February 6 Kahramanmaraş Earthquakes: Where is the state?

The Minister of Environment and Urbanization of the country, seventy percent of which lies on an earthquake zone, proudly announced that there have been 10,250,000 applications nationwide for the Construction Amnesty, which had expired on 15 June 2019.

For days, television screens carried the message: “Dear uncles, grandmothers, aunts, brothers and sisters, the state has good news for you.” The spot informed that the state would come to terms with its citizens with its “hand of compassion.” There isn’t anyone who does not remember the 2018 Construction Amnesty Regulation enacted by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under the name of “Peace Reconstruction.” In 2018, just before the presidential and parliamentary elections, with great cunning, (AKP) drove the regulation, which lifted the obligation of the state to prosecute and demolish unlicensed or illegal buildings, to the election arena. The heart of the arrangement was summarized by the sentence “The earthquake resistance of the building is the responsibility of the owner.” Mehmet Özhaseki, the Minister of Environment and Urbanization of the time, enthusiastically explained this parting gesture on a June 2018 visit to İzmir, a city that would be shaken by an earthquake on 30 October 2020:

“According to the law, the citizens come forward with their own consent and list the zoning violations. After the relevant authority determines the value of the unlicensed/illegal extension of the property, the citizen gives 3 percent of its value to the state. They write off each other’s debts.”[1]

With a commitment that would astonish even the most-neoliberal regimes that have adopted deregulation, the government heralded that the state abandoned its obligation to protect and secure the lives and property of its citizens, thus, unilaterally terminating the social contract, handing over all responsibility, in case of earthquake, to its citizens for a certain fee!

The Minister of Environment and Urbanization of the country seventy percent of which lies on an earthquake zone, proudly announced that there have been 10,250,000 applications nationwide for the Construction Amnesty, which had expired on 15 June 2019. Considering that at least 100 thousand applications[2] for zoning clearance were made from 10 Turkish cities affected by the earthquake (Kahramanmaraş, Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa, Diyarbakır, Adana, Adıyaman, Osmaniye, Hatay, Kilis and Malatya), where, at the time of this writing (10 February), the number of dead and have injured increased day by day as the death toll reaches 19 thousand and the number of injured exceeds 75 thousand,[3] It is possible to say that the construction amnesty brought to the political arena in order to patch the budget holes and increase the votes of the AKP has had a heavy cost but will be much more heavier.

First the COVID pandemic and now the earthquake have taught us that the right to life cannot be separated from the human right to adequate housing. If, protecting the right to life, which is the most-sacrosanct right, is the raison d’être of the state. The primary duty of the state is constructing resilient and livable housing compounds and cities, regulating these, and renewing aging building stocks. “Where is the state?” has turned into a common cry across the region echoed from earthquake victims, trying desperately to save their relatives under the rubble of their houses and among the heaps, and with no access to the most basic needs such as shelter, heating, food and water. Instead of ensuring safe, affordable and habitable housing for its citizens, the AKP governments have instead turned to building luxury housing projects. Instead of remedying risky areas, they have set an eye on sturdy neighborhoods with high urban profits and have taken the latter under redevelopment schemes, razing them to the ground, while generating forced evictions. At the expense of its citizens` right to life, they have enacted populist zoning laws to save the day. Instead of operationalizing the control mechanisms of the law, they have pretended to inspect constructions.

The AKP has amended the Public Procurement Law 195 times granting building permits to areas with shaky ground, or even on fault lines since it came to power in 2002. Even the camping grounds reserved for earthquake tents and tent cities and urban public spaces, which are the most-important needs of the earthquake zone, have been taken over by shopping malls, hotels, residences, commercial plazas and so on. Deaf to science, the political power closes the doors to scientists and maintains this unjust, unscrupulous, illegitimate order by manipulating the law for its own (political) survival and transfer of capital to its supporters.

An October 2020 earthquake survivor from Bayraklı, İzmir, had to live in at-risk housing due to economic conditions, knowing it was precarious. After getting caught up in the earthquake, he explained: “They trapped us between the wallet and the burial shroud.” In other words, a government that cannot provide its citizens with safe and livable shelter in social housing under livable economic conditions, forces them, instead, to take cover in the burial shroud. The main reason why so many construction amnesties were received is the fact that a fair housing policy, including tenants, has not yet been established. The population is left to their own devices for their housing needs. The state collapsed long before the earthquake. From the perspective of the human right to housing, the state does not exist at all.

President Erdoğan pointed to the projects of the Mass Housing Administration (TOKİ) in Van and İzmir, the cities which had undergone earthquakes in 2011 and 2020 respectively while addressing the populations affected by the recent earthquake. Where are the container cities for tenant populations of Van today?[4] No one knows what has happened to them. Izmir earthquake survivors are still fighting for the right to fair housing. The onus is entirely on the subcontractor and TOKİ. While they sit back, rubbing their hands over the profit from their disaster capitalism, the shares of cement companies are making a killing on the stock market.

Then the earthquake came screaming. Scientists have been drawing attention to the East Anatolian Fault for years. After the 6.8 magnitude Elazig Earthquake of 24 January 2020, scientists, including Naci Görür, have pointed to the hazards of Kahramanmaraş and its surroundings. Journalist Mehmet Kızmaz has examined 75 earthquake-related research proposals—from the political parties of CHP (46), HDP (17), IYI (8), MHP (3), AKP (1)—submitted to the Grand National Assembly since July 2018. He found that, in the motions submitted after the 2020 Elazig Earthquake, all but five are still pending. The Parliamentary Investigation Committee prepared a report in July 2021 based on these five approved proposals. Again, according to Kızmaz` research, findings about the risks of housing stocks in Malatya, Hatay and Gaziantep were striking.[5] These areas hit by the 6 February earthquake were covered in the report discussed at the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. Not only the scientists but also the Parliament is declared null and void by the one-man-rule.

