In the early hours of Monday, February 6, residents living in southern Turkey and northern Syria were woken by violent shaking, collapsing buildings, and sweeping blackouts. The earthquake buried residents in rubble and was followed by powerful aftershocks. By the following Monday, the death toll had passed 36,000 people. “It was like the apocalypse,” Abdul Salam al-Mahmoud, a resident of Atareb, Syria, told Reuters.
The country is no stranger to quakes, having lost 17,000 people to a 7.4-magnitude tremor in 1999. But while last week’s earthquake was a 7.8-magnitude quake, and had an unusually strong 7.5-magnitude aftershock, the reason this earthquake is so deadly has less to do with its power, and more to do with the preexisting circumstances of the affected communities and the lack of preparation for disaster.
Freezing temperatures, road blockages, and social unrest are complicating humanitarian aid and recovery efforts, despite having more than 100,000 rescue personnel in Turkey and Syria. The earthquake damaged the only official humanitarian aid route in the northern parts of Syria, delaying delivery of aid to Syria. And in Turkey, a primary port in the southern part of the country suspended operations the day after the earthquake due to a quake-related fire. These obstructions lead to a bottleneck effect, where aid is unable to reach the people it was intended to help, said Margaret Traub, the head of global initiatives for International Medical Corps, which is currently assisting Syria and Turkey’s disaster response. (The US has temporarily lifted its sanctions on Syria for 180 days to usher in aid.)
In Turkey and Syria, the high concentration of old, inflexible, concrete buildings, the lack of construction oversight, the Syrian civil war, and an ongoing cholera outbreak have left the region vulnerable to devastation. “You already had areas where people were displaced and living in temporary shelters,” said Traub. “In many ways, they’re already really compromised going into the disaster, and now they’re doubly displaced, and don’t have their support mechanisms.”
This is what happens when you end up on the wrong side of the disaster divide, which explains how unequal losses experienced by certain communities and countries following a natural disaster are chiefly due to the discrepancy of wealth and resources, limiting the ability to invest in the very things — strong buildings, weather prediction, rapid humanitarian response — that would prevent deaths. There’s a reason that 90 percent of disaster deaths between 1996 and 2015 occurred in low and middle-income nations, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction found. It’s not that rich countries are somehow exempt from extreme weather and geological events. It’s that the lack of wealth, and everything it can buy, is what makes a quake or a hurricane or a tornado disastrous, more than the sheer strength of a storm or how high a quake scores on the Richter scale.
Earthquakes are devastating — more so than other natural disasters — for those living on the other side of the divide. Wealthier nations that are able to upgrade older buildings, build new quake-resistant infrastructure, and invest in training and resources for their emergency response teams are likely to fare better during earthquakes than less wealthy countries. And communities — like the Syrian refugees hit by last week’s quake — who were suffering prior to natural disasters lack the means of resilience, making it even more difficult for them to rebuild, let alone rebuild in a way that prepares them for the next disaster.
“When we talk about disaster response, we’re often thinking about what happens right after a disaster,” said Rebecca Rice, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who researches emergency communications. “But it’s not just how you respond right away. It’s how you build a stronger community, where people have the social resources and the capital they need.”
How the disaster divide plays out
Earthquakes are one of the deadliest types of natural disasters, accounting for the majority of natural disaster-caused deaths in the last two decades, and they are often followed by aftershocks, landslides, tsunamis, and fires.
Millions of low-intensity quakes occur every year, but every one or two years around the world, a major quake with a magnitude of 8 or higher transpires. But while magnitude measures intensity, it isn’t necessarily an indication of damage. In January 2010 one of the deadliest earthquakes in the 21st century shook Haiti, killed an estimated 220,000, injured 300,000, and left 1.5 million homeless. The quake was at a 7 magnitude. Only a month later, in February 2010, Chile was hit by an earthquake of even greater intensity, an 8.8 magnitude. Yet, Chile saw a much smaller death toll at 500 deaths and had relatively little structural damage.
This is because Chile learned from its history, and as a relatively high-income country, had the means to address problems with its infrastructure and disaster response. Before a disaster occurs, stakeholders — nonprofits, local and national governments, and community members — should be brought together to make an emergency response plan, said Rice. In 1960, the Valdivia earthquake in Chile killed thousands, left 2 million people homeless, and caused $550 million in damages at the time — in today’s dollars, that’s $5.4 billion. This earthquake led to Chile developing stricter building codes and creating a coordinated national response for such emergencies, just as Rice suggests.
