6 months on, Van earthquake(04/10/2012)

I wrote this article on 04/10/2012 for SETimes, 6 months after the 7.2-magnitude earthquake hit Van province on Oct. 23 2011.  Many people have now moved into housing estates built by the government(TOKI), rebuilt their homes, and found a way to keep their businesses afloat, but things still aren’t perfect.

Kurdish children play on drainage pipes outside their temporary homes in earthquake-stricken Van.

Kurdish children play on drainage pipes outside their temporary homes in earthquake-stricken Van.

Nearly six months after a devastating 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Van, shops have reopened and people who fled the province are gradually returning home. Yet, the hope of recovery remains uncertain.

Ahmed Kaya sat flanked by six family members in one of the last inhabited tents on the outskirts of Van city centre. Outside, his daughter and wife ventured to and fro from a severely damaged mud brick house that the government has ordered to be demolished. Around Kaya’s home were several derelict houses, either on the verge of collapse or in total ruin.

“We’re in such a stalemate at the moment,” said Kaya, gesturing at his family as they crowded together inside the tent. “After the second earthquake, I sent my family to Diyarbakir so that they wouldn’t have to live through the harsh winter in this tent, and I lived here alone. But they couldn’t stay there forever. The government issued us a container in one of its temporary housing sites a month ago, but it’s too small for us to all fit inside, so for now, we’ve chosen to keep living here.”

 In the wake of the 7.2-magnitude and subsequent 5.6-magnitude earthquake that rocked Van province on October 23rd and November 9th, a spate of national and international sympathy incited a flood of donations and disaster aid into the region. The earthquake killed more than 600, wounded more than 4000, and left tens of thousands homeless.

Six months on, most people have been relocated from tents to temporary housing sites with the promise that from August onwards, they will be given the option of living inside one of the 15,000 government houses currently being built by the Housing Administration of Turkey (TOKI), on the outskirts of Van city centre. Each 100 square metre house costs 75,000 TL, and will be free of charge for the first 2 years, then subject to monthly 350TL payments, over a 20-year period.

Kaya is one of many low income families in Van who will not benefit from the government’s approach to post-earthquake reconstruction and relief.

“I’m working on a minimum wage salary [886 TL per month] with no insurance.  I can barely support my family with this money.  In order to afford the TOKI house, I would have to mortgage my land, and if I can’t pay three months’ rent, the government will seize both my land and the TOKI home.  It’s too big a risk for me, and I don’t want to stay indebted to the government for 20 years,” said Kaya.

Close to Iran and famous for its natural beauty, Van is a major city in the southeast of Turkey that generated most of its income from construction, tourism, farming and the smuggling trade. Now, hopes that it would be declared a metropolitan municipality by 2014 have been severely set-back by the damage caused by the earthquakes to the cityscape and local economy.

As the Disaster and Emergency Management Directorate (AFAD) continues to evaluate the state of buildings in the city centre and draw up a city plan accordingly, Van lies in wait.

Although small businesses have reopened in the city centre and the population has slowly begun to return, Van’s main source of income — the construction and tourism sector — have come to a severe halt as local construction works have been prohibited by the state for up to a year, and tourists are unlikely to trust the few remaining hotels.

In December, a reconstruction committee co-headed by architect and BDP local council parliamentarian, Idris Canbay, and agricultural engineer and construction expert and AKP parliamentarian, Umit Kanan, was established.

According to both Canbay and Kanan, neither the temporary housing sites, nor the TOKI homes will offer a permanent solution to the long-term task of reconstructing Van.

“The 35 housing sites should just be a temporary solution. If they become permanent, Van could experience a social breakdown. In 1999, there was an earthquake in Adapazar and the temporary housing sites that remain there from 12 years ago are suffering from problems such as prostitution and glue-sniffing,” Kanan told SES Türkiye.

Canbay voiced concern that TOKI could just turn into a revised version of the temporary housing sites where people would not be able to choose their neighbours, and would be living far from the city centre in a ghetto community.

Canbay said the TOKI homes were not worth the quoted 75,000 TL and implied that the state is making a profit from the project. “It will benefit the state more than the people that will live there,” he said.

In order to construct the TOKI homes, the Turkish state has chosen to bring in labour and building materials from outside of Van — a decision which has failed to support the local economy and bolster the city’s strongest sector: construction.

“It would have been better if the government had used local labour and materials, or transferred the money spent on TOKI housing to the people in Van and let them rebuild their own homes. That would have let the local economy flow by creating jobs,” Kanan said.

“The earthquake has severely affected Van’s trade sector. In order for Van to recover and develop in the long term, the area needs funds from the government so that factories that could provide employment can be built,” Kanan added.

Requests that Van be declared an official disaster zone in November, in accordance with the constitution, may have benefited the province by clearing debts, providing salaries to those made redundant due to the quake, and allocating an extra budget to the local council to aid reconstruction.

Yet such requests were denied by the Turkish government. “Because of the fears that the Van local council would transfer extra government recovery funds to the PKK, we asked the central government to come here to reconstruct Van themselves, instead of giving the money to the council. They didn’t accept that either though,” Canbay told SES Türkiye.

However, with regards to official disaster zone recognition for the city, opinions remain divided. Van AFAD representative and assistant to the governor, Atay Uslu, told SES Türkiye that, “In the constitution there are two laws that refer to ‘disaster.’ One is the ‘disaster zone’ title, and the other law refers to ‘an area affected by disaster.'”

“The latter was chosen for Van so that we didn’t have to relocate and rebuild the city from scratch. The government wants to rebuild Van, not abandon it completely,” he explained.

With 90% of Van made up of illegal buildings and their analysis and evaluation still underway, Van could be facing more serious problems in the next two to three years if it doesn’t receive a significant amount of support from the state, according to Şemsettin Bakır, President of the Turkish Architects and Engineers Union in Van.

“This is a crucial period for Van, yet nobody knows what will happen to the city yet. People are returning to the city and wanting to rebuild their homes, but that won’t be allowed as it will take at least a year and half to determine the city plan. If the state doesn’t act more quickly, people may start to strengthen their homes illegally,” he said.

Bakır told SES Türkiye that ultimately Van’s recovery hinged on the resolution of the Kurdish issue. “If the government manages to enter into talks with the BDP and the PKK and find a solution to the Kurdish issue, Van may recover more quickly,” he said.

“The concerns voiced about any extra disaster funds being transferred to the PKK by the local council, instead of being used to reconstruct Van, reflects how the Kurdish issue is the crux of the problem,” he concluded.

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