Turkey: Post-Earthquake, How Easy to Stop Substandard Construction?

Looking for survivors, rescuers dig in the rubble of a six-story apartment block in the eastern Turkish town of Ercis. (Photo: Alexander Christie-Miller)

In the wake of two devastating earthquakes, the Turkish government has unveiled ambitious plans to rid Turkey of all unsafe and illegal housing. But analysts say shoddy building practices are likely to continue unless Turkey also ends light-touch regulation of its construction industry.

Nearly 650 people lost their lives in the earthquake that struck the southeastern region of Van on October 23, and a subsequent smaller quake on November 10. With some 35,000 buildings damaged or destroyed, the two tremors exposed Turkey’s decades-old problem of substandard construction.

Shortly after the first quake, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan placed the blame squarely on the building trade and those charged with overseeing it. "Municipalities, constructors and supervisors should now see that their negligence amounts to murder,” Erdoğan said, vowing to demolish all the country’s illegal and unsafe housing, or to reinforce the structures.

With no comprehensive housing inventory in existence, estimates for the cost and scale of the undertaking are vague at best. Most analysts predict it could take decades and cost anywhere between $66 billion and $800 billion. Turkey’s Planning and Environment Ministry claims that “the majority” of Turkey’s buildings fall into these categories.

It is not the first time Turkish leaders have vowed to tackle the unsafe housing issue. Similar calls were heard following a 1999 quake that left at least 18,000 people dead in and around the western city of Izmit.

More than a decade after that tragedy, the cities of Van and Ercis fared little better than Izmit, according to Mustafa Erdik, director of the Kandilli Observatory, Turkey’s earthquake research and monitoring institute. “It was about the same, maybe a bit better,” Erdik said in reference to the buildings’ ability to withstand the quake. “But then, the buildings in the Van earthquake were not subjected to the same level of ground motion [as in 1999].”

The main problem, analysts broadly agree, is not the country’s building codes, but a weak inspection regime that allows developers to evade regulations. “In Turkey, there have been earthquake structural regulations since the 1940s, and by 1975 they were very good, but the problem is whether they are applied or not,” commented Serdar Harp, head of Turkey’s Chamber of Civil Engineers.

Under a system created in 2001 after the Izmit quake, inspections are carried out by private firms chosen and paid by the contractors whose buildings they are examining. The business is largely unregulated; firms offering inspections are not obliged to have professional liability insurance, and no special training is required other than a civil engineering degree.

Some construction companies even set up affiliated inspection firms, according to Mucella Yapici, an Istanbul architect who frequently speaks on urban redevelopment issues. “The inspection regime is not a public process, and to me this signifies a broken system,” said Yapici, who, like Harp, is calling for a public-run inspection system, independent from the building trade.

Meanwhile, some construction is free from inspection altogether. One and two-storey buildings with an area less than 200 square meters, as well as rural or village buildings of less than 500 square meters, are exempt from the regulation.

A further problem involves dangerous modifications to existing buildings, such as the addition of extra stories or removal of structural walls or columns. Harp says that it is rare that proper permission is obtained for such work, and rarer still that owners and contractors are called to account. “In Turkey, there’s nothing like a second inspection. It only happens if someone notifies officials.”

The close relationship that has always existed between the Turkish construction industry and government feeds the problem, he believes. “This group has a great influence and they operate to soften the law and weaken the inspection regime for their own interest,” he said in reference to construction companies. “They don’t like inspections, as it makes their profit go down.”

In the 1990s, construction companies, such as Veziroglu, were routinely granted state-awarded contracts. After the AKP came to power in 2002, Veziroglu fell from favor and a host of new business conglomerates, such as Albayraklar Holding, with an arm in construction, profited greatly from the privatization of public infrastructure.

But Erdik, the Kandilli Observatory’s director, contends that Turkey’s current economic boom has already done much to raise construction standards over the last decade, despite the situation in the relatively poor southeastern cities of Van and Ercis.

“Code compliance after 2000 was good, but the main reason for it is the improvement of the economy,” he said. “More capital is available, the construction process is more industrialized and so inspection is easier. Big players are in the business now, and they bring their own quality control.”

Friedemann Wenzel, a professor at Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology who has worked on earthquake preparation measures for Istanbul, believes Turkey is in good position to tackle the issue of substandard construction. “If they really want to make the effort they can do it,” Wenzel said. “Economically, they are in a good state. They have the expertise, and the central government has the power.”

But he added that Turkey’s strongly centralized state also can be an obstacle to reform. “Safety will always be generated locally. … This is a cultural problem in Turkey; things are very centralized,” he said. “There needs to be local people interested, NGOs acting, local responsibility. It does not come by central government and regulation by itself.”

Turkey’s Planning and Environment Ministry told EurasiaNet.org that contractors and building firms will be required to register with the ministry as of January 1, 2012. The ministry said that it would make the current inspection system more “coordinated,” and rigorous, “with every step of the building process inspected, from the concrete to the iron, the builder to the engineer.”

Meanwhile, the government has also announced that it will hand extended powers to the Planning and Environment Ministry and the Mass Housing Administration to buy or expropriate for redevelopment unsafe or illegal buildings.

Harp says it is not just Turkey’s poor-quality buildings that need to change, but also the ethos that created them. “If things go on as they are, then when we have earthquakes, we will have disasters like this again.”

Turkey: Post-Earthquake, How Easy to Stop Substandard Construction?

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