Skip to main content

Turkey will take years to recover from the earthquake. The world must help

Turkey's struggle to heal from this calamity is only just beginning, while the country faces the massive task of preparing for future disasters
A woman that lost a family member holds a boot as she walks out of the debris of a compound destroyed during the earthquake in Antakya, southeastern Turkey on 14 February, 2023 (AP)

A historic challenge faces Turkey in the wake of a massive earthquake that has caused an unprecedented level of destruction. Apocalyptic scenes continue to emerge from the affected areas. The human cost is immense, and the national trauma will be long-lasting. 

Amid the immense damage, Turkey will need to create a much more comprehensive urbanisation policy, while improving and strictly implementing construction regulations. Recovery will be a long struggle, but one that cannot be avoided, as most of the country sits on major fault lines. In this process, friends and allies of Turkey must continue to stand by the country for the long haul.

Television reports and social media posts can convey only a fraction of the monumental challenges that the Turkish people are constantly overcoming

The scale and scope of this month’s earthquake was unprecedented. Millions of people across southern Turkey were affected, thousands of buildings collapsed, and the death toll - now at more than 40,000 - keeps climbing, while the government, civil society groups and people around the country heroically mobilise to provide aid and support. 

This is truly like nothing we have ever experienced in Turkey, a country that has seen many major earthquakes in the past. The best news out of this calamity is that the people of this country are not giving up anytime soon.  

During a recent visit to Kahramanmaras and Hatay, two of the hardest-hit regions, I witnessed unbelievable scenes that are truly impossible to describe - both in terms of the scale of destruction, but also the resilience of people on the ground. Television reports and social media posts can convey only a fraction of the monumental challenges that the Turkish people are constantly overcoming. 

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


National and international search-and-rescue teams, government agencies, civil society organisations and people across the region are selflessly working around the clock to provide relief. They have no time to stop and despair; rather, they must fight every obstacle with everything they have. This speaks volumes to the character of this nation, in the face of such catastrophe.

Humanitarian growth   

In Turkey’s long history of earthquakes, one of the most infamous, the 1999 earthquake in Izmit, significantly changed the country’s thinking about national disasters. At the time, Turkey’s search-and-rescue capacity and overall humanitarian aid experience were more limited, and communication technologies were relatively primitive. 

Since then, Turkey has come a long way in building its emergency response and disaster management capacities. It has created building codes to safeguard new projects against earthquakes, and countless buildings have been constructed to code. The country also invested in a national disaster management agency to coordinate the government’s response in times of emergency. But despite all this, socioeconomic conditions and the need for affordable housing have continued to increase the number of poorly constructed buildings on unsafe grounds in earthquake zones.  

One of the most fortunate developments in the past two decades has been Turkey’s growth as a major humanitarian actor in the international arena. The influx of Syrian refugees since 2011 has also contributed to this exponential growth in Turkey’s humanitarian capabilities. Today, the country is regularly at the forefront of humanitarian aid efforts around the world, which are often intertwined with its foreign policy initiatives in regions such as North Africa and Southeast Asia.

People sit by collapsed buildings in Turkey’s Hatay province on 15 February 2023 (AFP)
People sit by collapsed buildings in Turkey’s Hatay province on 15 February 2023 (AFP)

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Turkey became a major manufacturing hub for medical equipment and provided other nations with critical supplies. Having suffered themselves from earthquakes, forest fires and neighbouring conflicts, the Turkish people have been largely supportive of the country’s humanitarian efforts in the region and beyond.

Today, however, it is unfortunately Turkey that once again needs help and support. Despite domestic improvements in handling such disasters, the scale of the challenge is just too big. And as the country moves into the next stages, it will have to undertake a multi-year effort, amid socioeconomic and political challenges, to move ahead with the enormous task of recovery and reconstruction. 

The government has already announced plans to rebuild homes, with the ambitious goal of delivery in a year. But this will be only one aspect of the recovery process - and returning to “normal” life will take a long time, as cities continue to grapple with an affordable housing crisis.

Unprecedented challenges

Politics will be a major factor in rebuilding the region, as the opposition has already been attacking the government on the initial speed of the response. Reaching the affected areas on the first day was a major challenge, with roads blocked by debris and citizens trying to escape in their cars. Winter conditions made things much worse.

The deployment of resources began even as a full assessment of the situation had yet to take place. The challenge of helping so many cities all at the once dwarfed any previous earthquake response in recent memory. Disaster and emergency response personnel, as well as local officials and their families, had themselves become earthquake victims.

Turkey-Syria earthquake: 'When the dust settles, we urge you not to forget us'
Read More »

Explaining the unprecedented nature of the response and understanding the enormous scale of the challenge cannot ease the pain of those who have lost loved ones. We all wish the help could have reached everywhere much sooner. The serial collapse of so many poorly constructed buildings on badly chosen grounds is the main culprit for the scale of loss, and it is a collective failure of the construction culture that has created this systemic risk. 

As someone who experienced the 1999 earthquake in Istanbul, I am sure that emotions will run high, and this will be a very difficult subject to discuss for a long time to come. Yet, even amid the harsh criticism and intense debate, the resilience of the people on the ground is simply humbling. The national trauma will last, but it must push the country to unite around an agenda to revamp disaster preparedness and change the construction culture.

In the months and years ahead, the international community must support Turkey’s recovery and rebuilding efforts. Turkey has been a major humanitarian actor for many years, and the powerful international response during the earthquake is evidence of this. 

Turkey is truly grateful to all the nations and aid organisations who are pledging and providing help, but this international support must be ongoing. The international community must continue to help Turkey as the country enters a long struggle to heal from this calamity, while also preparing for future ones. This is a massive task, to be sure - but the selflessness and resilience of the Turkish people give me reassurance and hope that it will be completed. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Kadir Ustun is executive director at the SETA Foundation, Washington, DC. He holds a PhD in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies from Columbia University and a master’s degree in History from Bilkent University. His research interests include civil-military relations, social and military modernisation in the Middle East, US-Turkey relations, and Turkish foreign policy. He is co-editor of edited volumes History, Politics and Foreign Policy in Turkey (2011), Change and Adaptation in Turkish Foreign Policy (2014), and Trump’s Jerusalem Move: Making Sense of US Policy on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (2020).
Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.