Capital Ankara
Time Zone EET (GMT+2)
Country Code 90
Mobile Codes 532,533,542,505
ccTLD .tr
Currency Turkish Lira (1EUR = 1.95TL)
Land Area 783,562 sq km
Population 72.6 million
Language Turkish
Major Religion Islam

In Turkey, Debates Simmer Over Seismic Risks, Building Safety and Cultural Heritage Protection Issues

By Chris Deliso

On August 17, Turks held a solemn commemoration to mark the 11th anniversary of the massive 1999 earthquake that killed 18,000 people, while destroying over 110,000 buildings. The occasion has also sparked much public discussion over the structural soundness of construction in the densely populated areas in and around Istanbul, where other risk factors potentially affecting prized ancient monuments are also coming to the fore.

Earthquakes are not infrequent in Turkey, though the magnitude of the 1999 quake, centered in the northwestern province of Kocaeli, was extraordinary at 7.4 on the Richter scale. Five days previous to the commemoration, an earthquake registering 4.8 shook Balya, in Balikesir province. There were no reported damages or injuries.

Today, Turks are asking themselves to what extent they are prepared to deal with future large earthquakes, from the point of view of both construction improvements and disaster response planning. Like other densely populated cities at high seismic risk built along the water, such as San Francisco, a major earthquake in Istanbul could unleash not only building destruction and loss of life, but also things more difficult to prepare for, such as tidal waves.

According to Orhan Turan, chairman of the Association of Turkish Building-Material Producers (İMSAD), “…we keep talking but so far there is no master plan.”

Speaking for the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review, Turan attested that while more stringent building standards enacted by the government after 1999 mean that most new constructions “are strong enough to resist earthquakes,” a clear plan and budget for dealing with a potential major earthquake have yet to be made.

Speaking for the country as a whole, Turan estimated that of approximately 18 million total buildings, some 14 million are still at risk: “…even though we have the needed materials, and produce them and build the greatest buildings in the world, we have not been able to find a solution to the houses built before 1999,” he said.

The businessman added that the use of cheap and unregulated black-market construction supplies, and the lack of registration for low-quality new dwellings, mean that the government is still not doing enough to protect Turkey’s biggest city and its inhabitants from future earthquakes.

Further, a sobering new joint study carried out by the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality and Japan’s International Cooperation Agency has revealed that some 30 percent of Istanbul buildings “…are in danger of collapsing if a strong earthquake were to occur,” reported Today’s Zaman on August 17.

The joint study also predicted that “…tsunami waves could reach as high as 5.5 meters along a 10-kilometer area of the shoreline in İstanbul. The waves could reach the city’s shores in eight minutes and are expected to be able to go as far inland as 150 meters.”

Istanbul sits a mere 20km north of the major North Anatolian Fault. Since 1939, when a deadly earthquake further east along this fault line struck the eastern town of Erzincan, registering 8.2 on the Richter scale, a succession of earthquakes has been moving steadily westward- leaving many to suspect that Istanbul may eventually suffer a major tremor as well.

At the same time, experts are sounding the alarm about structural risks to constructions that have so far proven much tougher and more long-lasting.  While Istanbul is enjoying its present role as European Capital of Culture for 2010, in July resurfaced the possibility that the city could lose its place as a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site if the government does not do more for conservation.

According to another Hurriyet report, threats to heritage pointed out by UNESCO since 2006 include building over archeological areas, expansion of public transport that could endanger historic sites, and exploitation of sites by tourism developers.

One example of a building perceived as being under threat is the underground Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici, in Turkish), an early Byzantine water supply source and one of the city’s most-visited tourist attractions, is apparently also at risk- but this time, as a result not of earthquakes, but of its own popularity.

According to Istanbul’s Chamber of Tourist Guides, heavy traffic on the streets above the cistern, located in the historic Sultanahmet district, may be a load too great for the grand old structure. In a public statement issued on July 26, the Chamber stated that the weight of tour buses and some newer structures was putting the Cistern’s roof at risk of collapse, reported Hurriyet.

Despite various decrees and plans at the municipal level to ban heavy traffic in the area, critics are noting that tour bus drivers do not always follow the rules. A heavily-used tramway also runs in the vicinity of the historic monument.

However, traffic is not the only problem. Citing a press source within the Fatih Municipality, which administers the Cistern and surrounding sites, the newspaper disclosed that “…in order to reduce the risk to the Basilica Cistern, a provincial administration building located on the street above will be demolished to minimize the weight that must be borne.”

As an ancient city with a very modern outlook and growing population, Istanbul faces numerous dilemmas, as UNESCO officials have noted. At issue is how to expand and modernize the city without damaging the historic fabric that makes it a place of vital interest to not only its citizens, but to people across the world- and how to protect the city from natural disasters that, unfortunately, may be not too many years in coming.


Note: Regularly-updated information on all seismic activity in Turkey is visible online at the website of Bogazici University’s Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute.

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