Türkiye's catastrophe is an opportunity to improve the international humanitarian system, global financial institutions, as well as the private sector.
Türkiye is no stranger to earthquakes. But the massive February 6 temblors had the destructive power of several atomic bombs and triggered an entirely different magnitude of devastation. At least 13 million people across approximately 110,000 square km of southeast Türkiye were directly affected, with tens of thousands killed. Swathes of neighbouring Syria were also devastated.
There was an instinctive global understanding that no nation could prepare sufficiently or respond adequately to such a catastrophe. In my own experience of disasters spanning three decades, including in Türkiye during the 1992 Erzincan quake, never has the world moved so quickly and whole-heartedly as now.
This is human solidarity at its best, starting with courageous local first responders and a massive Turkish national mobilisation supplemented by rescue and relief from over a hundred nations.
Communities only too-familiar with adversity were at the forefront: Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh knitted blankets and sweaters, poverty-struck Afghans collected thousands of dollars, and rescue teams from war-torn Ukraine pulled out survivors from the rubble.
These are doubly valuable humanitarian acts. Because they are spontaneous and unconditional. They are not calculated reciprocity for Turkish aid building hospitals for wounded Rohingya in Cox’s Bazaar, sending emergency aid trains to Afghanistan, or facilitating the shifting of millions of tons of food from Ukraine to feed the world’s hungriest.
They are part of Türkiye’s support in 150 countries through the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA). Türkiye was ranked second in humanitarian giving in 2021, totalling US$5.6 billion or about 1 percent of its GDP, including the hosting of 3.5 million Syrian refugees, according to the latest Global Humanitarian Assistance Report.
Of course, for desperate quake survivors at home, help can never come fast enough. And it is no consolation to those who lost loved ones that this response was bigger and faster than previously seen in Türkiye or elsewhere. And that it utilised the best available tools, technologies and organisational arrangements. There are always lessons to learn for future improvement, but Türkiye has done very well under prevailing extreme circumstances.
As foreign emergency teams go home and the painstaking work of comforting and rehabilitating survivors gathers pace, global solidarity will continue to be tested. Türkiye will need even greater support in the period ahead as grim statistics are revised for the worse when the quakes’ impacts are fully quantified.
The Turkish Enterprise and Business Confederation estimates a cost of $84 billion – a staggering 9 percent of Türkiye’s $942 billion economy (in nominal terms) in 2022. But with the expected post-quake reconstruction efforts, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development projects a modest overall 1 percent GDP loss in 2023.
However, minimising the quake’s longer-term economic impact will require an investment of perhaps treble the value of the losses because it will be much more costly to build back better to comply diligently with Türkiye’s improved earthquake resilience construction code unveiled in 2018. As too much of Türkiye’s housing stock is old, retrofitting will be a big but necessary investment to reduce future tragedies.
Meanwhile, cold financial calculations do not convey the hidden impacts of wholescale population trauma, which is always worse after quakes than other types of disasters. That includes grief reactions and mental stresses, physical injury complications, infectious disease risks and worsened chronic diseases. Millions of days of schooling and employment loss are inevitable as emotional and physical recovery take their course.
Doubtless, there will be vigorous recovery and reconstruction debates and where the financing comes from. The European Union is planning a donors’ conference in March. The international financial institutions are key, and the World Bank’s lead in providing US$1.78 billion while preparing to follow up with another US$1 billion is welcome. Also stepping up will be the private sector and special government financing initiatives, including reconstruction bonds that people can subscribe towards.
Türkiye is an upper-middle-income G20 member with a GDP per capita in purchasing power terms of $30,737 in 2021. That Türkiye will rise again is not in doubt. But the quality of recovery and diminishing avoidable suffering along the way depends on humanitarian assistance for at least two years.
The United Nations has appealed for $1 billion to assist 5.2 million people for three months via 15 UN agencies, nine international NGOs and several national bodies. With around 100,000 homes destroyed and more to be demolished on safety grounds, numerous families have lost everything. Thus, the appeal’s largest requirement is $254 million for shelter – tents and other accommodations, clothes, blankets, essential kitchen and household items, and supporting those temporarily housed in public buildings.
$203 million targets health, nutrition, water, sanitation, and hygiene, including deploying emergency medical teams, mobile clinics and laboratories, rehabilitating salvageable health facilities, providing trauma and essential medicines kits, infectious disease control and public health measures. Particularly vulnerable are women and children, the mentally traumatised, and the disabled needing special care and rehabilitation services.
Moving on requires cleaning up to create the conditions for returns and rebuilding. $148 million is set aside for debris removal and its recycling or safe management, which process also creates labour-intensive livelihoods. Preserving and reconstructing key cultural heritage to avoid permanent loss and damage is vital to reviving social morale.
Due to the Ukraine-Russia war, food prices worldwide are at a historic high. In south-eastern Türkiye, crops and livestock production and transport have been decimated. $107 million is sought for feeding people and agricultural inputs to farmers and herders to start the next growing season.
Crises always create insecurity for unaccompanied children, older people, and women who are at risk of violence and trafficking. $105 million is provisioned for protection services, including safe spaces, family reunification, and violence prevention.
The UN appeal is paralleled by $375 million sought by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, channelled through the hyper-active Turk Kizilay, Turkish Red Crescent, with 279 branches and 211,000 volunteers and staff present everywhere.
Humanitarian agencies have moved at super speed to conduct assessments and design appeals. Donors must respond with equal urgency because timely delivery on the ground depends on full pipelines procured in advance. They must also streamline reporting and control requirements. But without compromising accountability to ensure that the maximum proportion of the humanitarian dollar goes to the needy. Both aid agencies and donors must remain flexible because evolving needs necessitate rapid adjustments.
Meanwhile, with so many organisations involved, coordination is vital so that the right aid goes at the right time to the right place. This is appropriately led by the Turkish National Disaster Agency, AFAD, which should be beefed up to strengthen its information and clearinghouse functions working with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which facilitates international cooperation.
Efficient humanitarian delivery with minimum overhead and leakage is not just about management. It is a moral responsibility to ensure that maximum life-sustaining benefits accrue to the greatest possible numbers of people at a time of huge need when resources are inevitably stretched.
That means localising aid as much as possible. As it is local and national organisations that do most of the groundwork, foreign donors, including UN agencies, should fund them directly to minimise wasteful transactional costs along the way. Public trust and confidence rely on the fairness, consistency, and transparency with which the humanitarian job gets done.
As it happens, it was in Türkiye that a grand bargain of reforms was initially agreed upon at the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in 2016. Unfortunately, there is little further progress on how to better organise for the increasingly-frequent moments of crisis in a disaster-prone world.
Major catastrophes are opportunities for reflection, reform, and renewal. As we dig deeper in our pockets to help quake survivors, what would be a more worthy tribute to the perished than to transform the system on which is predicated the chances of living or dying in future tragedies?
Let the pain and grief from the Türkiye earthquakes not be wasted.
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