Now is the time for the world to support the people of Türkiye

Louisa Vinton

On February 6, in the blink of an eye, powerful earthquakes turned cities into rubble in a vast swath of southern Türkiye. The affected area – three times the size of Belgium – is home to some 15.7 million people. This is arguably the worst natural disaster to have ever hit the country, and the fifth deadliest earthquake in the world in the past 30 years. The human losses and the damage and destruction of civilian buildings are staggering; some 49,000 people died and 272,860 buildings collapsed, were severely damaged or are facing demolition. In particularly hard-hit places like the ancient city of Antakya, the landscape is apocalyptic, with only one in five buildings set to remain standing.
In the early days after the earthquakes, the world reacted with an outpouring of sympathy and assistance. Search and rescue teams and medical crews from 88 countries raced to help and emergency supplies were dispatched from around the world. But for Türkiye to stand a fair chance to recover and rebuild, far bigger resources are needed. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) helped the Turkish government in calculating the financial impact of the disaster and to set priorities for recovery and reconstruction. The result of this joint work, the Türkiye Earthquakes Recovery and Reconstruction Assessment (TERRA), is shocking: the damages and losses caused by the disaster amount to $103.6bn, or nine percent of Türkiye’s GDP.
The replacement of 650,000 destroyed housing units alone is estimated to cost $66bn. But even numbers this big cannot convey the loss that the people of Türkiye have experienced. At least 3.3 million people have seen their homes and possessions lost under rubble. Many have lost family and friends, and almost two million are currently housed in tents or containers. Construction of better facilities, both temporary and permanent, is under way at a furious pace, but still, the majority of the earthquake survivors are leading precarious lives in primitive conditions. The disaster and its aftermath have left millions traumatised. The iconic apartment tower, a main vehicle of Türkiye’s rapid transition from a predominantly rural country in the 1960s to one that is 77 percent urbanised today, has been transformed in the popular mind from a symbol of success to a source of nightmares. Parts of the affected region look like a landscape from a horror movie, with multi-storey buildings lurching at angles that seem to defy both gravity and engineering. Curtains flap from shattered windows that will never see their owners return.
The worries are not restricted to the 11 provinces that directly experienced destruction caused by the earthquakes. Many had expected the next “big one” to hit the bustling megalopolis of Istanbul, and its population of well over 15 million, which also sits on top of dangerous fault lines. The vistas of destruction in the south have sparked fears of far worse in the north, where thousands of high-risk structures need earthquake-proofing. The trade-off is clear to all: find funds to retrofit now or regret the losses later.
But the heartbreak of the earthquakes’ destructiveness doesn’t end here. If Türkiye is a treasure house of history, the southeast is a jewel of unique brilliance, a place where the legacies of Hittite, Roman, Byzantine, Christian and Ottoman civilisations are all intertwined, especially in Antakya, a bustling city known for diversity and tolerance and the capital of Hatay province.
So much is now gone. Some of Antakya’s ancient treasures survived the earthquake intact; others perhaps can be restored. But the city centre is completely ruined and unliveable, its charming backstreets are obliterated and devoid of life; its residents are either dead – 21,000 people reportedly perished in Hatay province – or departed. Rebuilding physical structures may be possible, but bringing back the city’s unique atmosphere may be much more challenging.
This applies to places across the affected region. When reconstruction starts, it must reflect the spirit of “building back better”, ensuring that any new buildings conform strictly to zoning rules and seismic risk construction norms. But houses alone do not make a community. Far from it. For that, people need secure employment to ensure a steady income; they need healthcare, education and other public services; they need opportunities to relax and socialise with other people. Even before the earthquakes, the area was one of the less prosperous regions of Türkiye, with GDP per capita ranging from 31 percent to 82 percent of the national average. It was also home to half of the 3.7 million Syrians who have been offered a haven in Türkiye over the past decade.
Now it is confronted with an exodus of people estimated to have reached three million. For many, this outward migration will probably be temporary. But employers everywhere worry that the workers will not return, that the trauma of losing everything will drown out local loyalties. In Kahramanmaras, an industrial city famous for its ice cream and textiles, business owners report that they are operating at barely 10 percent of capacity. Factories and farmers alike report a debilitating shortage of workers. The challenges are daunting, indeed, and at UNDP we see the importance of applying the tools of development in devising solutions. Huge investments and a clear vision that builds on the region’s strengths and assets will be required to bring the affected areas back to life. There is no time to lose; from the very start, the emergency response needs to incorporate the idea of “early recovery” so that relief funding is used to hire local people and buy local products.
The Turkish government has vowed not to abandon the region. However, as the TERRA has shown, the resources needed to restore normal life would overwhelm the budget of virtually any single state. To rally the world to the cause of recovery, the European Union has pledged support at a donor conference in Brussels. More is needed. In the face of a disaster so unprecedented in scope, the generosity of the international community needs to be just as unprecedented. Reconstruction is not just about bricks and mortar, but about lives and livelihoods, and requires a global effort.