By Prof. Ali Akbar Salehi and Prof. Mehdi Zare

Lessons from recent quakes in Turkey and Syria: the importance of science and technology

April 14, 2023 - 15:42

The terrible scenes of earthquake damage and the loss of tens of thousands of people in the earthquakes of 6 February 2023 in southern Turkey and northern Syria are a reminder that earthquakes are still the deadliest type of natural disaster in the world.

Unfortunately, most of these deaths occur in developing countries. About 68% of the world's earthquake casualties since 2000 have occurred in Asia and in developing countries. 

It is impossible to completely eliminate the risk of disasters, but countries that plan and implement national and international science policy and legislative frameworks have a greater capacity to reduce the risk of disasters.

About 80% of all earthquake life losses since 1900 have been reported due to only 25 earthquakes in 11 countries: China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Italy, Chile, Armenia, Guatemala, India, Tajikistan, and Nepal. 

Since the early 20th century by the end of 2020, seventy-seven earthquakes were the reason for death loss for 162,000 people in Iran. Sixty-seven deadly earthquakes occurred in Turkey until February 6th of 2023, with the life loss of about 150,000 people. 

The set of above-mentioned "developing" countries are seismically unstable and most densely populated. In these countries, earthquake casualties are very high compared to their population, the ratio which has been the highest in the last 20 years.

In the recent 2023 earthquakes in Turkey, if the construction regulations and other relevant aspects had been fully respected and implied, we might not have seen such a level of disaster, as the complete collapse of more than 6,000 multi-story buildings, and severe damage to more than 70,000 ones.

Now in Turkey, the big question is, what happened to the significant budgets that were collected through the "earthquake solidarity tax" after the 1999 Izmit earthquake? The budget was supposed to be used in strengthening the buildings against earthquakes. 

One of the taxes that people have paid through mobile phone operators to date has been about 88 billion liras (about $4.6 billion USD), which has been deposited into the government's coffers. In addition to the above, in Turkey, like Iran, building regulations in earthquake-prone areas have not been seriously observed, and exemptions are applied as usual regulations. 

This means that building code violations will be waived by paying fines. Turkey has now an updated Seismic Building Code (2018) and it seems that most of the collapsed buildings have not been designed/constructed based on the Seismic Building Code.

Of course, in the last three decades, Iran and Turkey have made appreciable progress in terms of specialization and science in training a new generation of specialists. 

In addition, the Turkish government has succeeded in attracting help from more than 100 countries in the management of the response to the February 6th, 2023 earthquakes, using its proactive international relations. A clear example is hosting 22 field hospitals in 19 countries in the earthquake-prone area during the weeks after the earthquake. 

Extensive technical facilities and equipment from different countries have been imported by the Turkish government to deal with the consequences of the earthquake and debris removal, while benefiting from the most updated technologies in the world extending from China to the United States, in the field of crisis management.

One of the successful examples among developing countries in terms of reducing earthquake risk in Mexico. The level of damage and the way the Mexican government is dealing with the earthquake contains many instructive points. 

Life losses were reported as 98 people on September 8, 2017 earthquake, magnitude 8.1, near the coast of Mexico. This number of casualties is not considered high for such an earthquake in a country like Mexico. 

The epicenter was about 90 km away from the coastline, about 98 km from a city with a population of 15,000, and 350 km from Mexico City with a nighttime population of about 9 million and a daytime population of about 25 million. 

In the same country, a similar earthquake on September 19, 1985, with 8.1 magnitudes, killed about 30,000 in Mexico City.

Mexico has a population of about 130 million people, with a gross domestic product of 1300 billion dollars in 2022. 

Turkey has about 86 million people, with a gross domestic product of about 996 billion dollars, while Iran has about 86 million people, with a gross domestic product of about 400 billion dollars in 2022.

In terms of crisis management and risk reduction, Mexico's programs have been among the most successful programs in developing countries in the last three decades. 

An example is the successful development of an earthquake early warning system (SASMex) for Mexico City, operational since 1991. 

The early warning system is based on receiving the primary waves, detecting the occurrence and size of the earthquake, and announcing the warning before the arrival of the destructive secondary waves (for Mexico City to be about 60 seconds for great coastal earthquakes). 

The Mexican government has had, since 2010, an interesting and successful focus on the risk reduction program with a strategy of supporting programs that reduce the costs of damage in a possible future disaster from a federal perspective.

This action in Mexico based on the lessons learned from previous disasters and earthquakes has led to a focus on relatively successful programs of land preparation and urban planning. 

Such successful programs have been implemented by employing new-generation human resources, graduating from prestigious universities, speaking one or two international languages, and being proficient in new technologies.

The lessons to be learned from an earthquake are usually those not already learned in other developing countries. Many mistakes related to housing, choosing a place to live, and the quality of construction of buildings are repeated in reconstructions. 

Authorities in poor developing countries are mostly indifferent to the earthquake risk considerations, while people get cheaper/lower quality construction materials, and choose vulnerable places to live. 

The consequences of the process in such countries are deficiencies in design and inappropriate selection of the site, lack of risk perception, and lack of earthquake planning at the national and local levels, in addition to the poor financial status of urban and rural communities.

The authorities in these countries are confused about how to spend their limited resources in reducing earthquake risk. 

The reasons might be explained by their priorities in urgent and daily needs of livelihood, unemployment, housing, health, and rapid and continuous changes in urbanization. Therefore, their main issue is the correct prioritization of economic, social, and construction needs.

In the last three decades, important advances have been made in the world in the use of science and technology. In addition to Japan, Taiwan, America, Italy, and Mexico, earthquake early warning systems have also been installed in Romania, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, and India. 

In Iran, basic infrastructure has been provided to establish an earthquake early warning system in Tehran. All citizens deserve to benefit from the infrastructure that is developed on the basis of science and technology. 

Such infrastructures have the ability to establish network communication through the Internet, where most people may have access to the generated information.

Many higher education programs in developing countries in the field of disaster risk reduction are presented of international quality. However, some of the graduates select to immigrate to developed countries. 

The job vacancies are not provided sufficiently in the academic centers of these counties. Meanwhile, disaster management organizations of these countries mostly suffer from the bureaucratic and political attitude of their authorities. 

This issue is one of the important challenges of disaster risk management in developing countries. Last, but not least word, is the importance of modernization of disaster risk action plans in developing countries, based on mitigation and prevention. 

Professor Ali Akbar Salehi and Professor Mehdi Zare are respectively the deputy president and the head of the geology division of Iran's Academy of Sciences.

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