Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared a three-month state of emergency in 10 of the country’s provinces Tuesday.
Turkey, and neighboring Syria, are reeling from two consecutive earthquakes — the region’s strongest in nearly a century — that have devastated huge swathes of territory, taking lives and buildings with it.
At the time of writing, the death toll from the quakes is above 5,100, with many still missing and critically injured. And shortly after the seismic disaster left tens of thousands of people homeless, a brutal winter storm set in, threatening yet more lives. On Tuesday, Turkey’s government announced the start of seven days of mourning.
The quakes, which took place nine hours apart and measured 7.8 in Turkey and 7.5 in Syria on the Richter scale, destroyed at least 6,000 buildings, many while people were still inside them. Rescue efforts are continuing — Turkey’s government has deployed nearly 25,000 search and rescue personnel — and countries around the world have pledged aid, but emergency workers in both countries say they are completely overwhelmed.
Syria, already crippled from years of war and terrorism, is the least prepared for such a crisis. The affected regions are home to thousands of internally displaced people already living in dire conditions like tents and makeshift shacks, with very little health and emergency service infrastructure to rely on.
“Northwestern Syria — Idlib & Aleppo in particular — have suffered 12yrs of brutal conflict,” Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C., wrote on Twitter. “More than 65% of the basic infrastructure of the area is destroyed or heavily damaged. Tonight’s earthquake couldn’t have hit a more vulnerable region. An absolute disaster.”
For its part, Turkey has been mired in economic decline and a worsening cost-of-living crisis for a few years now. That’s been fueled by a combination of high global energy prices, the Covid-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine, and predominantly, economic policies directed by Erdogan that have suppressed interest rates despite inflation at more than 80%, sending the Turkish lira to a record low against the dollar.
“Sadly, the Turkish economy is already in dire straits, as we all know; high inflation, budget deficits, current account deficits and so on,” Arda Tunca, an Istanbul-based economist at PolitikYol, told CNBC on Tuesday.
“And it is obvious that this earthquake is going to put a lot of pressure on the Turkish economy on the inflation side, as well as on the on the budget side,” he said. “I think that we’re going to have some some deep, deep repercussions of this unfortunate event.”
Continued aftershocks are still expected in the affected regions, and another earthquake with a magnitude of 5.6 hit central Turkey on Tuesday. The quakes so far have caused a slew of fires, including an enormous blaze in southern Turkey’s Iskenderun Port. Turkey has halted its oil exports as a precaution.
Scores of world leaders and organizations have pledged support for Turkey and Syria.
The EU has sent more than 1,150 rescue workers along with around 70 rescue dogs to Turkey to help local agencies, while the World Health Organization said it activated its network of emergency medical teams “to provide essential health care for the injured and most vulnerable affected by the earthquake that hit Turkiye and Syria.”
“Ten Urban Search and Rescue teams have been quickly mobilized from Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania to support the first responders on the ground,” EU commissioners Josep Borrell and Janez Lenarcic said in a statement.
U.S. President Joe Biden said via Twitter he was “deeply saddened by the loss of life and devastation caused by the earthquake in Turkiye and Syria,” and vowed to provide whatever help was needed.
“I have directed my team to continue to closely monitor the situation in coordination with Turkiye and provide any and all needed assistance,” he wrote.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz affirmed Berlin’s support for Turkey, saying, “We mourn with the victims and fear for those buried. Germany will of course send help.” Germany’s Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said the government would “mobilize all the assistance we can activate.”
Faeser said that the country’s federal relief agency “can set up camps to provide shelter as well as water treatment units,” and that tents, blankets and generators are being prepared. Germany is home to some three million Turks, the largest Turkish diaspora in the world.
Erdogan said that 70 countries have offered their support, and that 8,000 people in Turkey have been rescued as of late afternoon on Tuesday. Ten ships and 54 cargo planes are currently involved in the rescue operations, he said.
Still, questions are being raised as to how so many buildings in Turkey were clearly unfit to withstand earthquakes, despite the region being a well-known hotspot for seismic activity.
Turkey suffered a catastrophic magnitude 7.6 earthquake in the northwestern province of Kocaeli in 1999 that saw enormous damage and more than 18,000 people killed. While the primary mission of the government right now is to rescue as many people as possible, in the coming weeks there will likely be demands for explanations and accountability as to why, after 24 years, more precautionary measures in areas like building codes did not appear to be taken.