By Ceyda Caglayan and Can Sezer
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s plan to rebuild quickly after a devastating earthquake rocked the country risks courting another disaster unless urban planning and building safety are carefully considered, architects and engineers say.
Days after Turkey’s worst earthquake in modern history, Erdogan pledged to rebuild the southern disaster zone within a year, an undertaking that conservative estimates put at $25 billion and others expect far higher.
Authorities say more than 380,000 units in 105,794 buildings are in urgent need of demolition or have collapsed, out of 2.5 million structures across the region.
A construction boom has defined Erdogan’s two-decade rule, during which his government has collected about $38 billion in earthquake-related taxes, according to Reuters calculations. The tax, which is still in place, can provide quick funding to start the reconstruction work.
Facing elections by June, Erdogan’s government has endured a wave of criticism over both its response to the destruction and what many Turks say were years of policies that led to tens of thousands of buildings being so easily destroyed.
Erdogan had said the government would cover rent for those leaving earthquake-hit cities. “We will rebuild these buildings within one year and hand them back to the residents,” he said.
But experts say he needs to strictly enforce seismic safety standards and build safer structures in the area, which straddles one of three fault lines that cross Turkey.
“It is not only necessary to replace the demolished buildings, but also to re-plan the cities based on scientific data such as not building on fault lines and learning from past mistakes,” said Esin Koymen, former head of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects.
“The first priority is new planning, not new construction.”
OVER 1 MILLION HOMELESS
The February 6 quakes, which also hit neighboring Syria, left more than a million homeless and killed far more than the latest official figure of 46,000 people in both countries.
They devastated southern Turkey in the middle of winter, with overnight temperatures near freezing, leaving many emergency tents inadequate for the homeless. More than 2 million others have evacuated the region that was home to more than 13 million.
The earthquakes exposed the fragility of Turkey’s infrastructure, experts said, as they ravaged both modern and ancient buildings, including hospitals, mosques, churches and schools.
Some now worry that the government’s ambitious timeframe leaves little time to fix past mistakes.
– When they say “we will start construction in a month, we will be finished in a year”, without the urban planning work, quite frankly, this means that the disaster we are experiencing has not been noticed, says Nusret Suna, deputy chairman of the Chamber of Civil Engineers.
“It takes months to create urban plans … it is very wrong to ignore these plans.”
Urbanization Minister Murat Kurum said last week that the government would consider detailed geological surveys in its urban reconstruction plans and that tenders would be held.
The bill to rebuild houses, transmission lines and infrastructure is about $25 billion, or 2.5% of GDP, US bank JPMorgan said in a report. Another report from the business association Turkonfed estimated damage to homes at $70.8 billion.
And analysts say costs could exceed initial estimates.
Over 20 years in power, Erdogan used major real estate projects to showcase Turkey’s growing prosperity. Public and private buildings have increased jobs and new housing stock, helping his opinion polls.
The looming presidential and parliamentary elections, which could be delayed by the earthquake, pose Erdogan’s biggest political challenge to date given a cost-of-living crisis weighing heavily on Turks well before the disaster struck.
Some critics have said the state exacerbated the crisis by awarding “friendly” companies lucrative construction contracts over the years in return for political and financial support.
Pinar Giritlioglu, the Istanbul head of the Chamber of City Planners, said: “Unfortunately, the rentier system instead of science continues to rule everything.”
The government has vowed to investigate anyone suspected of responsibility for the collapse of buildings, and has arrested dozens of people so far.
Although there is no reliable data on the more than 20 million buildings in the country, former Urbanization Minister Mehmet Ozhaseki said when he was in office in mid-2018 that “probably more than 50% of all buildings” were in violation of housing regulations. The Ministry of Urbanization did not immediately respond to questions about current figures.
Opposition politicians accuse Erdogan’s government of failing to enforce building codes and of misapplying special taxes imposed after the last major earthquake in 1999 to make buildings more earthquake-resistant.
Erdogan has repeatedly rejected what he calls opposition lies meant to hinder investment.
In 2018, the government issued amnesty for existing buildings that had breached building regulations – for a fee, a practice also carried out under previous governments before 1999.
While the state housing agency TOKI built only 1 million earthquake-resistant houses over the past two decades, about 5% of the buildings in Turkey, the private sector built slightly more than 2 million sturdy homes in the same period, according to Urbanization Minister Kurum.
(Reporting by Ceyda Caglayan and Can Sezer; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Michael Georgy, Jonathan Spicer and Alex Richardson)