The Turkish government may have embarked on the one of the largest earthquake-proofing campaigns in history, but a massive effort to regulate the country’s construction industry will also be needed if Ankara wants to save lives in the next big quake.

Turkey’s construction sector is made up of a whopping 300,000 firms, an especially astonishing number given that “this figure doesn’t exceed 25,000 for the whole of the rest of Europe,” said All Civil Contractors Federation (TMF) head Tahir Tellioğlu in a recent interview with Sunday’s Zaman.

Tellioğlu says the runaway numbers are a sign that the industry lacks any meaningful regulation, licensing standards or tradition of legally prosecuting regulation breakers, all steps he says are desperately needed to prevent earthquake fatalities in the coming years.

Failing to take such steps could also undermine the government’s hundred-billion dollar earthquake-proofing project, which was green-lighted this August and will see the demolition and reconstruction of as many as 6.5 million buildings throughout Turkey by the year 2023. That project, says Tellioğlu, has to be joined by reform of a sector where “for the most part, contractors operate without backgrounds

or competency in construction. We don’t even have an industry-specific body to provide regulation. It is, so to speak, easier to get into construction in Turkey than to become a taxi driver,” Tellioğlu says in a bleak assessment of the industry.


Absence of oversight and do-it-yourself construction methods have long been the rule in Turkey, where a massive wave migration in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s saw millions of Turks build their own homes on the outskirts of major cities, creating sprawling landscapes of low density, village-like settlements known as the gecekondu, a term which translates as “built overnight.” Many of those settlements have since been rebuilt as the four- to six-story concrete apartment blocks which dominate nearly every city and town in Turkey today, but the construction industry remains remarkably low profile — the Ministry of Public Works and Settlement estimates in a recent study that around 65 percent of buildings in İstanbul were built by companies which did not bother to obtain permits.

Compounding the problem brought on by lacking regulation is the intense competition facing the small, under-the-radar firms that dominate the residential construction sector. Competition and meager construction budgets often mean that small firms add insufficient rebar and mix beach sand into concrete, both steps that Tellioğlu says make concrete buildings brittle and prone to collapse during an earthquake.

Such corruption led to tragedy in October and November of 2011, when two earthquakes in the province of Van killed nearly 650 people. The quake showed how little progress had been made in the 12 years since the İzmit earthquake killed between 17,000 and 35,000 people.

A look at the country’s building codes suggests that neither earthquakes should have led to such a losses of life. Turkey’s building codes, says assistant professor of construction and architecture at Pamukkale University Ceyhun Özçelik, have for decades given strict guidelines for earthquake proofing. “The problem is that nothing in the law is applied. We have a country where most economic activity has been in the informal economy for decades. The construction industry has always been one of the worst sectors in this regard,” he says. “That has to change. The first rule of disaster is that it isn’t the efforts taken after the disaster which save lives, it’s the measures which are taken before it.”

Even as the government and the administration which is spearheading the anti-earthquake efforts, the Housing Development Administration of Turkey (TOKİ), pour state funds into inspections, demolition and reconstruction, they may not be able to avoid reforming the private sector. The contractors hired by the state may have the same incentives to cheat if regulations aren’t enforced, as the death of 11 in a Samsun TOKİ housing complex during a flood this July proved. Faulty state planning and poor construction of a water barrier near the housing complex were eventually singled out as a reason for the deaths.

When a major natural disaster strikes Turkey next, it will test how successful the country has been in regulating its myriad of builders, says Özçelik. As major questions are also raised about the country’s huge, urban renewal project, which threatens to dislocate communities and which has already uprooted some of İstanbul’s most historic neighborhoods, “at the very least this project must succeed in making Turkey safer,” says TMF chief Tellioğlu.

Source Zaman.

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