Disastrous Relief

By Worf, Richard | Harvard International Review, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Disastrous Relief


Worf, Richard, Harvard International Review


Turkey's Earthquake Response

Last fall, the world's attention was riveted on Turkey after two disastrous earthquakes struck Izmit and Duzce, causing over 20,000 deaths.

While Turkey was still experiencing aftershocks, aid flowed in from all parts of the globe. The United States and the World Bank together issued over US$4 billion in loans for reconstruction in Izmit, a major industrial city. Even Greece, Turkey's historic rival, sent aid in a gesture of goodwill.

Unfortunately, the global media quickly forgot about Turkey's situation, leaving the world largely unaware of the Turkish government's negligence in expediting relief efforts and providing an appropriate legal framework for safe reconstruction. The government failed to coordinate efforts on the ground to help its citizens, and its handling of the disasters revealed bureaucratic corruption and a lack of preparation for disasters. The government's lethargic and corrupt policies exacerbated an already disastrous situation.

The Turkish government's negligence began 25 years ago, when it failed to act on research indicating a high probability of earthquakes near Izmit and Istanbul. The fault zone had been inactive for over 300 years, but seismic research in 1975 predicted a major earthquake in a decade or less. The government, however, took no measures to ensure earthquake-safe methods of development in the booming region of Izmit. This negligence was due in part to limited knowledge about earthquake preparation at the time. Yet even 20 years later, when earthquake technology had vastly improved, the government took no action in response to a 1997 paper authored by US and Turkish scientists identifying lzmit as Turkey's most earthquake-prone region. The Turkish government allowed private contractors throughout the nation to operate under lax building codes. Economic growth in lzmit led to a boom in cheap, structurally unstable housing.

The government was just as complacent about preparing contingency plans for domestic emergency relief as it was about overseeing construction of safe buildings. Official policy relied on the military to organize disaster relief and numerous NGOs such as the Red Crescent to pick up the slack. Unfortunately, the military's role was not sufficiently articulated. When disaster struck, the military was more concerned for its own safety than the safety of Turkish citizens. Soon after the earthquake, convoys of ground forces and naval forces were moved far from the disaster area for their own protection. One commander, justifying the military's negligence, said, "If we handle every disaster, then we can't do our own job. Our job is to protect the country. This is a profession by itself. Everyone has their own work." The government had failed to make disaster relief a priority for the military, and as a result the military had no incentive to act in the earthquake's aftermath.

Inconsistencies in Turkey's legal system created further problems in relief efforts. Most quake survivors were not adequately insured, because the Turkish government had promised its citizens compensation and subsidized rental housing in the event of an earthquake.

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