There have been 22 earthquakes of significant magnitude around the world so far this year. The worst of them struck Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city, on October 30. More than 100 people died. Such loss of life is tragic enough, but when it is clearly connected to failings that go right to the heart of government, it becomes unconscionable.
Uncontrolled, unregulated, unauthorized construction and unplanned urban sprawl have long been a problem in Turkey. But under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its obsession with construction, they have become dangerous. Building laws are riddled with gray areas, which the AKP has failed to address. But the government’s habit of excusing those who throw up buildings without proper permits or authorization is far more alarming, for it creates a climate in which builders feel they can get away with ignoring regulations with no thought for how they endanger the lives of their fellow citizens.
Since 1948, parliament has passed 19 “zoning amnesty laws” that, on payment of a fee, have granted pardons to those responsible for putting up illegal buildings, or illegal additions to existing buildings. It’s an easy source of revenue for the government, but it leaves the country littered with unfit, unsafe buildings – as many as 40,000, according to some experts. As Murat Kurum, the minister of environment and urbanization, explained last year: “Buildings may have been pardoned by the zoning amnesty law but that does not mean they are durable or solid.”
The latest zoning amnesty law was passed in May 2018. It benefited 1.8 million applicants from all over Turkey and filled the government’s coffers with the equivalent of $2 billion. In Izmir, scene of that recent deadly earthquake, there were around 811,000 applications linked to illegal buildings. “Quality, regulation and supervision are never prioritized,” said Selin Sayek Boke, general secretary of the opposition Republican People’s Party and a member of parliament for Izmir.
In 1999, an earthquake in Golcuk, a town on the coast of the Sea of Marmara, killed more than 18,000 people, though unofficial reports put the figure at more than 45,000. Investigations into the disaster showed that 120,000 houses that were damaged beyond repair were poorly engineered. The need for building contractors to be properly qualified and regulated had never been clearer or more pressing. But little changed.
For a would-be contractor to acquire a certificate of competence, he needs three things: a clean criminal record, an application form and around $300. There is no mention of training or qualifications in the requirements. This goes some way toward explaining why Turkey has 454,000 licensed contractors while Germany, a country of similar size and population, has only 274,000.
The bodies of the 34 people buried under the ruins of the Riza Bey apartment block in Izmir last month attest to the Wild West lawlessness prevalent in Turkey’s construction industry. The eight-story block was built on marshland and a subsequent investigation has revealed that the wrong materials were used in its construction.
The complete lack of checks on building companies and the absence of any enforcement of building regulations are the main issues that crop up every time there is an inquiry following a tragedy like Riza Bey. Opposition politicians have tabled 58 motions since 2003 urging the establishment of a buildings inspectorate to ensure the safety of buildings. The AKP voted down every single one. The opposition also has called for a law that would limit and regulate construction in the 18 municipalities that are especially vulnerable to earthquakes. But passing the so-called “tectonic plate law” requires an amendment to the constitution, which parliament has not yet even discussed.
Since 2002, Turkish taxpayers have paid an additional “earthquake tax” on almost every financial transaction they make, from income tax to motor-vehicle tax and even on the purchase of plane tickets. The earthquake tax was imposed as a temporary measure to create an emergency and disaster fund, and has collected more than 140 billion Turkish lira ($17.4 billion) from taxpayers.
However, there is widespread suspicion it has been misused – a notion strengthened by former Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek, who has admitted it was spent on health, education and highway construction. When questioned last January after an earthquake in the eastern province of Elazig left 41 people dead, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan replied that it was “none of anyone’s business to ask where the earthquake tax money has been spent. It was spent where it ought to be spent.”
This was not only callous but wrong. How taxpayers’ money is spent is very much everyone’s business – the law says so. Legal experts point out that Turkey’s Public Finance Management and Control Law requires the government to be accountable and transparent on how it spends taxpayers’ money.
Earthquakes are a fact of life in Turkey. You can’t ignore nature. But you can build accordingly and with care, tamping nature’s force. Until that happens, however, Turkey can only await its next tragedy.
Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise and Istanbul Art News.