In contrast, Haiti, the poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean, suffers from the ongoing ramifications of colonialism and government corruption. Many of the resulting deaths from Haiti’s 2010 earthquake were attributed to the catastrophic collapse of buildings which did not use reinforced concrete and were not designed for the lateral motion caused by earthquakes.
This disparity in resources means nations like Chile can and do implement life-saving measures and materials while countries on the other side of the divide cannot. “We have the means to survive even large earthquakes,” said Luigi Di Sarno, program director of sustainable civil and structural engineering at the University of Liverpool. “The matter is cost, affordability, and the willingness to implement things.”
Bridging the gap
The disaster divide is not caused by a country’s lack of engineers or policies, but by a lack of resources and motivation to implement those policies, said Di Sarno. Unfortunately, the quake in Turkey is evidence of how this lack of implementation can lead to catastrophe.
In 2011, Turkey was shaken by a 7.2-magnitude quake that killed approximately 600 people. At the time, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blamed poor construction for the loss of life. In the dozen years since that disaster, Turkey, like most countries, updated its seismic regulations and sought to improve its construction practices, but it faced logistical issues in doing so, Di Sarno said.
Putting seismic-conscious regulations into practice is time-consuming, costly, and is often hindered by political corruption, Di Sarno added. “It is a trade-off between efficiency, availability, and also a willingness to accept the given cost of implementing them,” he said.
Despite Turkey’s attempt at improved codes, the February 6 earthquake caused more than 6,000 buildings to collapse (About 4,000 buildings were seriously damaged or collapsed in the 2011 quake). Many experts believe the inadequate enforcement of building regulations played a significant role in the loss of life last week. “Building codes in Turkey are very advanced,” Di Sarno said. “It’s the implementation, because of the economy and other things, the quality control is not fully ensured.”
Earthquake preparedness measures, particularly up-to-code buildings, are not a one-off cost, Di Sarno said. Somewhere like Syria, which doesn’t have the resources to build earthquake-resilient infrastructure once, won’t be able to maintain that same infrastructure to the extent required. “We tend to believe that structures can stay forever, but even structures, like a car, are designed for a given time window,” he said. This window, in most countries for an ordinary, residential building is 50 years, he added.
“Buildings are intended to survive even the abnormal actions — strong winds, earthquakes, floods — but this cannot happen forever,” Di Sarno said. “And what we are experiencing in a number of situations, including in Turkey, is that these buildings are aging. There is corrosion taking place, there is a degradation of the material.”
Wealth isn’t a perfect shield, and sometimes quakes will be strong enough to circumvent even the best building codes, said Di Sarno. Even rich countries can suffer from high levels of economic loss and death when a quake is strong enough to cause a tsunami and disrupt critical facilities, such as in the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake that damaged Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. That disaster killed more than 18,000 people.
The disaster divide can also be seen in the post-disaster response. Unlike Turkey, an upper-middle-income country, Syria is low-income and only recently started receiving international aid. Syria was already facing life-threatening conditions prior to the quake, with the UN Security Council stating in January that humanitarian needs in Syria reached their “highest levels” since the war began in 2011. Now, the dire circumstances of Syrians living in affected cities, like Aleppo, are only aggravated. The country will have to rebuild communities that were already falling apart, but doing so will be time-consuming and costly.
“As for the case of Haiti, and now in Syria, we should also consider the presence of conflicts that increase the vulnerability of communities,” Di Sarno said. “Wealth, political instability, and even harsh weather conditions affect the response to natural disasters. Resilience of local communities is severely affected by such additional threats.”
While well-intentioned, donations made in the immediate aftermath of disasters, such as this earthquake in Turkey and Syria, often fail to actually reach the people they are trying to help and can lead to wasted supplies. The real challenge when responding to disaster is finding support once immediate rescue efforts are completed, said Art delaCruz, the CEO of Team Rubicon, an international NGO that specializes in disaster response.
“This response will go on for a long time, from a health perspective, and from an infrastructure perspective,” said delaCruz. “The real danger here is the attention that this earthquake is getting now, or a tornado or a hurricane gets in the beginning, it fades very quickly. But the reality for the people that are on the ground continues.”