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Turkey's once mighty developers under fire after quake
Turkey's once mighty developers under fire after quake
By Burcin GERCEK and Anne CHAON
Ankara (AFP) Feb 12, 2023

Their mugshots are everywhere: a Turkish developer arrested while trying to flee the country and two colleagues connected to a luxurious apartment tower that crumbled in Monday's disastrous quake.

The traumatised country's social media users are calling for their heads.

Turkish officials are turning them into the focus of public outrage at the shoddy business dealings that appear to have contributed to the disaster's almost unfathomable scale.

And architects view the Ronesans tower's collapse as a symbol of Turkey's inability to maintain building standards that could have dramatically reduced the catastrophic toll.

The number of confirmed fatalities surpassed 29,000 in Turkey and 3,500 in Syria on Sunday.

The quake has become the region's deadliest natural disaster in more than 80 years. But officials at the United Nations warn that the final fatalities number may be closer to 50,000.

Turkish officials have responded to the outrage by announcing a rapid series of investigations and arrests linked to the construction and development business.

Three people were put behind bars by Sunday and seven more have been detained -- including two developers who were trying to relocate to the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

Turkey's justice ministry has issued warrants for 114 more people and launched 134 investigations.

- 'Irregularities' -

The problem for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government -- in power for the past 20 years -- is that the Ronesans case is far from unique.

Turkey has erected towers across fault lines and swathes of earthquake-prone regions that have been bracing for a major jolt for years.

One of the biggest single disasters struck a hotel housing two dozen Cypriot students and 15 accompanying adults who were in Turkey for a volleyball tournament.

All of the children died and only four adults survived.

NTV television said the hotel was briefly closed due to construction "irregularities". But then it reopened its doors.

"I want these people to face justice. They are murderers," an unnamed witness of the hotel's collapse told NTV.

The quake tore off the building's walls "like sheets of paper", the survivor said.

Erdogan has responded to the anger by arguing that no one could have been prepared to deal with Turkey's "worst disaster in history".

But the waves of arrests and investigations represent a marked change in attitude towards an industry that has helped transform Turkey's underdeveloped regions while enjoying a profitable boom.

- Denials -

Six months passed before Turkey arrested the first suspect in the wake of another disastrous quake in 1999.

More than 17,000 people died in the country's northwestern regions near Istanbul at the time.

Officials eventually opened 2,100 investigations against developers of collapsed buildings. They did not lead to much.

A general amnesty in December 2000 saw 1,800 of those cases dropped.

The courts found fault in only 110 cases. Most of those found guilty ended up benefiting from a statute of limitation that entered into force in 2007.

The Ronesans project's developer has also pleaded innocence.

"I do not know why the building collapse," Mehmet Yasar Coskun said.

"All the permits were issued after studies by the municipality and the oversight company."

A local mayor who issued the building permit in 2021 denied responsibility as well.

"A private company conducted the control procedure," Seyfettin Yeral told the T24 news site. "We do not have employees who can do such work."

- California standards? -

Turkey has adopted a series of buildings standards and regulations modelled on those of California.

But these have been regularly revised -- the last time in 2018.

Engineers and architects interviewed by AFP said most of Turkey's builders manage to work their way around existing codes.

"On paper, the standards are respected, with contracts awarded to private companies responsible for controlling them," Istanbul architect Aykut Koksal said.

But Koksal stressed that developers often strike private deals with companies in charge of conducting the inspections.

He said this dilutes enforcement and gives developer much leeway to cut costs.

Turkey tremor evokes questions over building standards
Istanbul (AFP) Feb 11, 2023 - The apartments they once industriously spent so long saving up for, decorating and making comfortable now lie in a heap of rubble after a violent quake hit Turkey.

New and old buildings, some constructed only six months ago, fell apart. Others flattened like concrete pancakes.

The full extent of the damage is unknown from Monday's 7.8-magnitude tremor and ceaseless aftershocks, which unleashed catastrophe in Turkey and Syria, killing more than 23,000 people.

Turkey's death toll rises every day. In parallel, so has fury over why, in a country with multiple fault lines and a history of major jolts, building quality is so poor that buildings fall apart like paper.

Experts say Turkey has the regulations in place to prevent such a catastrophe. But they are only applied loosely by construction companies, the largest of which are often close to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Officials say 12,141 buildings were either destroyed or seriously damaged in Turkey.

Since the first quake was so huge, "damage was to be expected, but not the type of damage that you are seeing now", said Mustafa Erdik, a professor at Istanbul-based Bogazici University.

Even if a building topples, people can usually hide until searchers can rescue them, he said.

But this time, he added, buildings suffered "a pancake collapse".

"The floors are piling on top of each other," Erdik, also part of the Turkish Earthquake Foundation said, which means the chances of being found alive are slim.

- Poor quality cement -

So why did the buildings topple?

The causes are usually linked to the poor quality of the concrete, which sometimes is mixed with too much water and gravel, and too little concrete, according to Zihni Tekin, a consultant at Istanbul Technical University.

Other reasons include steel rods that are too thin to support the columns, which limit the building's strength, the engineer said.

But Tekin also blamed engineers and architects' low quality of education, despite private universities appearing across Turkey.

Turkish officials have also gambled by easing regulations.

Turkey's rules on construction, based on California's, have been regularly revised since a 1999 tremor in northwestern Turkey.

The last revision came in 2018.

"On paper, standards are respected, with contracts entrusted to private companies in charge of checking them," Istanbul architect Aykut Koksal said.

But oversight of these agreements is lax, he added, giving builders greater leeway in following -- or not -- the rules.

- Fury over negligence, greed -

Heavy bureaucratic procedures also end up diluting who is responsible if or when something goes wrong, Erdik said.

"The steps and signatories are so many that at the end, it is difficult to identify who is responsible."

To fix this issue, he recommends imposing an insurance on all actors against malpractice that guarantees victims compensation by guilty contractors.

"That's how it is elsewhere in the world and it should be in Turkey," he said.

The clear negligence and greed shown by some contractors has sparked fury, especially after luxury flats built within the last 20 years crumbled like a pack of cards.

Many hope this quake will finally lead to better monitoring.

The first legal complaint was made on Friday in the southeastern province of Diyarbakir and others have followed.

- Erdogan's vow to rebuild -

What has particularly raised hackles is the importance Erdogan has placed on construction since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.

The boom in construction powered the substantial economic growth under Erdogan in the early years of his rule.

Official figures show the number of companies operating in the real estate sector increased by 43 percent in 10 years, reaching 127,000 before the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

With Erdogan promising to rebuild the affected area within a year, the real estate frenzy is not likely to slow down.

Many speculate on the risk posed by high-rise buildings in Istanbul, which is anticipating its own passive jolt.

But for Erdik, the main concern is the "buildings with six, seven and eight floors built by small companies or even the families themselves".

He is not the only one fearful of lax building safety.

Since Monday, he has received never-ending calls from developers asking him to urgently assess their towers.

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