4 min read
In The Aftershocks Of Türkiye’s Catastrophe: Is Israel Prepared For A Major Earthquake?

Benjamin Vos

On February 6, in the middle of an otherwise normal night, millions of people in Turkey and Syria were abruptly awakened by an unexpected and disastrous earthquake. Many buildings instantly collapsed while their inhabitants were still in bed, while other buildings collapsed later during some of the about 10,000 recorded aftershocks in the following three weeks. The earthquake was so strong that it was even felt in many surrounding countries; including some of our editors in Israel. So far, about 51,000 people are confirmed to have died. Going forward we will explore what happened, its consequences, and more importantly what it means for expected future earthquakes and damage prevention in the Levant. 

With its epicenter near Gaziantep, in the south of Turkey next to the Syrian border, the earthquake had a magnitude of 7.8 and caused widespread damage in an area of about 350,000 square kilometers (140,000 sq mi), which is around 12 times the size of Belgium. It was one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded in the Levant and the deadliest in Turkey’s modern history. The tremors were felt as far away as Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Cyprus, and the Black Sea coast of Turkey. Immediately after, many countries sent humanitarian aid totaling more than 141,000 people from 94 countries. As rescuers were digging through the rubble, in the following days the death count kept rising higher and higher, leaving people around the world stunned at the magnitude of the crisis. 

Aside from the tragedy of the dead, there is also the plight of those who have been made homeless by this event. On that score, United Nations development experts estimate about 1.5 million people have lost their homes. This leaves many spending at least the first night after the quake outside in the cold winter temperatures. Civil society has attempted to alleviate the problem. Turkish hotels, mosques, and other public buildings have been opened for people to take shelter in. Several airline companies helped evacuate hundreds of thousands of survivors from the affected areas by providing flights free of charge. Thousands of people, both domestically and from abroad, have volunteered and come to the stricken areas to assist in humanitarian aid. Turkey and Syria have received financial support through grants from the United Nations, the World Bank, and some other intergovernmental organizations.

Even newly built buildings were destroyed by the earthquake, causing public anger. After the 1999 earthquake in İzmit, Turkey, new building codes were passed, but there have long been complaints that these were not properly enforced. Now, the recent earthquake has only added to doubts raised about the Turkish construction industry, and how its building codes are meant to be more resilient to earthquakes. The earthquake has also led to a political blame game being played. There have been protests against the Turkish Minister of Transport and Infrastructure as well as local governors. Additionally, many Turkish citizens criticise their president, Erdoğan, for his role in the affair. Erdoğan claimed "98% of the destroyed buildings were built before 1999" and described the current earthquake impact as "the indicator of an improvement in the quality of building codes and enforcement". This despite no concrete data on the destroyed buildings being yet available. Civil engineer and earthquake engineering academic Haluk Sucuoğlu says Erdoğan's claim is unlikely, based on field observations, also noting that more than half of the buildings in earthquake-affected areas were built after the year 2000. 

Harold Tobin, the director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network and professor at the University of Washington, said the affected area in Turkey has a long seismic record and is known as a seismically hazardous area. This is caused by the fact that the Anatolian plate has been at the center of multiple larger tectonic plates like the Eurasian plate and the Arabian plate. Additionally, Tobin said the earthquakes on February 6 were larger than anticipated, and he added it is not uncommon for a rupture on one fault to trigger a rupture on another. 

The thousands of aftershocks from February 6 until now have also been felt in Israel, leading people to fear a potential large earthquake somewhere along the Dead Sea Transform fault system (also known as the Great Rift Valley / Syrian-African Rift). This fault is located right in the middle of the Dead Sea and goes all the way north where it meets with the East Anatolian Fault, which is where the Gaziantep earthquake originated. Historically, Israel has experienced severe earthquakes on average once every century. The last one occurred in 1927 and geologists argue we can expect another in this area within the next few years. Geological experts have warned that within Israel about a million homes are at risk of collapse in case of an earthquake. This is because about 60% of buildings are not protected against missiles, earthquakes or even collapse due to obsolescence. If such a major earthquake were to happen it would likely affect multiple countries in the Levant and cause thousands of deaths, injuries and lost homes. 

In 2005, the Israeli government approved the so-called “TAMA 38” plan. The plan is an urban initiative designed to encourage tenants to strengthen their building structures. This plan may help somewhat prepare Israel for a natural disaster. It has been criticized for not being very efficient as the waiting time is multiple years to have a building approved. However, the TAMA 38 plan was ended in the fall of 2022 following extensive discussion in The National Planning and Building Council, whose members were convinced that the regulations did not achieve their goals. Ever since, the plan ended and not much change has taken place to mitigate earthquake damage in Israel. One of the reasons there has not been much investment into this project is because of Israel’s political instability in recent years. 

Still, we cannot be sure when the next earthquake will be, nor can we be certain about how strong this earthquake will be. Ron Avni, earthquake studies lecturer at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said “The mechanisms aren’t understood well enough. Our knowledge is empirical — it’s based on what we know about previous earthquakes.” But knowing the risk is there, countries like Israel, which are located in such tectonically active areas, should be a lot more ready than they currently are. It is up to the Israeli and neighboring governments to invest more in earthquake damage mitigation before another massive disaster unfolds.

* The email will not be published on the website.