster. Yes, it does, but most people also know that if the low rates causes inflation, then you need higher rates to stop it. Erdoğan doesn’t, and his stubborn conviction to the contrary has raised inflation to almost 100% a year.

The consequent cost-of-living crisis has already made his victory in the upcoming election doubtful. He has tried all the usual tricks — doubled the minimum wage, increased pensions by 30%, subsidised domestic energy costs, let two million extra people retire immediately — and still the polls show a very tight race.

On top of this, there is now growing public anger about Erdoğan’s role in enabling the developers to get rich by ignoring the building regulations, especially in the southeastern cities that are mourning tens of thousands of earthquake victims. These cities normally vote strongly for his AK party, but probably not this time.

Turkey is still a democracy, despite having been run by a ruthless populist strongman for 20 years. Thousands are jailed for political reasons, the media work for the boss; corruption and oppression are everywhere — but the voting system is still relatively intact. Erdoğan could lose, and he knows it.

So he will want to make a great show of summoning help from his rich friends abroad for the immense task of rebuilding the region devastated by the earthquakes. His problem is that he no longer has any rich friends abroad.

Russia certainly can’t afford to bail him out, nor can Iran. The rich Arab regimes don’t trust him because they see him as an Islamist, and China is not splashing the cash around to buy influence overseas any more. Turkey’s Western allies in the Nato alliance have the money, but Erdoğan has alienated them with his games too.

To get the reconstruction aid he needs, he would have to lift his veto on Sweden and Finland joining Nato, stop selling drones to Russia, stop threatening Nato ally Greece with a Turkish attack “suddenly one night”, and a good deal more. That might be too much for him to swallow — or he might swallow it and still lose the election.

As for the real victims, the people trapped in the pancaked buildings, the death toll in Turkey may double by the time everything is cleared. In Syria, equally hard-hit by the quakes, the count has barely started, but it could go just as high.

  • Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. His new book is titled The Shortest History of War.

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