As the death toll from Turkey’s earthquakes rises, so does anger at the government

While the Justice Department has arrested more than 170 people—mostly contractors—in connection with the building collapses, many are focusing on and blaming existing building codes. Of particular note is a 2018 “amnesty” law that legalizes hundreds of thousands of structures across the country that did not have planning permission or had ignored building codes, including earthquake protection measures.

Under the amnesty law, the owner of an unauthorized construction could simply pay a fee and legalize it without any inspection. In other words, according to critics, the new regulation allowed builders to violate building codes while the government collected fees and fines.

The government collected 23 billion Turkish liras (about $4 billion at the time) after the 2018 legislation took effect, Murat Kurum, the minister of environment, urbanization and climate change, told lawmakers in 2019.

“Amnesty is murder,” the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects said in a 2021 statement. “It should be assumed that all buildings legalized under this amnesty have not received any technical service and should be inspected,” added organization.

Professional chambers, which defend the interests of around 650,000 civil engineers, architects and urban planners, play an important role in Turkey, with the Constitution stating that the organizations “function as public institutions” in order to “protect professional discipline and ethics”.

Also in 2021, a parliamentary report found that nearly 8 million buildings built that year were highly vulnerable to earthquakes.

Erdogan, who cultivates a pro-business reputation, campaigned on the amnesty legislation.

At a 2019 election rally in Hatay, one of the cities most damaged by the earthquakes, he said: “We built 8,000 housing projects and solved the problems of 205,000 Hatay residents with the amnesty,” a reference to the amnesty granted to unlicensed buildings.

According to Kurum, more than 7 million buildings were legalized thanks to the amnesty.

Turkey’s Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change and Erdogan’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this story. On February 8, during a speech in Hatay, Erdogan said it was “not possible to be prepared for such a big disaster”.

Construction boom

Turkey’s central government and local municipalities play a role in shaping cities. The reason the ruling AKP Party has come under so much criticism is that it holds the most seats in Parliament and can pass crucial legislation such as amnesty. It also controls the public housing authority, which carries out urban development projects.

Local municipalities, some run by the ruling party and others by the opposition, also play an important role, being responsible for creating zoning plans that determine building rights, such as deciding which areas are open for construction and imposing caps and height. limits. In addition, municipalities are responsible for inspecting construction projects in their districts and issuing permits if they are up to code.

Laws like the 2018 amnesty have fueled the building boom, giving developers across the country hope that the government will support the sector, experts say.

“Turkey’s economic growth since the late 2000s has been largely based on construction,” said Bengi Akbulut, associate professor of geography, planning and environment at Concordia University in Montreal.

“This is reflected in the growth rate of the construction sector between 2002-2014, which has outpaced GDP growth, and even doubled it at times,” added Akbulut, who has written widely on Turkey’s economy and government.

Massive development projects, wide highways, bridges and airports have become AK Party exhibits, touted during rallies and covered by pro-government media.

Construction workers are seen on top of a building under construction during their weekend shifts in Ankara on April 22, 2018. Turkey is preparing to go to the polls for early presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24.
Construction workers stand on top of a building under construction during their weekend shifts in Ankara, Turkey, on April 22, 2018. Altan Gocher/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Construction peaked after another much-discussed law was introduced in 2012, which dealt with the transformation of areas at risk of natural disasters. While the government promised to use the legislation to rebuild unsafe buildings, the new regulations gave the government expanded powers to label entire neighborhoods “at risk” and forcibly seize property through eminent domain.

Renewal of old and unsafe building stock has been one of AK Party’s best-known promises over the years. But despite the expanded powers granted by the 2012 law, critics such as Gencay Serter, from the Chamber of Urban Planning, say authorities have not focused on rebuilding older structures to make them earthquake-safe and have instead prioritized new construction. .

Also, allegations of widespread corruption undermining building safety have long dogged the construction sector in Turkey.

Building codes, enforced at the local level, are often not followed because of the “cozy relationship between construction companies and the government,” according to Howard Eissenstat, associate professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of St. Lawrence in New York.

Another factor contributing to the lack of proper oversight was a building inspection system put in place in 2011 that ran until 2019, according to the Union of Turkish Engineers and Architects Chambers. Under this system, contractors could choose any inspection company they wanted and pay the inspectors themselves.

This “led to some illegality in the system,” said Mustafa Erdik, a professor in the earthquake engineering department at Istanbul’s Bogazici University.

The law was revised in 2019 so that the Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change began assigning inspectors to contractors. Announcing the review, the ministry wrote that the most important goal was to eliminate “deficiencies in inspections” caused by “illegal commercial ties created between building contractors and inspection companies,” which “all stakeholders agreed was the biggest problem of the system”.

Zoning changes made by central or local authorities were also an issue.

“Areas that were unsafe for construction, such as riverbeds and other unstable areas, were rezoned and opened up for construction,” Scherter said.

Over the years, the Chamber of Architects and the Chamber of Town Planners have sued the government many times over the safety of construction projects. They won in some cases, delaying projects and angering Erdogan himself.

“These wards, their names are architects, engineers,” Erdogan said in 2016. “But their goal is to demolish, not to build.”

Two staunch critics of the government’s construction policies, architect Mucella Yapici and urban planner Tayfun Kahraman, have been jailed since April for their involvement in the Gezi Park protests, which were sparked by the government’s plan to build a shopping mall in what today it is a park. to Constantinople.

Yapici, a vocal supporter of strict earthquake protection standards, asked her lawyers to send out a tweet from her account on Saturday.

“After the search and rescue is completed, prosecutors and experts must come to each wreck,” Yapici said He wrote. “Samples of concrete/iron etc should be taken as evidence from the wreckage!”

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