On the Earthquakes: From the Small Apocalypse to the Great One

As MASA Strategies, this week we held a session on the Gaziantep-Kahramanmaraş Earthquakes, which have touched every aspect of social life. We wish God’s mercy on all our citizens who lost their lives in the earthquake disaster, and we offer our condolences to the loved ones they left behind. The social solidarity that emerged in this great disaster is valuable and sobering, becoming an important indicator of Turkey’s socio-political maturation. In this regard, we think that a rational analysis of every political and social policy issue impacted by the earthquake is valuable, and we are forwarding our work in this spirit.

Our guest on the earthquake discussion was Assoc. Prof  Bülent Özmen whom we conversed over construction and disaster planning in Turkey. We are indeed at the very beginning of the effects of the earthquake, starting with great human and material loss. Natural disasters of this scale lead to chain events that affect several centuries afterward. The internal migration caused by the earthquake, the loss of regional economic activity, the destruction of historical centers and its effects on social psychology have not yet come to light.

The impact of the earthquakes in peripheral provinces in Turkey shed light on a possible Istanbul earthquake. The damage to be incurred in Istanbul, which is an economy larger than 300 billion dollars alone, means that Turkey’s most prestigious city will enter a spiral that is immensely difficult to recover from. At a time when serious questions have arisen regarding construction quality and legal regulations regarding earthquakes, a possible Istanbul earthquake has already become a “national security issue” for Turkey.

The growth of cities, increase in population density and the centralization of economic activity accelerated in the 20th century and culminated in the 21st. As a result of modernization, Istanbul, where these patterns are coming forth, has been placed in a fragile position to the earthquake, thus becoming to the biggest natural disaster threatening Turkey. Unlike the earthquakes in imperial Istanbul, where settlement was sparse and a decentralized understanding prevailed, an earthquake in today’s Istanbul will have far more serious consequences.

The Great Constantinople Earthquake in 1509 was an important turning point for the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Beyazid II, who survived the earthquake prioritized wooden materials in the reconstruction of the city and made legal arrangements to be prepared for a possible second earthquake. Although the fact that wooden structures would indeed increase the likelihood of escaping from the debris, the same wooden structures caused the infamous Istanbul fires in the following years. Decisions taken during mass crises do not always lead to the desired results, on the contrary, they cause other problems.

Decision makers currently engaged in reconstruction should be weary of these historical fallacies.  It is imperative to exercise an acute rational will on the social consequences of this disaster as well, as it has impacted a population of 14 million. A scenario in which those fleeing the earthquake zones move to the big cities in western Turkey, the number of urban poor classes proliferate, and social cohesion is impacted seems likely to happen. Likely, earthquake refugees will settle in low socio-economic neighborhoods populated with migrants. Thus, social tensions of ethnic origin, which have increased by the earthquake, may persist. Some politicians have already utilized the chaos emanating from the issue to stoke racial tensions, an increasingly worrying trend.

To limit these possible effects, we feel that policies to prevent migration from earthquake zones should be at the top of the agenda of decision makers. If such human mobility continues, Turkey will begin to experience problems such as urban homelessness and disruption of inner-city security, which it has not experienced to a large extent yet. It seems inevitable that these problems will intensify in the metropolitan cities of Turkey, which are often designed with neoliberal parameters.

The Gaziantep-Kahramanmaraş Earthquakes, which are a rehearsal for the earthquake expected to occur in Istanbul, carry lessons on disaster management and the legal arrangements made so far. It is necessary to persist with rational determination so that the next manifestation of the 1509 Earthquake, which the Ottomans described as “Kıyamet-i Suğra “, that is, the small apocalypse, does not become the “Kıyameti-i Kübra”, the great apocalypse.  A severe earthquake in Istanbul will be the most significant test of modern Turkey.

Batu Coşkun hakkında 13 makale
After graduating from Bilkent University, Department of Political Science and Public Administration, he completed his master's degree in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics.

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