The earthquakes in Syria and Turkey

Partially destroyed house building
Partially destroyed house building by Markus Spiske is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

By Julia Luise Tiemens

In the beginning of February in 2023, harsh earthquakes were shaking Turkeys and Syria’s grounds. The trembles cracked two giant fissures into the earth’s surface, causing the land to split up to seven meters into opposite directions. Around the border the destruction in both countries is unimaginable. Death tolls rose to around 47,000 people, many are still missing and thousands lost their houses. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that across both countries about 26 million people still need assistance. Most people are unable to return to their houses, as they are still in danger of collapsing. Both countries are devastated, especially after already losing millions of citizens to war over the previous years. Many foreign countries are sending help and rescue teams, to show their support. 

On February 6, 7.8 magnitude earthquakes shook Turkey and Syria in the early morning hours. The aftershocks carried a force of 7.5 on the Richter scale. Reporters announce the tremors to have been strong and lasting, covering the city in dust and anxiety. The natural disaster was so strong that it has been felt all the way to Egypt and Lebanon. We consider the shocking event to have been the country’s heaviest earthquake in modern history, that could not have come at a worse moment. Turkey was hit during great economic and geostrategic uncertainty and in Syria many refugee homes are summoned along the affected borders. Also, two weeks later the scale of devastation sees no end and true impact has not closely been understood. 

The biggest concerns regard the loss of life and the immediate response with humanitarian relief for the survivors. There are four reasons why life has been lost to this extent. First of all, most people were home at the time of the strike, which made them a victim of the falling buildings and they are most likely still buried under the stones. The psychological damage that has been experienced from this, will be lasting and grave. From this, a crucial lesson for donors and NGOs can be obtained for other rapid disasters. These concern assistance coordination, building of resilience and strengthening of the response. A second factor includes that the earthquakes happened in winter, with temperatures below freezing degrees. Despite an immediate organization of rescue groups, this made time for survival a crucial factor. Furthermore, it makes rescue efforts more difficult. The third factor includes the magnitude of the earthquake. Since, it turned the entire neighborhood into ashes, it is difficult to reach the affected areas and get the necessary means. Many NGOs already have help centers in Syria due to the refugee crisis, which have also been destroyed. The fourth reason is that Gaziantep, the epicenter, is an economic and political center of the region. This makes it the home of nearly half a million Syrian refugees; here the earthquake will put further stress and pressure into an already stressed context. These refugees have now been forced to live through shifting temporary protection measures while dealing with the psychological trauma on their own. The natural disaster creates for many, new on top of old, and deep trauma. 

As one of the most seismic-active countries in the world, Turkey has endured many earthquakes. However, this tremor was the highest measured since 1993 and ranks as the second highest in recorded history. Many other countries are now showing their support for Turkey. For instance, Germany sent many rescue groups and its interior and foreign ministers are on their way to the affected countries to offer condolences. Many countries are also sending monetary help. The World Health organization has announced that their rescue workers were facing the worst natural disaster in this region for a century and they have launched their biggest rescue campaign in 75 years. After the earthquake the Mayor of Hatay, quickly warned the population about more earthquakes. 2 weeks later, the earth proved him to be right and many people that had already returned home were buried under the falling houses. He called on people to stay away from houses that could fall or be damaged. Priorities in the country are shifting. 

Nevertheless, the effects of the quakes do not stop here. Millions of Syrian citizens are homeless, due to the combination of civil war and earthquakes, which makes the humanitarian situation even more hopeless. Shortly after, concerns about health issues began to rise. The cold weather, the lack of hygiene and sanitation and the threat of infectious diseases spreading worries many. The European health authority has warned repeatedly about infectious disease spreads caused by contaminated food or water. The Turkish government has announced that they are trying their best to re-establish the drinking water supplies as fast as possible.  Common problems are also respiratory diseases, which are really common in spaces where huge amounts of people are crowded into small spaces. They believe that some of these diseases could be prevented by vaccines or medicines, which however can be pricey and difficult to transport into the country. On top of that, the Christian help network “Shelter Now” has announced many have sustained deep trauma. In Syria the main concern is the cold weather, which creates a high need for blankets, tents and warm clothes. Due to these issues, big networks have announced that the most helpful donations are money donations currently. 

Another worry-factor has been added by the role of politics in this region. In Syria the situation is particularly hard, since it has been eaten by war for years. This leads to the absence of rescue groups and tools. Additionally, there are few hospitals and most of those are full. Due to the wars, many areas that have been highly affected are under the control of rebels- individuals that fight the government. The dictator Baschar al-Assad, is often blamed for not sending immediate help into those areas. In the north-west of Syria international relief efforts have bitterly been fought for many years. Now the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad opened two border crossings with Turkey so more aid could reach the region, however he refuses to give access to aid convoys. In Turkey, on the other hand, the government is commonly being blamed for the many collapsed buildings, as they are said to have not properly enforced building standards. Since the last major earthquake in 1999, not enough has been changed and done towards prevention. 

Now after memorials and symbolic acts are being established. While lots of young people express their support on social media, international organizations are organizing bigger actions. The photographer Ogun Sever Okur has created a project called “my last present to the children”. Volunteers placed colorful balloons in the middle of the ruins, each balloon representing a child that lost its life in the tragedy. The activists want to reach every house where a child passed away, to decorate it with a balloon, commemorate and pay their respects. 

The repeated questions whether this cannot be prevented in the future are beginning to rise more and more. The truth is that everything around earthquakes is tricky, since they are almost impossible to predict. The only thing that can be done to take a step towards prevention is the building of safe institutions and infrastructures and the investment into this, as well as the enforcement. It is crucial that building standards are being enforced without exceptions, so the houses will stand despite the tremors. Especially in Syria, where because of the war not a lot has been done in terms of earthquake prevention, it has to be stepped up.


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