Ola Claësson
Last updated: 24 January, 2014

Istanbul silently waits for a disaster

Few visitors know that Istanbul is due for a big earthquake and many of the citizens do not want to talk about it. That’s a recipe for catastrophe, writes Ola Claësson.

Looking out over Istanbul from a high point such as the Galata Tower, at least two things are clear to me. First, the city is unbelievably big. Even on a fine day it is impossible to see it all.

Secondly, the buildings in the city do not always conform to western standards. In the historical areas, many buildings are in desperate need of renovation, and in many other parts, even a glance at the buildings will be enough to tell that professionals have not had a role to play.

Undisputedly, this lack of overall regulation, the mix of colours and shapes that it contributes to, is what give Istanbul its unique charm, appreciated by about 10 million tourists a year.

But not too deep beneath the Marmara sea, just a couple of kilometres from it’s historical centre, lurks a danger that might turn some of these buildings into death traps for many of Istanbul’s 14 million citizens. Few visitors know that Istanbul is due for a big earthquake and many of the citizens do not want to talk about it. But they should!

Even though it is not possible to predict an earthquake by the year, many seismologists agree that the likelihood of Istanbul experiencing one in the near future is very high. The reason is that a certain patch on the fault line where the Anatolian and Eurasian tectonic plates meet just outside the city has been the epicentre of big earthquakes with an unusual regularity, roughly every 250 years.

“Earthquake kit!? Are you kidding me!? If a big earthquake hits we are all going to die anyway!”

One that occurred in 1509 is sometimes referred to as Küçük Kıyamet, the little doomsday. The earthquake killed about 10% of the city’s 160,000 citizens and created widespread damage, not least by collapsing 109 mosques and bathhouses. In 1766 it was time again, and likewise the city was hit hard and many people died and buildings were partially or completely destroyed. Both these earthquakes were followed by violent tsunamis and social unrest.

The fact that almost 250 years have passed since the last earthquake makes seismologists believe that another one can struck at any time. A recent study published in Nature in 2013 reported the discovery of a seismically silent patch on the fault line, just a couple of kilometres outside of Istanbul’s historical city centre, believed to be the locked part that will generate the coming earthquake. And unfortunately many things point to that it will be much worse in terms of human suffering than any of the previous episodes.

One of the reasons is that over the recent decades Istanbul has grown into a mega city, not even remotely comparable to the 160,000 living in the city in 1509 or the roughly 600,000 in 1766. On top of that, the rapid growth that the city experienced, mainly in the 1980s when its population doubled in five years, led to a massive construction of low quality buildings. This became evident after a big earthquake hit close to the city of Izmit, not far from Istanbul, in 1999. Many of the concrete buildings there were destroyed, leaving 17,127 people dead according to official numbers, although the real number is considered much higher.

So what have the government and the officials of the city done to prevent a coming disaster?

Following the earthquake in Izmit in 1999, a Special Communication Tax (ÖIV) was made permanent by the AKP government in 2003 to be spent on earthquake preparations. This tax meant that 25% was added to all the mobile traffic, telephone landlines and Internet traffic bills in Turkey.

However, after an earthquake hit eastern Turkey in 2011, the expected financial needs seemed to be missing, thus raising the question where the money had disappeared. The economy minister, Mehmet Şimşek, admitted that it had been spent on roads and education and not on earthquake preparations.

This might be a decision that the government will deeply regret when the time comes. Many of the preparations that has been done since 1999 are relatively speaking not costly ones, involving making schools and hospitals earthquake safe and straitening up the building regulations.

The government has also started preparation to transform one of the most hazardous areas, Zeytinburnu, a poor area with once illegal buildings, so called Gecekondular. But the transformation is meeting resistance from many of the inhabitants that fear the government is after the land because of its strategic location close to one of Istanbul’s airports. All in all, little that has been done since 1999 that would prevent a disaster if an earthquake struck today.

 “Do you know what to do if there’s an earthquake?” I asked a friend one day when we met over a beer in the heart of Beyoglu, one of Istanbul’s historical areas. I had just learned about the earthquake threat after living there for over one and half years. I was both shocked and terrified.  

“Don’t talk about it!” he hastily replied with his face, clearly taking an uncomfortable expression.

“But do you have an earthquake kit at home?” I insisted.

“Earthquake kit!? Are you kidding me!? If a big earthquake hits we are all going to die anyway!” he exclaimed.

Whoever I talked to during my time in the city, this was more or less the response I got. A fatalistic approach to risks that are not immediately threatening is something of a common trait among the Istanbulites.

However, knowing that most deaths and injuries from earthquakes are linked to falling debris and objects, rather than total collapse of buildings, the importance of preparation is clear. Making sure that loose objects and furniture are attached to the wall can literary mean the difference between life and death. The same goes for changing metal gas pipes into flexible plastic ones, since gas leaks and subsequent fires are also a common reason for fatalities.

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Here, the government have a huge responsibility to inform the public. And even though education about earthquakes is given to schoolchildren today, it is far from enough. Educating their parents and the older generation in control of the household is what really would make a difference in a country like Turkey. Why aren’t there any awareness campaigns on Turkish television?

There is still time to avoid an unnecessarily big disaster in Istanbul when the earthquake hits. But the clock is ticking. If nothing is done, many factors point to that it will be one of the biggest humanitarian catastrophes by natural disaster in modern history.