An earthquake as a political issue

Doğuş Bidal spricht für die DIDF Jugend und den "Internationalen Jugendverein" über die Folgen des Erdbebens. Foto: Verena Muehlberger
One and a half weeks after the devastating earthquake at the Turkish-Syrian border, two student groups from Hamburg invite to a lecture about the current situation. For the organisers, it is clear that the earthquake of February 6 is a highly political issue. While the AKP party in power under President Erdoğan speaks of an unforeseeable natural disaster, they are convinced that under a different policy the humanitarian catastrophe could have been prevented. Kopfzeile was at the event. by Verena Muehlberger The university group “Internationaler Jugendverein” (English: International Youth Association) and the youth federation of the Federation of Democratic Workers’ Associations, the DIDF-youth, invited to a lecture on the current situation in the border area between Turkey and Syria, where two weeks ago, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook the earth and claimed more than 47,000 lives. The aim of the evening was to present the situation in the earthquake region. The two groups from the University of Hamburg wanted to show how important it is to help, but also to question how such a major humanitarian disaster could occur. The lecture focused primarily on the situation in Turkey. The speaker Doğuş Bidal, who was born in Turkey, studied the topic a lot in the last two weeks, especially with regards to the past: In 1999, there was a devastating earthquake around the Turkish city of Gölcük, in which 18,000 people died. After the disaster, Turkey wanted to be better prepared for future repetitions. Scientists warned again and again of other, even stronger earthquakes. Bidal’s conclusion on Friday, however, was sobering. The preventive measures introduced after 1999 had not been implemented consistently, he said. As a result of the Gölcük disaster, an earthquake tax was introduced. The money collected was supposed to be used for preventative measures to earthquake-proof the region, such as renovating old, buildings. According to the Turkish opposition, however, the tax money ended up in road construction or airports. In order to not have to comply with the strict building law, which dictates earthquake-proof construction, many buildings were erected illegally instead. However, instead of penalising this, the Turkish parliament passed so-called ‘construction amnesties’. In exchange for the payment of a certain amount, illegal buildings could be subsequently legalised without further controls. Since 1999, nine such amnesties have been passed. “Earthquake-proof building is expensive and the population is already used to the building amnesties,” explains Doğuş Bidal and emphasises, “This is political failure.”

An earthquake in the midst of civil war

Besides the failure of preventive measures, another major problem complicates an already dire situation: civil war is raging in large parts of the earthquake zone. The Turkish-Syrian border is traditionally Kurdish. However, the Kurdish minority is massively oppressed in Turkey. For decades, the Turkish armed forces have been fighting the PKK, the kurdish workers’ paramilitary party. Since 2011, with the start of the Syrian Civil War, there has also been an increase in Syrian refugee camps in the region, which has caused further tension. The region was thus already in a state of tension before the earthquake, and even in times of crisis, people are not given a break. Days after the earthquake, there were new battles here. In addition, hardly any aid arrived in Syria after the earthquake. The Syrian government sent almost no aid. From Turkey, on the other hand, only one road leads to the affected areas. Aid is also slow to arrive via this road. The only road into the crisis area is badly damaged, making it even more difficult to deliver aid. In addition, new earthquakes continue to occur, further complicating the rescue and recovery of trapped people and the situation of survivors in temporary shelters and tent camps. As of today, more than 47,000 deaths have been confirmed following the earthquake. But people on the ground are not only mourning the loss of their loved ones, they are also angry. Afad, Turkey’s civil protection agency, was initially so uncoordinated that valuable time was wasted. After two weeks, the Turkish government has now ended almost all rescue operations, saying that the probability of finding survivors now is too low. Critics speak of state failure.

Reports from the crisis area and a call for donations

Through their contact with the people on the ground, the speakers know of many other problems in the crisis region. For example, they have been told that the Afad has been guarding ATMs instead of rescuing people. In addition, there is said to have been violence against aid workers. These and other reports raise many questions among the young organisers about the local events. The evening is also an appeal for donations. Through their contacts, however, the organisers of the event know that many aid supplies often first disappear into the constituencies of the members of parliament. Therefore they call to donate to organisations far away from the government. The DIDF has also set up a link for this purpose. Whether it is a matter of coming to terms with past decisions, questioning responsibilities or focusing on the future, it is clear to the organisers that politics is an indispensable part of the current situation.  

Infobox: Earthquakes Earthquakes occur along active tectonic plate boundaries. Two plates of the Earth’s crust can become entangled as they move either past each other (transform fault) or across each other (subduction zone). This causes pressure to build up, which can be discharged in an earthquake. A transform zone is also located under Turkey. The Anatolian plate is shifted westward by the Arabian plate, which is moving northward. This creates two pressure zones: the North Anatolian Fault, at the boundary with the Eurasian Plate, and the East Anatolian Fault, at the boundary with the Arabian Plate. Earthquakes are always expected along these boundaries. However, the exact location and timing cannot be predicted. In early February, two earthquakes occurred on the East Anatolian Fault. Both were very strong, with respective magnitudes of 7.8 M and 7.5 M. However, the magnitude scales logarithmically rather than linearly. Therefore, the first earthquake was significantly stronger. In addition, both earthquakes occurred at shallow depths and in densely populated regions, which is why the consequences were devastating.