Issue 16 - Article 7

Turkey's Response to Crisis

March 15, 2004
M. Ali Cam, Industrial Engineer, Tecimer Ltd, Ankara, Turkey
6 min read

In August  1999 northwestern Turkey, the country’s most densely populated and industrialised region, was hit by two massive earthquakes. The first, on 17 August 1999, measured 7.8 on the Richter scale and lasted 45 seconds. Izmit, the most industrialised city in western Turkey with a population of one million, was at the epicenter. A local petroleum refinery was also affected by the disaster and the fire continued for six days further endangering the local population and causing heavy pollution in the Marmara Sea. The official death toll stands at over 17,000, with some 44,000 people injured; nearly 300,000 homes were either damaged or collapsed, and more than 40,000 business premises were similarly affected.

On the day of the catastrophe the Turkish government declared a state of emergency and appealed for international assistance. On 23 September 1999 it established a Regional Disaster Management Coordination Office (RDMCO). The army took over the security in the region and established logistics centres in the provinces, monitoring, in conjunction with the Turkish Red Crescent Society (TRCS), supplies stored in the warehouses and the distribution of humanitarian aid. In addition, 87 countries provided emergency humanitarian assistance, the total amounting to US$61m as of 27 September 1999.

The disaster was followed by more than 1,300 aftershocks, culminating in a second quake at on 12 November 1999. This quake measured 7.2 on the Richter scale and shook Duzce and Kaynasli counties in the northwestern province of Bolu. The jolt was felt in both Istanbul and Ankara. As of 6 February 2000, there was a confirmed death total of 894 with 4,948 injured.

Two more strong aftershocks, measuring 4.7 and 4.2 respectively, occurred on Thursday 20 January in the Bolu area and on Wednesday 9 February in Golcuk Izmit province. Despite widespread panic there were no reports of casualties or any major damage. Some who had returned to their partially damaged houses after the November earthquake decided to move back into the tent cities, fearing future shocks. Recently this earthquake zone has been hit by snow storms, with the temperature dropping to -16 Celsius and the snow depth reaching 24cm in Bolu city centre.

Shelter Provision: The Official Response

As of 13 January 2000, UNICEF figures show that a total of 77 tent cities with 27,510 winterised tents were inhabited by 108,684 victims (the initial number of tent cities in the devastated area stood at 109, with 132,750 inhabitants). These figures indicate that 24,066 people have moved, either to prefabricated houses or to government-funded/state-guest houses. The tent cities have been provided, in the main, by the TRCS. Some are also funded by international NGOs, the IFRC, and other National Societies.

As of late January, the Turkish government proposed the following three alternatives to address the challenges of providing shelter to the homeless population of 176,000:

  • provision of prefabricated houses for all affected families that wish to be sheltered in pre-fab cities;
  • allocation of a reconstruction subsidy of US$ 1,500 for families whose residences were lightly damaged in the earthquake;
  • allocation of a monthly rental subsidy of US$ 200 for each family moving to newly rented accommodation.

The government has announced that it plans to provide approximately 47,000 prefabricated houses to accommodate up to 151,000 people. As of 18 January, a total of 72,336 people were living in 18,084 pre-fab houses in 97 prefabricated cities (a total of 32,141 houses have been completed, with 14,057 prefabs still available for habitation). Despite tremendous efforts to finalise the prefabricated cities in a short period of time and encourage families to leave the tent camps, still over 108,000 people  remain in the tents, as mentioned above. Many victims refuse to move into the prefabricated houses in order not to forfeit the food and financial aid given only to those living in tent camps.

In Duzce, Sakarya, Kocaeli and Golcuk, sites for the construction of permanent housing have already been identified. Tenders for construction companies to present projects have been opened, and work is expected to begin in April. Within the framework of the World Bank’s ‘master plan’ – a plan that not everyone agrees with – an initial allocation of US$5m has been allocated for the construction of 23,000 houses and 30,000 business premises. Other measures, such as interest-free loans to assist the homeless who wish to buy or construct houses themselves, have been made available. According to the most recent official figures from the Ministry of Public Works and Housing, the total rebuilding and renewal cost of the earthquake is estimated as being US$1.5bn. ECHO has granted a fund of 30m Euros for the supply of shelter and other social services. However, to date only 7m Euros have been disbursed and many of the NGOs do not work with ECHO funds due to the accompanying abundance of bureaucratic formalities and reporting.

Criticism of the Official Response

Most international NGOs and humanitarian organisations believe that providing prefabricated housing between the preliminary phase of supplying winter tents and the final phase of constructing permanent housing is a waste of time and resources; the US$360m – the approximate cost of building the prefab houses – could be better used towards constructing permanent homes. It is also a significant burden on the environment in terms of excessive land use and pollution of the soil.

Cooperation on the Ground

The most significant feature of the recent disaster has been the assistance of international relief organisations in terms of helping to build local civil societies and NGOs, such as the SAR teams which will be prepared for any future disasters. These are voluntary groups that have been established in the affected areas for search and rescue purposes; in many instances they have been trained and supported by the international organisations. In addition, training of locals in construction has taken place; there has also been training for local NGOs on the Sphere project.

The Challenge Ahead

Turkey’s confidence in terms of its competence and ability to respond quickly has been seriously shaken. In the wake of this series of earthquakes there has been strong media criticism and adverse public reaction – despite the fact that the scale and the magnitude of the quakes would have challenged the preparedness and resources of any country and national organisation. As a result of the disaster, the TRCS is now gearing itself up for the implementation of an integrated disaster preparedness programme which incorporates training activities, search and rescue techniques, telecommunications, and the replenishment of stock used since the earthquake last year.


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