More than 10 days after devastating earthquakes shattered towns and cities in southeast Turkey and parts of Syria, rescue operations have dwindled, and the focus has turned to recovery and cleanup.
Dubbed “the disaster of the century” by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, nearly 42,000 people across both countries have been killed, with the numbers expected to rise. The earthquakes were followed by 3,858 aftershocks, according to Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), and a total of 50,576 buildings have either collapsed or are heavily damaged.
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Eyup Muhcu, the president of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMOBB), said on Wednesday that it would take a “considerable amount of time” to clear the rubble from destroyed buildings.
Additionally, “the buildings that were heavily damaged would have to be demolished completely,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s hard to put a timeframe on how long that would take since 10 provinces were affected, and that depends on the capabilities, organisation, and coordination of the public authorities.”
Authorities have so far inspected more than 387,000 buildings, but according to Muhcu, some structures could not be reached due to the sheer destruction.
“The public institutions and government ministries were not prepared for this disaster,” he said. “This is why the rescue operations were a few days late, volunteer teams were not permitted to immediately enter the quake-stricken areas, and coordination was only established by the fourth or fifth day after the quakes.”
Erdogan has acknowledged “shortcomings” in the country’s response but said the severity of the disaster and winter weather meant it was “not possible to be prepared for such a disaster”.
Turkish authorities have said that about 13.5 million people have been affected and Erdogan said on Wednesday that the state will rebuild all collapsed buildings in all 10 provinces affected by the earthquake within a year.
But Erdogan’s critics have said that his government enabled corruption in the construction sector with weak enforcement of building regulations and a decades-long practice of waiving safety certificates for unsafe buildings for a fee. The government has also been accused of misusing an estimated $3bn raised in an earthquake tax that was supposed to make buildings earthquake-resistant and the country more prepared.
Bekir Bozdag, the Turkish minister of justice, has said that an investigation into the collapsed buildings would be launched and authorities have ordered the arrest of more than 100 people suspected of being responsible for collapsed buildings.
Muhcu said that due to the structure of most city centres, characterised by narrow streets and alleys, it was challenging to find open spaces for people to gather in after the earthquakes.
“Due to the narrow streets, the debris fell and blocked transportation from accessing the areas causing further delays for rescue operations,” he said. “There were some circumstances where even pedestrians could not reach the streets or buildings themselves.”
Residents and Al Jazeera correspondents have described some places and city centres as “ghost towns”, underscoring the immense damage to urban areas.
The process of demolishing at-risk buildings and heavily damaged ones, as well as cleaning up the debris, will have to be carried out by the central government and ministries.
“Local governments in provinces are not able to provide such services due to their limited means and resources, as they have lost staff members and buildings,” Muhcu said. And while he praised the successful work of volunteer rescue teams and the solidarity movement across the country, he pointed out more significant challenges – primarily housing the millions of people who lost their homes.
“These people don’t have emergency resettlement or sufficient shelter,” he said. “There are heating and electricity issues, as well as problems with infrastructure.”
No building watchdogs
In stark contrast to the affected areas of Turkey, Syria’s opposition-held northwest has largely been neglected in terms of international rescue and search operations and humanitarian aid. The post-quake recovery and rehabilitation period is expected to be bleaker there.
The UN said on Thursday that approximately 6,000 people died in Syria, with 4,400 killed in the rebel-held area alone.
The head of an opposition coalition, Haitham Rahma, said the number of collapsed buildings in rebel-controlled areas is more than 400 and the number of damaged buildings exceeds 1,300.
International bodies have also expressed concern, with the World Health Organization saying the region is the “zone of greatest concern”. Six days after the quakes struck, United Nations aid chief Martin Griffiths acknowledged that the UN and global community had failed the people of northwest Syria.
The town of Jandaris faced the brunt of destruction and casualties due to what Hussein Dhaban, a civil engineer consultant who has worked on hundreds of housing projects, said was down to poor construction and informal urban planning.
“Generally, the design and construction of buildings must take into account the engineering code of making it quake-proof,” he told Al Jazeera, speaking from the city of Azaz in Syria’s northwest. “However, in our region, that has largely been ignored due to the lack of supervisory committees, the 12-year war, and the fact that there hasn’t been an earthquake of this magnitude in a century.”
Another factor is local authorities greenlighting contractors who not only do not use earthquake resistance codes but also do not take the necessary precautions to use the correct percentage of steel or existing cement required for each building, Dhaban explained.
“The lack of police, supervisory departments, and watchdogs tracking building code violations has resulted in the construction of structures and homes in areas that are not suitable,” he said.
Lack of basic structural elements
The northwest region is home to 4.6 million Syrians, with more than half classified as internally displaced people due to the war. The influx of refugees resulted in IDP camps, but more than a million live in towns and cities, in hastily built homes and buildings.
According to Dhaban, there are buildings constructed without considering the basic structural elements that can withstand earthquakes, such as using four or six steel rods instead of the required eight per foundational block – all done by contractors or building owners to cut costs, he added.
“Urban planning typically requires at least four metres [13 feet] between each structure, what we call a building pocket,” he said. “But since the [2011 Syrian] war, buildings have been constructed very close to each other, sometimes less than a metre between them.”
The lack of space had a significant effect during quakes, as the ground was affected by the proximity of these structures being close together, and could cause a lot of damage, he said.
And while local councils and civil defence teams need about five to six months to demolish damaged buildings that can no longer be supported or have become safety hazards, Dhaban warned that removing waste and rubble will take longer. Due to the lack of available heavy machinery, such as excavators and bulldozers, it could take years, he said.
“We need the proper resources to rebuild,” he said. “This is truly the most desolate region in the world.”