Experts are sounding the alarm over Istanbul’s readiness to respond to an expected major earthquake in the coming years, warning that little has been done to combat overcrowding, strengthen buildings or develop contingency plans that could save lives.

A 5.8-magnitude earthquake in September this year, which damaged nearly 1,000 buildings in the city, reinforced fears that the authorities were still unprepared for a repeat of the 1999 Izmit and Düzce disasters – two 7.6- and 7.2-magnitude earthquakes in northwestern Turkey that killed 18,000 people in total.

It highlighted the absence of evacuation protocols and assembly areas for those fleeing an earthquake as well as the bad state of many buildings in the city. Istanbul’s poor communication infrastructure also buckled as residents panicked.

Savaş Karabulut,  a scientist specialising in seismic activity, claims that Istanbul is not prepared for major earthquakes. (Credit: UfukÇeri)

“In 20 years, Istanbul could have been prepared for the earthquake,” said Savaş Karabulut, a scientist specialising in seismic activity who was dismissed from his position in Istanbul University for expressing opposition to the government. “Now, forget being prepared, the city does not even have assembly areas, which is the simplest thing to do.”

“The aim of our efforts in gathering the scientific data was to show how big the danger is,” he continued. “We told them not to occupy the coastal areas, but they did. We told them to limit the increase in population, and the population doubled. They did everything that the science said was wrong.”

Turkey is one of the world’s most active earthquake zones, with the major North Anatolian fault line (NAF) along the meeting points of the Eurasian and Anatolian tectonic plates extending for 1,500 km. Experts say tension build-up at the NAF means it is only a matter of time before the country sees major earthquakes originating near Istanbul, possibly with magnitudes higher than seven on the Richter scale.

Since 1999, the Turkish government has collected a so-called earthquake tax to assist in disaster preparation. According to the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) this is now an amount totaling some 63 billion Turkish liras – raising questions as to where that money has been spent.

There is still no dedicated government body whose job is to ensure that cities and districts are ready to handle a crisis. Some responsibilities for earthquake preparedness fall to the Disaster and Emergency Management Administration (AFAD) and the ministry of the interior, but an Earthquake Council founded after the 1999 disaster was shut down in 2007 by the government.

Experts have repeatedly published scientific studies urging the government to do more disaster preparation, including designating and clearing assembly areas for evacuees fleeing their homes and reducing overcrowding in a city which is home to 16 million people. But the government’s priorities and appetite for development, as well as bureaucratic red tape, have limited disaster preparation.

Aysel Gümüş, a retiree and survivor of the earthquake, says that her building in Istanbul’s crowded İkitelli district has not been reinforced to withstand earthquakes, although it should be. (Credit: UfukÇeri)

“We used to have tents set up in an empty area after the 1999 earthquake, but now there is a shopping mall there,” said Aysel Gümüş, a retiree and survivor of the earthquake, who lives in Istanbul’s crowded İkitelli district. “We want our building to be reinforced if necessary, but an approval of all 24 apartments is required for this process. We are trapped in these buildings.”

As part of its response to the 1999 disaster, Istanbul’s municipality collaborated with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), to assess the risks to buildings and infrastructure in various neighbourhoods throughout the city. The subsequent Istanbul Earthquake Master Plan devised a strategy to reinforce and strengthen buildings throughout the city and establish assembly areas for citizens.

But only the wealthier districts of Istanbul saw an improvement, leaving many poorer neighborhoods in the lurch.

According to Akif Burak Atlar, the chairman of the Istanbul branch of the Chamber of City Planners, only the wealthier districts of Istanbul saw an improvement, leaving many poorer neighborhoods in the lurch. (Credit: UfukÇeri)

“The transformation took place only in the areas with high economic value, because the implementation of the law was left to the initiative of citizens and contractors,” said Akif Burak Atlar, the chairman of the Istanbul branch of the Chamber of City Planners. “This did not meet expectations.”

“Assembly areas are now filled with concrete, shopping malls and residences,” he added.

In addition, a zoning amnesty offered by the government in 2018 will confer legal status on many illegal structures in the city, including those built on historical grounds, in exchange for a fee. Many of these buildings have not been built to withstand earthquakes.

The September earthquake, though within the range of normal seismic activity, also exposed the poor state of the city’s communication infrastructure. GSM networks were unusable for some time after the earthquake, and full service was only restored to all phone networks some 14 hours later. Calls and services like Whatsapp were cut, highlighting the risks to the effectiveness of emergency response teams.

Vice-president of the Chamber of Electrical Engineers, Hakkı Kaya Ocakaçan, warns that Istanbul’s GSM service must be better prepared for natural disasters such as earthquakes. (Credit: UfukÇeri)

“You can think of GSM service as a road, and this road must be divided in times of emergency,” said Hakkı Kaya Ocakaçan, vice-president of the Chamber of Electrical Engineers. “A special area must be allocated to the emergency institutions, like hospitals and fire departments. The other part of the system can be allocated to citizens, and data transfer – rather than voice transfer – can be permitted.”

Residents and experts hope earthquake preparedness projects in Istanbul will be revived under the new administration of Ekrem İmamoğlu, who won the mayoral elections earlier this year as the CHP candidate.

İmamoğlu has pledged to prepare 859 assembly areas and to designate escape corridors within six months. Public service announcements and mobile phone apps to help with preparedness will also be ready within a year, he said.

An “earthquake parks” programme meant to mobilise and train civilians to prepare for the eventuality will also be instituted, along with a broader urban transformation roadmap, he promised.

In October, during the first assembly of the municipal council, İmamoğlu said that the city’s population needed to be aware of the imminent risks.

“We have to explain to 16 million people the importance of the earthquake, how it will affect our lives and how it will traumatise Turkey,” he said.