The wreckage of a collapsed building, Diyarbakır, Turkey

More than 15,000 people are now known to have been killed in the two huge earthquakes and the series of aftershocks that hit Turkey, Syria, and the surrounding region early on Monday morning.  There are warnings the death toll could continue to rise.

Search efforts have continued for a second freezing-cold night, but time is running out for rescuers to find survivors under the rubble of the collapsed buildings.

The news is full of desperate, dramatic images of rescuers working with their bare hands pulling bodies, and the increasingly rare survivor, from the rubble of what once were people’s homes.  There have been recordings of haunting, harrowing cries for help from people who cannot be reached or saved.

Whilst some governments wash their hands of responsibility for events such as these, with the excuse that they are ‘Acts of God’, the scale of the disaster and the aftermath are rarely that simple.

Anger is already mounting over an ‘earthquake tax’ that was levied by the Turkish Government in the wake of a massive earthquake in 1999. The estimated 88bn Lira ($4.6bn; £3.8bn) was meant to have been spent on disaster prevention and the development of emergency services.

Questions about the ‘special communication tax’, as the authorities call it, are asked every time there is an earthquake in Turkey. But the Government has never publicly explained how the money is spent.

“Where have all our taxes gone, collected since 1999?”, Celal Deniz, 61, said to AFP. His brother and nephews remain trapped under the rubble.

At the same time architects and urban planners in the country have long warned that building codes related to seismic activity are insufficiently enforced and have been undermined by a controversial amnesty for illegal construction, introduced by Erdoğan’s own government, which netted Turkey some $3bn in revenue. Even the BBC World Service reported that Erdoğan was in the pocket of about three large construction companies.

The Guardian, on 8th February reported a quote from Dr Henry Bang, a geologist and disaster management expert at the Bournemouth University Disaster Management Centre, who said, “Some buildings have simply collapsed to the ground while many [multi] storey buildings collapsed like a pack of cards. This shows that most of the buildings did not have the relevant features to provide stability during an earthquake.”

Geopolitical game-playing in Syria

The situation in Syria is, if anything, even worse.  In the midst of a disaster of such magnitude, it is becoming clear that geopolitical game-playing is affecting the rescuers’ efforts.

Even before the earthquake, getting aid to all parts of war-battered Syria was fraught with daunting political and logistical challenges. Those hurdles have only multiplied in the wake of this disaster.

The Government of Bashar Assad in Damascus is still a pariah among much of the international community. Sanctions put in place by the US and European countries make it difficult to route aid directly through the Government. While American and EU officials have made it clear the disaster won’t change that, emergency workers say delays could cost lives.

Therefore, although some international aid is reaching Syria, access is limited. Melinda Young, Unicef’s senior emergency advisor for the whole of Syria, pointed out that a cholera outbreak since September, the country’s economic collapse, “and the fact we’re coming into a drought…. all of these compounded crises come atop the trauma of the earthquake itself.”

As is often the case then, it is the poor and already vulnerable who are suffering the most in the aftermath of this disaster. The UN asked that responses shouldn’t be politicised. To do this would mean ignoring the reality that,  once again, ordinary people are bearing the terrible costs of greed and political power playing.

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