Istanbul Shaken Up

Jessica Toale – Education and Communications Manager

Istanbul is a magical place that enchants visitors with its layered cityscape of history, culture and architecture. It is the veritable place where East meets West having been a location of strategic importance for millennia encompassing the Romans to the Ottomans. It also sits just to the northwest of the North Anatolian fault line compounding its often precarious position between East and West.

I visited Istanbul last week, and from its main streets and sturdy historic buildings it looks like an indestructible city. However, it has been heavily hit by seismic activity more than a dozen times in the past 1500 years, and the last earthquake which occurred in 1999 just to the south in the city of Izmit killed 18,000 people, destroyed 15,000 buildings and caused $25bn worth of damage. Since then there has been no significant seismic activity but it is widely acknowledge that the city is well overdue another shock.

The outcome of a future earthquake has been mapped in a study by Dr. Mustafa Erdik of the University of Bogazici in Istanbul. He predicted that if an earthquake were to hit Istanbul of the same severity to that of Izmit then 30,000-40,000 people would be killed and a further 120,000 at minimum would be injured. An earthquake could also have the effect of severely disrupting other infrastructure such as the 30,000 natural gas pipelines that run around the city.

This horrifying outcome is due to the fact that despite its impressive palaces and mosques, the city is marred by haphazardly, poorly, and illegally constructed buildings. The scale of urbanisation in this already 15 million person metropolis poses additional challenges, particularly the incidence of rapid population growth at the fringes of the city, where traffic, crime and jobs vie for importance and funding over measures to implement effective earthquake mitigation measure.  This is further compounded by low levels of specialised construction skill and high levels of bureaucracy on a national and city level.

Positively, the Government has implemented some mitigation and preparedness strategies including tighter building codes and mandatory earthquake insurance, and Dr. Erdik and his colleagues drew up an earthquake masterplan for the City. Istanbul has also received loans from the World Bank and European Development Bank for the replacement of schools and other important public buildings. At a grass roots level, NGOs are also providing training in poor areas and providing neighbourhoods with radios, crowbars and first aid kits in case of a hazard event.

Istanbul has survived thus far, but further growth will test the skills and preparedness of government, professionals and communities.  Many experts agree that the best chance of reducing vulnerability within the city is to hope that economic development happens fast enough to enable property owners to replace the worst stock, but until then professionals as well as the government have a responsibility to examine the safety of their buildings and their preparedness to respond.