Natural Disasters

Turkey-Syria earthquakes: Reducing avoidable indirect deaths

Trauma, grief and loss of livelihood, among others, are some imminent dangers to survivors

By Nibedita S Ray-Bennett, Tom Caley
Published: Tuesday 14 February 2023
As of February 14, 2023, over 23,000 people have died in Turkey and Syria after earthquakes struck the region in the early hours of February 6. Photo: iStock
As of February 14, 2023, over 23,000 people have died in Turkey and Syria after earthquakes struck the region in the early hours of February 6. Photo: iStock As of February 14, 2023, over 23,000 people have died in Turkey and Syria after earthquakes struck the region in the early hours of February 6. Photo: iStock

As of February 14, 2023, over 23,000 people have died in Turkey and Syria after earthquakes struck the region in the early hours of February 6. The first earthquake of magnitude 7.8 on the moment magnitude scale was followed nine hours later by a 7.5 event, with some 200 aftershocks in the period afterwards. 

The earthquake epicentre struck around the large southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep, with the second large aftershock slightly to the north. Gaziantep is reported to be the sixth largest city in Turkey, home to around 2 million people. 

Read more: Save Himalayan ecology: Learnings from Turkey-Syria quake & Joshimath crisis

In the first 24 hours, an estimated 5,000 died as buildings collapsed in both Turkey and neighbouring Syria, a region already weakened by a long-running civil war.

Seismologists report the first earthquake to be one of the largest ever recorded in Turkey, with survivors saying it lasted two minutes before severe shaking stopped. 

The earthquake hit where the Arabian and Anatolian plates rub up against each other along a line called the East Anatolian Fault, a location that in the past has been responsible for a damaging 7.4 magnitude quake

Circumstances behind the direct deaths

Alongside earthquake magnitude, time of day is critical to understanding initial deaths. One of the deadliest earthquakes in history killed some 242,000 in Tangshan city in China, 1976, striking at 3.42 am and flattening large areas of the city while residents slept ( editors). 

The Turkey-Syria earthquake is also reported to have struck in the early morning hours when people were inside and sleeping. The quality of buildings represents a third crucial factor. Despite being in an area of seismic activity, resistant buildings are lacking. 

“The resistant infrastructure is unfortunately patchy in South Turkey and especially Syria, so saving lives now mostly relies on response. The next 24 hours are crucial to finding survivors. After 48 hours, the number of survivors decreases enormously,” according to Dr Carmen Solana of the University of Portsmouth.

Read more: Nobody can predict earthquakes, but we can forecast them; Here’s how

An earthquake study of Gaziantep from last year reported many of the city’s buildings are low-rise unreinforced brick structures built very close to one another. 

Buildings in Syria are noted to be even more susceptible, where war has made building standards unenforceable and dwellings are likely to have been built using “whatever materials are available”

Collapsed buildings create further problems for relief efforts as rubble blocks road access and quake damage prevents efficient use of communications, power, water and other vital needs.  

Vulnerability perspectives on disasters have us consider the particular social, economic, gender and class elements that make certain people more exposed to short and long-term impacts

In this case, particular risks and impacts are being felt by the millions of refugees from the war in Syria. Over one million displaced persons are estimated to be in the Turkey-Syria border region, with perhaps half a million in Gaziantep city alone.

Those remaining at home in Syria have seen neighbourhoods, hospitals and infrastructure reduced to ruins by fighting even before the earthquake struck

Areas of northern Syria affected by the earthquake are under the control of a variety of warring groups, including Syrian rebels, the Syrian government, Jihadist forces, Kurdish forces and Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and Turkish forces.

Read more: Himalayan plunder: Why Sikkim geologists fear Joshimath-like disasters

Complications arising from the coordination of response and fragmented distribution of aid are likely to compound suffering for those trapped or made homeless.

Dangers to life now and how to minimise them

The current dangers to life are many. We have identified a few based on emerging news. Temperatures in the region are around freezing, lowering the chance of survival of those still alive in the rubble. 

For those made homeless, warmth and safe shelter are required in the coming days and weeks, alongside food and clean water. Tens of thousands of pregnant women are adjudged to be among the affected population. Trauma, grief and loss of livelihood, among others, are some of the imminent dangers to the survivors. 

Although there are many ways dangers to life can be minimised to reduce avoidable deaths in Turkey and Syria, the Avoidable Deaths Network (ADN) advocates preventable, amenable and disaster risk governance measures to avoid indirect deaths. 

Preventative measures include — although are not limited to — public health measures, surveillance, outreach, screening, policy development, etc. In the current context, this would involve putting basic medical treatment, including mental health services, in areas where infrastructure and resourcing are insufficient. 

Common prescriptions, medicines and medical information systems should be made available in centres on rota systems designed to avoid leader and staff burnout

There is a dire need for safe spaces for women and girls, the restoration of sexual health services, dignity kits containing basic hygiene items and reproductive health kits. 

Amenable measures include reducing waits and sometimes harmful delays for those who receive and give care. In the context of Turkey and Syria (although not limited to), this includes heavy lifting equipment and quick access to sites to reduce deaths for those trapped. 

Read more: Turkey-Syria earthquakes: shallow depth of main shocks is a key reason why they’ve been so devastating

There is a dire need for the positioning of the Reproductive Health Kits 8 or equivalent Kits to avoid maternal and adolescent girls’ deaths from incomplete abortion, septic and spontaneous abortion and post-abortion complications (Ray-Bennett et al., 2021). 

Both amenable and preventable measures can be enhanced through robust and effective disaster risk governance. 

Disaster risk governance is “the way in which public authorities, civil servants, media, private sector and civil society at community, national and regional levels cooperate to manage and reduce […] risks and ensures sufficient levels of capacity and resources are made available to prevent, prepare for, manage and recover from disasters” (UNDP 2012, p. 1). 

Disaster risk governance can be promoted by the Government of Turkey through effective coordination and communication of non-profits and aid agencies arriving on the scene; providing leadership in the distribution of resources, avoiding duplication of efforts; marshalling effective teamwork between local and international responders for response and relief efforts. 

In the context of Syria, disaster risk governance is a political challenge. It is recommended that it would be a historic change should the national government take a human-centred approach to let international relief and rescue teams access the affected areas to avoid deaths. 

Dr Nibedita Ray-Bennett is an Associate Professor in Risk Management and Founder of the Avoidable Deaths Network, University of Leicester.

Tom Caley is the Blog Writer for the Avoidable Deaths Network.

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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