As if this were not enough, the Chamber of Geological Engineers (JMO) of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB) published a series of reports in 2021 under the title of “Cities Living on Faults.” Among the cities hit by the earthquake, Kahramanmaraş, Hatay and Osmaniye were covered in these reports. In the Kahramanmaraş report, dated 2 March 2021, serious warnings are made by drawing attention to the seismicity of the city: “The Pazarcık or Türkoğlu segment of the East Anatolian Fault, which passes 10–11 km south of the city center, has not produced any destructive earthquakes since 1513. It has the capacity to produce an earthquake of 7.4 magnitude. and is one of the important seismic faults in Turkey where an earthquake is expected.”[6] The Hatay report of 8 March 2021 draws attention to the alluvial ground structure of the city and underlines that earthquake waves are amplified by such soils and transmitted to the buildings. The report continues with warnings:

“Hatay city center (Antakya and Defne), including Hassa, Kırıkhan, Reyhanlı, Dörtyol, Erzin district centers and 25 neighborhoods sit on active fault lines or zones from the east. It is thought that Hatay, which has faced many destructive earthquakes in the historical period, should urgently start a series of studies, in order to prevent it from being affected by earthquake damage.”[7]

And it is reported that the JMO will also give advice by making recommendations to local administrators. In this context, it is among the suggestions to urgently make Earthquake Master Plans in the relevant cities.

A government which, instead of working for safe cities and livable housing, has prioritized urban rent, the looting of cities, new areas of accumulation for capital through urbanization, the commodification of housing—which is a fundamental human right— and which has turned a deaf ear to the serious warnings of professional chambers and scientists, has brought the whole country to the point of screaming “Where is the state?” The one-man-rule that has gathered all the powers in its hands and that, by centralizing all the institutions and state structures, has led them into incompetence and subjected us to the clumsiness of the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), which has left over 75 thousand injured and 19 thousand deaths. It is the mourning, pain, trauma of each of us. It is the price paid by Mücella, Can and Tayfun,[8] who have been struggling with their heart and soul in the fields of architecture, law and planning for livable, healthy and safe cities and living spaces against this unscrupulous, unjust order.

And Hatay Airport, which was built despite all warnings and legal struggles and whose runway collapsed in the earthquake, is actually the future projection of the nuclear power plant built on the fault in Mersin Akkuyu, or that of Canal Istanbul, the crazy mega project of Erdoğan, which he is determined to construct no matter what, as reflected in his address to the opponents of the Canal: We will construct it, “making you crack and burst.”

Original article

Photo: Rescue workers responding to the 5 February 2023. Source: Bir Gün.


[1] “Bakan Özhaseki İzmir’de İmar Barışını Anlattı,” TC Çevre Şehircilik ve İklim Değişikliği Bakanlığı, [“Minister Özhaseki Explained the Peace of Reconstruction in İzmir.” TR Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change,” in Turkish] (20 June 2018), https://imarbarisi.csb.gov.tr/bakan-ozhaseki-izmirde-imar-barisini-anlatti-haber-226626.

2 “Çevre ve Şehircilik Bakanı Kurum: İmar barışına 10 milyon 250 bin başvuru oldu,” [“10 million 250 thousand applications were received for the zoning peace,” Minister of Environment and Urbanization Institution, in Turkish], Anadolu Agency (26 June 2019), https://www.aa.com.tr/tr/politika/cevre-ve-sehircilik-bakani-kurum-imar-barisina-10-milyon-250-bin-basvuru-oldu/1516101.

[2] According to recent date, the number is 294,165.

[3] By 15 February, the number of dead was announced to be 35 thousand, while the number of the injured is 105 thousand.

[4] Van Earthquake victims’ advocates filed a complaint with the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing on February 2014: “According to the information received, there are plans to evict these families from their temporary accommodation in container cities, without providing them with adequate housing alternatives. Reportedly, force and coercion were used, and water and electricity supplies to the containers were cut off to pressure families into leaving the area. In response, in September 2013, around 110 families reportedly started taking turns in a hunger strike to protest against the government’s eviction plans and expressing their concerns that a permanent and suitable housing alternative had not been offered to them,” OHCHR, “Communication report and search,” https://spcommreports.ohchr.org/TmSearch/Results.

[5] For detailed information on the subject, see the string on the Twitter account of journalist Mehmet Kızmaz (@mehmedkizmaz): https://twitter.com/MehmedKizmaz/status/1622717234123604005?t=L3SMJ5kj-1BLT4_8llE75w&s=09.

[6] “Fay Üzerinde Yaşayan Kentlerimiz,” Kahramanmaraş Raporu, 9 [“Our Cities Living on 4 Faults”], Kahramanmaraş Report, 9 (3 March 2021), TMMOB Chamber of Geological Engineers, https://www.jmo.org.tr/resimler/ekler/73d6fbfe6dee3b9_ek.pdf.

[7] “Fay Üzerinde Yaşayan Kentlerimiz,” Hatay Raporu, 6 [“Our Cities Living on 5 Faults”], Hatay Report, 6 (8 March 2021), TMMOB, Chamber of Geological Engineers, https://www.jmo.org.tr/resimler/ekler/13b431eb47cf5fe_ek.pdf.

[8] The reference is to architect Mücella Yapıcı, lawyer Can Atalay and city planner Tayfun Kahraman who were sentenced to 18 years for their involvement in Gezi uprisings.

See also: Cihan Uzunçarşılı Baysal and HIC-HLRN, “Privatizing the Land in Turkey,” in The Land and Its People: Civil Society Voices Address the Crisis over Natural Resources in the Middle East/North Africa (Cairo: HIC-HLRN, 2015), 289.

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