February 5, 2023 was a Sunday, and Turkey’s agenda was already full of issues. Russia’s war in Ukraine, the delay in Turkey’s approval of two Nordic countries’ NATO membership, a cost of living crisis marked by skyrocketing inflation, but above all the opposition alliance, which had still not announced its joint candidate to run against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, made the headlines.
That Sunday, Turks in Ankara and İstanbul went to bed knowing that school was canceled because of snow, and in other places they awaited the start of a new week.
On February 6, millions of people woke up to a disaster caused by two major earthquakes, and some woke up under the rubble. Thousands woke up days later because they had lost consciousness trapped under concrete slabs.
Tens of thousands never woke up again.
Last year’s earthquakes, which wreaked havoc in southeastern Turkey, resulted in significant damage across an area as large as Germany, affecting approximately 14 million people and leaving an estimated 1.5 million homeless.
The confirmed death toll in Turkey has now reached 53,537, with thousands more lost in Syria, making it the deadliest earthquake in modern Turkey and Syria, and the fifth-deadliest of the 21st century.
One year after the earthquakes, Turkish President Erdoğan’s election promise to build hundreds of thousands of homes for the victims still has not been fulfilled.
After the twin earthquakes of February 6, 2023, which leveled entire neighborhoods and caused unprecedented destruction, the Turkish government under the leadership of President Erdoğan made ambitious announcements to solve the housing crisis.
The destruction of 518,000 homes in 11 provinces and damage to a further 128,778 illustrates the enormity of the housing crisis. This situation has left many victims in a state of limbo. Temporary solutions such as container cities offer little comfort to those who dream of returning to a permanent home.
Erdoğan’s pledge was to build 319,000 new homes within a year. This target was part of a larger commitment to build a total of 650,000 new homes for those displaced by the disaster, a figure that was later increased to 850,000 by Minister of Environment, Urban Planning and Climate Change Mehmet Özhaseki. But one year after the tragedy, the reality on the ground paints a completely different picture.
Makeshift tents and containers
The city of Antakya, the center of Hatay province, is a poignant example of the devastating effects of the quakes. The millennia-old city, which was once one of Turkey’s most beautiful and authentic historic centers, now lies in ruins. Many people whose homes were destroyed in the quakes are still living in makeshift tent cities amid the rubble of their former lives.
The Turkish government’s reconstruction and aid efforts have been criticized for their lack of speed and effectiveness. According to official figures, more than 250,000 new homes are needed in Hatay province alone. So far, however, only a fraction of these have been been started, with just over 30,000 put out to tender and even fewer completed. The discrepancy between the government’s promises and the tangible results has disillusioned many. They question the feasibility of such ambitious goals in the face of ongoing economic challenges, including rising inflation and the increasing cost of building materials.
Recent announcements by President Erdoğan and the environment minister foresaw the completion of 46,000 of the targeted 319,000 housing units within a year of the Feb. 6 earthquakes, but actual deliveries have fallen short of that figure. The lack of clarity over the timeline for the final delivery of these homes, as well as the significantly lower number of disaster relief housing projects started, underscores the gap between the government’s promises and the reality of post-earthquake reconstruction efforts.
The challenge of achieving such a monumental construction target was obvious from the outset, according to experts.
Speaking to BBC’s Turkish service, Taner Yüzgeç, president of the Chamber of Civil Engineers, pointed out that the promise was unrealistic given the existing conditions and the extent of the devastation.
The capacity of the construction industry, hampered by economic constraints and the logistical difficulties in obtaining land for new buildings, is a major bottleneck. Although the housing authority (TOKİ) was already capable of building 60-70,000 homes a year, increasing capacity to meet urgent needs after the earthquakes has proven to be a daunting task. Critics emphasize the need for careful planning, consideration of the region’s seismic history and adherence to earthquake-resistant building standards.
The plight of the earthquake victims is exacerbated by the general socio-economic challenges in the region. Many displaced Syrians who fled the war in their home country more than a decade ago are reliving the trauma of displacement and are unable to afford rising rent or find stable employment. The situation is catastrophic.
Disaster hits certain people harder
According to a report by Voice of America’s Turkish service, the exact number of people who have been disabled by the earthquakes in Turkey is still unknown. Health Ministry officials told VOA that they have no data on how many people were disabled by the disaster.
Turkey already had a higher disability rate than the world average and industrialized countries before the earthquake, which undoubtedly increased after the disaster.
Families affected by the earthquake, including those with disabled members, face the problem of gaining access to adequate living conditions and basic services in the container towns, which exacerbates their plight. Both the Turkish Disabled Persons Association and the Turkish Medical Association emphasize the lack of comprehensive data on disabilities after the earthquake and criticize the inadequate support and facilities for disabled people.
Struggle for survival continues
Although a year has passed since the earthquakes of February 6, the struggle for survival continues in the affected regions.
Many people in Hatay’s Samandağ district have not even found temporary shelter in tents and are faced with the threat of damaged but not yet collapsed buildings.
In Adıyaman province and other devastated areas, access to basic services such as healthcare remains a critical issue.
While debris removal is nearing completion in some areas and construction of new homes is expected, the resilience of earthquake survivors is being tested by the slow pace of reconstruction and the urgent need for stable, safe living conditions.