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Image: Hilmi Hacaloğlu – Wikimedia Commons

By E. Oya Özarslan
First published on Medium

We know that corruption takes away resources, damages the environment, impoverishes the people, but it also kills!

We have seen in a number of incidents how corruption can be deadly. Remember the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh where 1 134 people died in one building because warnings were ignored and the workers forced into a building full of cracks. Or the explosion in Beirut in 2020. It was the result of the actions and omission of official conduct in a longstanding corruption and mismanagement at the port, causing 218 people’s death.

According to a study[1] released at the anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, it is calculated that 83% of all deaths from building collapses in earthquakes for the past 30 years occurred in countries that are extremely corrupt. The answer to the question of how an earthquake with a magnitude over 7 causes much more fatalities in countries like Indonesia, China, Iran, and others, indeed lies in the corruption. Poorly constructed buildings, lack of implementation of the regulations, use of substandard materials, improper site buildings, etc., are all signs of serious wrongdoings in the process.

The latest example of an earthquake turning into a deadly human disaster is the recent earthquake in Turkey happened on 6 February, 2023. Earth shaking with a magnitude of 7.7 affected the area where 13.5-million people live. So far, the death toll is over 31 000 (and counting[2]) and 120 940 housing units are collapsed or highly damaged. The country already experienced another deadly earthquake in 1999 where 18 373 people died.

It seems that no lessons were learned all this time, but what actually happened in these 24 years?

The construction industry has been booming in the last 20 years of AKP (Justice and Development Party) government. While construction is known as one of the most corrupt industries around the world, it flourished in Turkey with major government concessions of roads, airports, bridges, hospitals, etc. However, the roads and airports in the earthquake areas, some of which were built recklessly on top of the fault, collapsed along with critical public buildings like hospitals. Ironically, even the AFAD (Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate) was among the state buildings which collapsed.

Corrupt decisions lead to tragedy

A number of complicating factors can be easily mentioned for the current tragedy in the country, i.e., greedy constructors, lack of audits, impunity for the previous wrongdoings, conflict of interests between the construction firms and auditing firms, and so on. They are all different forms of corruption, which is very rampant in the country. Let’s remember that Turkey is one of the countries constantly dropping in the Corruption Perceptions Index[3] in the last 10 years, currently having a score of 36 and ranking 101st out of 180 countries.

Since Turkey is also a very high risk country for earthquakes, it is clear that structural legal reforms needed to be made urgently. After the 1999 disaster, new building regulations for earthquake-resistant buildings were issued, but their implementation has been very poor. The fact that a high number of newly constructed buildings also collapsed in this earthquake may be just the proof of this lack of implementation. Also, it is a well-known fact that zoning regulations have often been changed due to populist moves by the central and local governments.

The latest catastrophic step in the whole system was the Zoning Amnesty regulations issued in 2018 in spite of strong objections from the experts and civil society. This amnesty regulation targeted legalisation of illegally made constructions by just paying a fee to the government. According to the Environment and City Planning Ministry, close to 9-million people applied for it. More critically, this process has not included any earthquake screening, and compliance with the earthquake building standards was left to the owners’ responsibility.

Even the buildings carrying previous demolishing notices due to non-compliance were included within the scope of regulations, which apparently proved itself as a fatal mistake.

Another peculiarity was that the special purpose tax collected from Turkish people after the 1999 earthquake, amounting to $38.4-billion, has not been used for earthquake prevention measures. As declared by the ex-finance ministers, this money was used for other public works such as building roads, airports, and hospitals – which unfortunately were first to collapse in this earthquake.

Bad governance can be prevented

Disasters are true testing times to realise how good governance plays a critical factor in affecting the capacity of the state to deal with crises. Institutions weakened by appointments which are not based on merit lose their very basic capacity.

And this is what exactly is happening to the institutions mandated to rescue people and organise humanitarian aid in the country now. Thousands of people on the ground cry out that rescue authorities were not on time and lacked organisational skills, that actually resulted in a great number of people losing their lives.

Apparently, the financial capacity of AFAD has also been reduced by a recent cut in the 2023 state budget by 32%[4]. For a country whose majority regions are under the high earthquake risk, this clearly does not appear to be a farsighted management as well.

Natural disasters may be inevitable, but corruption, mismanagement, and bad governance are not.

The common narrative in Turkey is that “it is not the earthquake killing us, it is the buildings”. It is time to change this to “it is not the earthquake killing us, it is the corruption”.


[2] According to sources in UN, death toll is estimated to double this figure.



Oya Özarslan has been the chair of Transparency International Turkey since 2008. She served as the general co-ordinator of civil society election monitoring in Turkey in 2013 and 2014. Oya is chair of a women entrepreneurs association and works on issues of gender and corruption. Oya has law degrees from the universities of Ankara and Austin, Texas. She was elected to the Transparency International board in 2017.