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Turkey

Vested Interests Leave Turkey Exposed To Earthquake Disaster Scenario

Op-Ed: Greedy landlords and shortsighted politicians are standing in the way of the passage of historic legislation that would better prepare Istanbul and the rest of the country for a major earthquake that experts say is likely to hit.

Istanbul would be devastated by a major quake (Tinou Bao)
Istanbul would be devastated by a major quake (Tinou Bao)
Mehmet Ali Birand

ISTANBUL - I've had it with petty politics. Turkey faces a very real risk in the coming years of a devastating earthquake, and yet vital measures for minimizing damage are being blocked in Parliament. Just when mobilizing our resources for the common good is more essential than ever, homeowners and slumlords are thinking only about personal profit, while local government officials are unable to focus on anything but votes.

I recently attended a press conference organized by the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning. Returning from this conference I was more discouraged then ever. The experts agree that Turkey is heading for a train wreck, yet policymakers and interest groups can only focus on themselves. Even the Urban Development bill has been stalled in the legislature - incidentally, the bill's name could be part of the problem: it should more appropriately be called the "Earthquake bill."

Minister of Environment and Urban Planning Erdoğan Bayraktar is on a mission to change this dismal situation. Bayraktar has been touring the country trying to build momentum for change. But his lonely efforts stand little chance against the vested interests.

But ignoring the problem won't prevent disaster. If the proper preparations are not set in motion, a predicted earthquake above 7.0 magnitude could destroy Istanbul. And if this city is even half-ruined, Turkey's rise will come to an abrupt halt. We will be bankrupt and devastated. After all, Turkey's vital centers of industry and most valuable investments are in Istanbul, not to mention its position as a transit hub. A large earthquake would inflict $200 to 300 billion of damage. It is hard to imagine Turkey recovering easily from the rubble of the many schools, bridges, and hospitals that will be destroyed.

Turkey is a long way from being prepared. Only about 7% of Istanbul's buildings are retrofitted for earthquakes. This means that 3 million buildings in Istanbul are unable to withstand a serious temblor -- one can only imagine the casualty numbers. Even a small quake would devastate the many slum dwellings in Istanbul.

Our last hope

Even with its many flaws, the Earthquake bill is our last hope. This is the first time that Turkey has ever attempted to set in motion policies to mitigate the potential damage from an earthquake. After enduring eight quakes and suffering more than 85,000 deaths due to earthquakes, modern Turkey finally has the chance to act before disaster strikes.

Part of the earthquake bill has made it through Parliament, but a large portion is being held up. If the bill goes into effect, the government will execute an action plan that will encompass all relevant areas within Turkey, and span 15 to 20 years. The combined costs of the project could be as high as $100 billion, but the funds are assembled and accounted for.

The action plan assigns priority urgency to Istanbul. First, a delegation of experts and academics will draw up a list of the city's at-risk structures. Buildings that are deemed uninhabitable will be condemned, but their residents will be compensated with new housing.

This project is of existential importance for Turkey. Yet the project is facing resistance on many fronts: from landowners demanding unreasonable compensation for their buildings, from vote-hungry local governments and a mafia with interests in slum rental income. It's a formidable opposition indeed. But a bipartisan initiative could overcome all of this, and achieve something real, something we would be truly proud of in the future.

Read the original article in Turkish

Photo - Tinou Bao

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