The Direct Link Between Turkey's Earthquake Toll And Global Real Estate Markets
The shoddy homes that collapse on their inhabitants in Turkey's recent earthquake were badly, and hastily, built as part of a worldwide real-estate fever typically fueled by greedy governments indifferent to safety norms and common sense.
There is bitter irony in an earthquake striking a zone already decimated by terrorism and war, where the vulnerable must suffer from natural destruction on top of their rulers' cruelty or, at best, cynical indifference. Under such calamitous conditions, how is one to interpret the observation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the February quakes that killed more than 40,000 were fate's work?
The countries hit, Turkey and Syria, lie on a seismic powder keg. They have shaken before and will keep shaking, and nothing can be done about that. But much can be done to prevent the natural vulnerabilities that threaten so many countries becoming disasters of Biblical proportions. Something can always be done to mitigate the harm of even a 7.8-level quake and its aftershocks striking at the end of a freezing winter night.
Talking of the clash of tectonic plates is confusing, as the scale can boggle the mind. But it refers to the movements of vast plaques, 70 kilometers thick, that rub against each other while shifting in opposing directions. Even without a cataclysm like the earthquakes, such movements can push up the ground a few centimeters a year to form mountain ranges over millions of years.
In this process, rocks on their edges accumulate enormous amounts of pressure that are suddenly released in quakes as they snap, before moving.
Our short time on this planet has amply shown the impact of a shifting earth on our fragile civilization and socio-economic organization.
And while science has evolved and can better predict earthquakes, it has yet to do it well enough to allow for a city's evacuation.
Early warning systems
Globalization of economies and information has in turn had a negative impact on the management of natural threats in developing countries. On the one hand, it is giving societies better information and technologies to make search and rescue operations more efficient and map out dangerous streets and 'trap' zones.
We have seismographs connected to alarms and early warning systems that save lives, not to mention massive expertise in places like Chile or Southeast Asia. There is nothing similar, however, in Turkey or Syria.
A cruel irony is that these same advanced communication systems that connect the world have also globalized demand for investments, and led people to buy land and homes on the other side of the world, driving up home prices and making housing inaccessible to locals.
Search and rescue teams seen on the debris after the earthquake in Turkey
Law of the market
In those countries where the state has decided to no longer manage access to housing or land and abandoned its role to the pure law the market, vast segments of the population are exposed to harm. While housing access has itself become a source of social conflict, in places like Turkey almost 50% of the housing that is built is reportedly without basic security and construction guarantees. Many of the norms were imposed in 1999, following the Izmit quake that killed 17,000 people.
Greed for real-estate investments trumped the safety norms.
But the dramatic, vertical or sideways collapse of so many buildings in Gaziantep, Antakya and Malatya, have perfectly exposed how greed for real-estate investments trumped the safety norms in Turkey, not to mention consideration for lives or the environment.
Builders, financial agents and the government may have beaten the competition in good years, but their reckless winnings were wiped off the map this year.
In past years, the real-estate sector has become an engine of economic growth for Turkey, which led the state to turn its back on nature. This was a perfect storm in the making. Now, hunting for unscrupulous developers after a disaster means little, when the government showed itself to be indifferent to a simple, moral principle: that money can never come before life.
*Zajac is a geographer, lecturer and environmental consultant in Buenos Aires.
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