Uncertainty surrounds Turkish post-quake rebuild – despite bold promises

Days before the anniversary of twin earthquakes that devastated swaths of Turkey’s south-east on 6 February 2023, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan returned to Hatay province, the area worst hit by the destruction that killed at least 55,000 in Turkey and Syria. Standing on stage in a sports stadium on the outskirts of Antakya, a city once rich in history now all but levelled by the quakes, the Turkish president continued to offer bold promises for reconstruction at break-neck speed, just as he had a year ago.

“No matter what difficulties we encounter or we experience due to reasons beyond our control, there is no stopping or resting for us until we make Antakya a more magnificent, safer and more vibrant city than before,” he declared.

Had the presidential sedan travelled deeper into the city, the challenges wrapped up in these promises would have been made clear. Where whole neighbourhoods once stood, there is now block after empty block.

At the city’s covered market, a few determined residents have in recent weeks begun returning to restart their businesses, but behind a man selling piles of daffodils in front of an intricate stone archway, piles of rubble and stone were still visible.

Residents shop in the partially damaged but still functioning covered market in downtown Antakya. Photograph: David Lombeida/The Observer

At the destroyed entrance to the market, banners displayed images of the area’s future, where a new glass roof would top gilded wooden shopfronts. Locals were unconvinced by the promise of the projects, said Gülşah Alkaya, as she and her husband set up hair bands and bows inside their shop. They had little information, she explained, and had interpreted the glossy new designs for the market area – less like a market for Antakya residents and more like a location for high-end boutiques – to mean what remained was due to be torn down and rebuilt, when their aim was simply to return to work.

“These projects look good, but the issue is they are slow,” she said. “It feels like we just got back on our feet, so just let us get on with it. If they tear this place down again, we’ll go back to square one.”

Even among the shards of tower blocks and towering piles of rubble that lined towns across south-eastern Turkey, the scale of the destruction remains difficult to comprehend. The World Bank estimated last February that the earthquakes caused $34bn (£27bn) in damage. A Turkish parliamentary inquiry later estimated $148.8bn, almost 10% of the country’s GDP.

To many, there was a clear culprit for the enormous death toll: corruption in the construction industry that is a powerful segment of society where the largest construction firms with deepest ties to the state are referred to as “the big five”. Evidence for this was claimed in those towns and places where rows of tower blocks stood upright despite heavy damage while others had fallen entirely.

Some buildings like the Renaissance in Antakya, an apartment block formerly known for its grandeur, became instant symbols of such destruction when many of their residents were killed as they slept. The Renaissance’s developer, Mehmet Yaşar Coşkun, was later arrested at Istanbul airport and remains a defendant in a case in which an expert report prepared as part of the indictment cited poor quality concrete as among the causes of the collapse. Coşkun has said the fact the building fell on its side rather than collapsed in on itself was evidence it had been built solidly.

Parsing the results of Erdoğan’s sweeping promises on reconstruction have become tricky. “We will rebuild these buildings within one year and will hand them back to citizens,” Erdoğan said on a visit to the destroyed town of Kahramanmaraş just days after the quakes. He later pledged that 319,000 new homes would be constructed “within a year” of the quakes, and another 331,000 the following year. He promised on his recent visit to Hatay that “we will complete the delivery of 75,000 houses throughout the earthquake zone within two months”, adding that 200,000 houses “will be delivered in the earthquake zone by the end of the year”.

Although construction is evident across a broad swath of the south-east, data on the results is opaque. A spokesperson for the Turkish presidency said in late January that “the construction of a total of 307,000 houses has started. The delivery of a total of 46,000 houses … has started gradually.”

The rubble-strewn site of a hotel in Adıyaman that collapsed during the quake, killing dozens of people. Photograph: The Observer

Amid the promised construction boom, trials of developers and other industry figures are beginning. In early January, the first hearing of a trial where 11 are accused of “conscious negligence” took place in the city of Adıyaman, for their role in the building of a hotel that collapsed during the quakes killing 72 people.

But such cases are so far limited and there are questions over a 2019 government amnesty for illegal construction, which drew fears from engineers at the time. Human Rights Watch has called for efforts to examine the relationship between figures in the construction industry and the local officials who provided their building permits.

“Trials of real-estate developers, building controllers, and technical personnel have opened in recent months. But not a single public official, elected mayor, or city council member has yet faced trial for their role in approving numerous construction projects that fell far short of safe building standards or for failing to take measures to protect people living in buildings known to have structural problems in a region with a high risk of seismic activity,” the group said.

Beyond the widespread physical destruction, the scale of nationwide human suffering is equally difficult to grasp, magnified for many by the pain of the destruction of entire communities. Reconstruction can produce glistening new towers, but the restoration of communities is a different challenge entirely.

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