Governance and Survival after the Earthquake: The Political Complexities of Humanitarian Assistance

The earthquake in Turkey and Syria on 6 February is tragic beyond what we are able to fathom.

Photo: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

The World Health Organization’s Europe branch has labelled the 7.8 magnitude earthquake and a secondary 7.6 magnitude aftershock as the region’s “worst natural disaster” in 100 years. By 17 February, there have been near 44 000 registered deaths.

While everyone is equally powerless in the face of collapsing buildings, shattered by the forces of nature, we also see that the earthquake affects people unequally and the relief in the aftermath reaches people unequally.

The differences are notably stark between the two sides of the Turkey-Syria border, but also within each country. Understanding these differences requires a deeper analysis of political corruption and misled governance, as well as the impacts of over a decade-long civil war. As geologist, Dr. Judith Hubbard, tweeted on 12 February, “The earthquake was inevitable. The scale of the disaster was not”.

The UN’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction has long maintained that the “geography of inequality” means that different regions and countries, or regions within countries, will experience disaster unequally based on their ability to manage risk and strengthen resilience. (In addition to social inequality, other factors, such as gender play a role in vulnerability to risk.)

Yet, while social inequality is often a key factor in determining how people are affected differently – by natural hazards, as well as health crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic – the picture is not as clear in this case. The poor don’t always live in the most vulnerable buildings when the earthquake hits. In fact, reports coming out of Turkey tell the story of modern luxurious compounds, built according to the “highest construction standards”, collapsed like a house of cards within minutes of the earthquake – leaving possibly hundreds buried in the ruins. Many are now asking how this was possible.

Governance as source of vulnerability

What we see in the case of the Turkey-Syria earthquake is that governance is an important source of vulnerability. In Turkey, governance has increasingly been reflective of electoral populism and crony capitalism. In Syria, there is an absence of functioning authorities – by the state or by rebel groups – in the opposition areas of Northwest Syria, which were most directly hit, and the Syrian regime is under international sanctions. These factors exacerbate the tragedy – both the impact of the earthquake itself, the crucial immediate response, and the relief and recovery that people will depend on.

In Turkey, the population has for 23 years been paying an “earthquake tax” to secure buildings – a response to the loss of life from the devastating 1999 Izmit earthquake in Turkey in which 17 000 people died. A significant factor in the rise to power of the current Justice and Development Party government was the perception of failures by the former regime to the 1999 earthquake.

In fact, criticism of construction standards can be found throughout Turkish earthquake history. Similar accusations followed the 1939 Erzincan earthquake, Turkey’s second worst natural disaster, destroying 116,720 buildings, levelling the city and resulting in the deaths of near 33 000 people. Over the last 80 years, numerous amnesties have been given by different governments, gravely exacerbating the impact of one disaster after the other, yet little seems to have been learnt.

A culture of impunity

Under Erdogan’s leadership, building amnesties have been granted at regular intervals to contractors who didn’t follow building regulations – often as a means to gain additional votes just ahead of elections. In the lead up to the election on 24 June 2018, a construction amnesty allowed 6 million residences to receive building registration certificates, regardless of whether they met the standards. In fact, a new amnesty had been submitted to the Turkish Parliament (TBMM) in October 2022 to consider registering “buildings that are unlicensed or contrary to license…”.

The amnesties have created a culture of impunity – but also been met by stark warnings from engineers and seismologists. In 2021, the Chamber of Geological Engineers of Turkey warned about  the structural flaws of existing buildings as well as construction that was underway in the very areas now destroyed by the earthquake, including Kahramanmaras, Hatay and Osmaniye. The government has in recent days arrested several building contractors attempting to flee the country – a move seen by some as an attempt from the government to shift responsibility from the state onto individuals. However, the systemic loopholes that enabled endemic negligence, with such disastrous consequences, are political choices.

The situation in Syria

While many reports have come out of Turkey over the past week, and over 90 different countries have offered to help and send personnel to help, there has been far less attention to the situation in Syria. As of 17 February, official statistics have recorded that 5800 people have lost their lives in the earthquake in Syria, with over 9000 injured, but given the limited relief and rescue capacity in the areas that have been hit, the real numbers are  clearly much higher.

In the rebel-held northeast, in Idlib province, the UN estimated that 4.1 million people were dependent on humanitarian assistance before the earthquake, with many being internally displaced from other regions in Syria.

Some assistance was sent through the humanitarian access point at Bab al-Hawa on the Turkey-Syria border, which is controlled by Russia (and regularly up for debate and renewal in the UN Security Council). This assistance has been a drop in the ocean. Experts such as Dr Carmen Solana warned early on that due to inadequate resistant infrastructure, “saving lives now mostly relies on response.” International and Syrian NGOs working in the region noted the lack of equipment and capacity sent to Northwest Syria. Local rescue teams were only able to search 5% of the affected areas with the result that potential survivors trapped under the other 95% of collapsed structures could not be rescued in time.

Despite the dire needs of the Syrian population, international aid has been held back by sanctions against the Assad government.

Added to this is the lack of incentives for Syrian state authorities to channel any international aid received to this region, since it is governed by opposition groups fighting the regime. A week after the earthquake, on the same day as the Syrian White Helmets indicated they would stop searching for survivors, the UN and the Assad regime finally agreed to open up two new border crossings for international humanitarian aid to be delivered to affected populations – including rebel-held areas. The main rebel group governing in Idlib, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, has refused to accept this help, because it will then be overseen by the Assad government; and they insist that the help ought to be delivered directly through Turkey.

The White Helmets are also critical to the UN-backed deal, as it gives the regime authority over the humanitarian assistance brought into the country. The underlying concern is that the earthquake relief  opens the path for normalization of the relationship with the Assad government. So, while the international community recognizes the urgent need, and appears ready to mobilize resources, they are caught in a web of their own making.

To conclude, the Turkey/Syria earthquake illustrates how the protection of populations and their rights to humanitarian and disaster relief are pre-determined by political choices. In Turkey, the failures of governance prior to the earthquake dramatically worsened the impact of the disaster. And in Syria, in the midst of a frozen political and armed conflict people have been left dying beneath the rubble while waiting for border openings to be negotiated.

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