Turkish ‘class quake’ targets the poor


The devastating earthquake that hit Turkey on the night of 17 August 1999, which has killed in the region of 40,000 people, destroying 100,000 building, is reminiscent of the one which hit Guatemala City in 1976, killing 23,000. It was dubbed the ‘class quake’ because of the accuracy with which it struck down the poor.

Is it just a coincidence that the poor should be unlucky in the matter of earthquakes as in almost everything else? The answer, of course, is no. For while humanity cannot prevent or control earthquakes, it can certainly (a) identify with reasonable accuracy the areas which are earthquake prone and (b) erect buildings which will not easily collapse if subjected to tremors.

Since Turkey is a well-established earthquake zone, the techniques for building earthquake-proof constructions are very familiar there. As Otkay Ekinci, Chairman of the Turkish architects’ chamber, pointed out to the

Financial Times

of 19 August,

“We know how to build earthquake resistant houses. This is the first thing they teach us at university. We have first rate experts in every field related to construction.”

Yet an estimated 65% of the buildings in Istanbul, 50% in Izmir and 25% in Ankara, are built in violation of building regulations and are prone to collapse in an earthquake.

The reason that the buildings fail to incorporate earthquake proofing is obviously its cost. Kaufman and Broad, who build homes in the western US earthquake zone, estimate that it adds $2,500-$4,500 to the cost of building a modest house to comply with the Los Angeles building codes (and these are not too stringent since they do not aim to ensure protection in case of the building being close to an earthquake epicentre).

The type of mass housing erected for the poor is the cheapest – midrise blocks put together from concrete slabs. In an earthquake zone such buildings are deathtraps. In the pursuit of profits, not only is nothing done to reinforce them with steel rods to prevent them from falling apart in an earthquake, but in addition contractors regularly cut back on cement and increase the sand content, making the structures even more unstable.

In Turkey as in England there are supposed to be inspections by the authorities of buildings under construction, to ensure that regulations are observed. In Turkey, however, inspectors often approve buildings without even visiting them once. Furthermore, many buildings are ‘designed’ by so-called ‘signature architects’, who initial building plans they have not prepared and whose construction they do not supervise. Any buildings inspector or architect who was too assiduous in his duties would undoubtedly find himself out on his ear. The construction industry would simply not offer employment to awkward architects, and the ruling elite (including the construction magnates) is very much in a position to tell government who to employ and who to sack. Indeed six years ago no less a person than the Minister of Public Works was fired from the Cabinet because he tried to end the corrupt practices of construction capitalism in connection with public works.

Corruption kills people, not earthquakes

“, wrote a Turkish journalist, referring to the public buildings shoddily built at exorbitant prices by crony contractors who share their profits with dishonest politicians and bureaucrats. What he needed to say is that it is capitalism that kills, fired as it is by its unquenchable thirst for profit that lies behind all the corruption.

As a result of this disaster we may find buildings inspectors and architects in the dock, scapegoated for having failed to carry out their duties as they should. There may even be the dismissal and/or indictment of a few culpable politicians, though this is less likely. The real criminals, however, those who have become super-rich through jerrybuilding, being an integral part of Turkey’s ruling class, will of course get away Scot free.

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