This is how you build a country after a devastating earthquake

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In Hatay, Turkey, many historic buildings have collapsed, such as the Habib’i Neccar Mosque
NOS News
  • Eve deVries

Images show how entire cities have been almost pulverized to rubble. Heap debris in places where people once lived their lives. Tens of thousands of houses and buildings have collapsed, roads are impassable and bridges ruined. It is day eleven after the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. Some 46,000 people have now been counted dead, and bodies are still being recovered.

It is hard to imagine that people will ever live, work and live here again. What does reconstruction look like after a devastating earthquake like this?

Reconstruction consists of different phases that partly overlap, explains Thea Hilhorst. She is professor of humanitarian aid and reconstruction at Erasmus University Rotterdam. “Now that the rescue operations have largely been completed, the priority is to provide emergency aid. The care of the injured, arranging shelter in tents, sufficient food, clean drinking water, sanitation and enough hygiene, to prevent the outbreak of diseases.”

Weigh first

Soon after, the main roads are repaired so that relief supplies can reach the area. Internet, electricity and telephone connections will also be restored.

In Turkey, the government’s rescue service is largely coordinating the work. “But this disaster is so big, it is almost impossible to oversee. They can steer broadly, such as ensuring that international aid organizations spread.”

How long this phase lasts depends on several factors, such as the size of the disaster, the country, the government, available money and the efficiency of relief efforts. “For example, the situation in northern Syria is very different from that in Turkey, since hardly any aid ends up there. Reconstruction there will probably take longer,” Hilhorst thinks.

Working on recovery

The period after the emergency aid is all about recovery. Buildings that can no longer be saved are destroyed. Debris is cleared and removed and roads are further repaired, so that large quantities of building materials can be transported. “Important in this phase is the transition from emergency shelter to temporary housing. People cannot live in tents for too long,” says Hilhorst.

Once the piles of rubble have disappeared, the extent of the destruction will become clearer. “It is very diverse”, argues Turkish Ihsan Bal, lecturer in earthquake-resistant construction at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences in Groningen. “Entire neighborhoods and even entire cities have been completely wiped out, but in other places some buildings are still intact. This shows that building in an earthquake-resistant way works.”

According to Bal, 60 percent of the buildings are insured against earthquakes. The amount of compensation depends on the severity of the damage. “So the state has to check everything, assess the damage, decide whether people can return to their homes and ultimately ensure that residents are compensated. A complicated mega job.”

The strong earthquakes have destroyed infrastructure, such as this road in Kahramanmaras, Turkey

After a major disaster such as this, the construction of new buildings often only starts years later, says Hilhorst, although Turkish President Erdogan is more in a hurry. Last week, when he visited the disaster area, he said that the devastated cities would be rebuilt within a year.

The remark sparked misunderstanding and anger, given the uproar over the violation of building codes, which had caused many buildings to collapse like houses of cards. “He can never live up to this,” says Hilhorst. “It is precisely necessary to build earthquake-resistant. That takes time, but it saves lives in the event of a next disaster.”

Fast result

Bal does think that the Turkish government will speed things up, also with a view to the upcoming elections. “Look, ideally there will be a team consisting of geoscientists, planners, urban planners and architects who will then present a good plan,” he says. “But that’s not going to happen, because they want to see quick results.”

According to him, TOKI, a large Turkish state-owned company, will do part of the job. “They are rapidly erecting rows of flats everywhere. According to the building regulations, and therefore earthquake-resistant, but it will not be nice.” Indeed, Urbanization Minister Murat Kurum has now announced “the largest housing project in Turkey’s history”, even saying that construction has already started.

The reconstruction of the earthquake zone in Turkey and Syria will take years. “But rows of flats don’t make a city,” says Bal. “Hatay and Antakya were historic cities, history makes a city a city. And after reconstruction it is no longer their city for the inhabitants. Life will never be the same for them again. And that is so bad.”

  • Eleven days after the earthquake, a few more people were rescued in Turkey
  • Criticism of government after earthquake, what consequences does that have for Erdogan?
  • Turkey picks up critics, but they are not silent: ‘Government is to blame for deaths’
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