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Turkey rebuilds, but is it rebuilding too fast?


Under strong political pressure and facing an election this year, the government of President Tayyip Erdogan is racing to rebuild after February’s devastating earthquakes but already there are claims that Turkey will be repeating many of the planning errors which contributed to the widespread destruction.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake killed more than 50,000 people and destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings in south-eastern Turkey, creating a disaster which early estimates say will require more than $100 billion to rebuild.

One of the key images in the aftermath of the earthquake was of building contractors being arrested by authorities for corruption and shoddy building practices which made the scale of the disaster even worse.

In rush to rebuild, however, municipal officials and engineers have claimed that many of the mistakes of the past are likely to be repeated without more careful planning.

President Erdogan has issued a decree which centralises the reconstruction planning, a move which has cut local officials and many leading urban planners out of the process.

Erdogan has based much of his popularity on a construction boom which has delivered major infrastructure projects such as airports and roads over his two decades in power, but part of that boom was reportedly also to allow lighter scrutiny of construction companies which built some of the public buildings and apartment complexes which were exposed as sub-standard in the earthquake.

“What they’re trying to do is show that we came out of the destruction quickly, let’s build the new towns quickly,” a municipal urban official from the earthquake hit town of Gaziantep told a reporter from the Wall Street Journal.

“But in urban planning speed is something that’s not preferred, because cities are living organisms.”

Under Erdogan’s order, construction can begin without zoning and public works plans to be completed. Critics say that in the haste to rebuild, the planners are failing to consider the creation of emergency gathering points, secure communications and exit avenues for thousands of people in the event of another disaster.

“This isn’t planning a city. It’s just choosing a location for residential units in a certain area,” Gencay Serter, the head of Turkey’s Chamber of Urban Planners, told the Wall Street Journal.

Turkey experienced major earthquakes in 1999 which killed 17,000 people, and many of the buildings constructed in the aftermath of that event crumbled in the February disaster.

In addition to repeating the mistakes of the past, the reconstruction effort needs to factor in climate change. According to the 2021 report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Turkey is set to experience higher temperatures, drought, heatwaves and rising sea levels in the future.

Critics say that the Erdogan administration is rebuilding with a May election in mind, with the long term sustainability of Turkish infrastructure a secondary consideration for a country still in shock after one of the worst natural disasters this century.

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