One year after Turkey's earthquake, Antakya struggles to recover
Antakya, Turkey - "Impossible, how could I pay the mortgage with my monthly salary of 600 euros?" Mesut Zateroglu, 43, tells The New Arab, sitting in a tent that his employer, the Hatay municipality, permitted him to erect in the courtyard of one of its office buildings by a major highway leading to the centre of the city of Antakya.
Before two twin earthquakes destroyed the city on 6 February last year, Zateroglu used to live with his mother, brother, and sister in a flat in the neighbourhood of Armutlu, a few minutes drive from the city centre. Now, all three live in one of the container camps scattered across the city.
“The container was too small for a family of four adults,” he says, adding that he is currently the only one who still has work in the family. He's managed to insulate the tent with thermal material and install an electric heater. But amid heavy rains in Hatay in January, a pool of water has formed outside the tent.
"Over 280,000 buildings in eleven provinces of southern Turkey collapsed or were severely damaged in last year's disaster, whose official death toll surpassed 53,000 in Turkey alone"
Zateroglu's apartment in Armutlu, the family's only property, was demolished months ago after it was severely damaged in the earthquake. After the disaster, the neighbourhood looked like a ghost city, where row after row of buildings several stories high stood empty in deserted streets.
Most of them have now gone, leaving an empty plain interspersed by the occasional solitary group of buildings originally classified as having sustained little to medium damages.
Since 207 hectares of land here, in neighbourhoods on the West Bank of the river Oronte, have been declared a “reserve area” for construction, Zateroglu doubts he will ever be able to return to the neighbourhood. An amendment to an existing law on urban transformation was passed last November to allow built-up areas to be declared as “reserve areas” for construction.
“Normally, if you have a plot of land, in order to build there you will draw a project, go to the municipality and get a permit for that project,” says Ecevit Alkan, a lawyer who is assisting some of the families affected. According to the Hatay Bar Association, more than 50,000 people lived in this area before the earthquake.
“The Ministry of Environment sent municipalities the boundaries of a reserve area, and said you are not allowed to issue permits here,” he explained to TNA.
This triggered concerns among displaced residents, who fear that they won't be able to afford to live in their own neighbourhood after redevelopment, forcing them to accept compensation and permanent displacement.
“It is not clear what will be done in the reserve area, how and when it will be done. It is also completely unclear what it will cost,” Alkan explained.
Social housing on the hills
Clusters of nearly-finished five-story towers built by the state agency TOKI dot the hills around the city, constructed on what was formerly agricultural land in new neighbourhoods with little infrastructure, connected to the city by bumpy country roads – on higher ground considered safer for standard construction.
Approximately 280,000 buildings in eleven provinces of southern Turkey collapsed or were severely damaged in last year's disaster, whose official death toll surpassed 53,000 in Turkey alone. Antakya, the capital of Hatay province, remains the hardest-hit city in the region.
Most of its population has either left for other provinces - often to allow children to continue their schooling - or sought shelter in surrounding villages. Many live in container camps set up by government agencies and NGOs. According to the Hatay governorate, 205 container sites were set up across the province to accommodate more than 200,000 people.
"There is no coordination. Our local authorities are disconnected from each other"
After facing accusations of allowing speculation and poor construction to produce extremely vulnerable cities, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to rebuild more than 300,000 homes within a year. A count by the news agency Reuters found that construction had started on 122,891 housing units by August.
According to a statement by Minister of Environment, Urbanisation, and Climate Change, Mehmet Ozhaseki, by December construction had begun on 307,000 homes, but only 46,000 would soon be ready to be delivered.
A few days ahead of the anniversary of the disaster, a draw was held in Hatay to distribute more than 7,000 government-built homes to citizens of the province who had applied to take part in the government's lottery system – which would see them receive a grant and a low-interest loan to purchase the house.
Simultaneously, along the west bank of the river Orontes and the neighbourhoods around it, diggers are laying the foundations of new buildings. But a master plan for the revitalisation of the city has not yet been made public. According to media reports and the Hatay Chamber of Architects and Engineers, a dozen renowned architectural studios are working on the redevelopment of different plots in the area.
“We are not stakeholders here,” Mehtap Aslanyuregi, a local architect and a board member of the Chamber, told TNA.
“There is no single plan. There is a plan for the protected [historical] area on the east side of the river, and there is a plan for the reserve area,” she says. “There is no coordination. Our local authorities are disconnected from each other,” she adds.
“If there is another earthquake in our generation we'll have the same problem because of unchanging perspectives, unchanging understanding of how to govern.”
The Ministry of Environment, Urbanisation, and Climate Change and the Hatay municipality have not responded to requests for further information.
Before the earthquake, the west bank of the Orontes River was occupied by mostly residential buildings constructed in the twentieth century, predating the adoption of seismic building codes after the last earthquake that struck Turkey in 1999.
"Antakya has a history, a culture, and naturally people will want to build here again. But we must not make the same mistakes"
According to experts, factors that made Antakya particularly vulnerable include its proximity to a seismic fault, poor design, use of substandard materials, density, and its position along the river, whose sedimentary soil is particularly unstable.
“We have the knowledge and the technology to build anywhere,” Dr Alemdar Bayraktar, a visiting professor at the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of British Columbia (UBC), who has carried out extensive research in the earthquake region over the last year, told The New Arab.
“But we need to make sure we take into account the characteristics of the soil, and especially, that we carry out the correct inspections,” he adds. “Antakya has a history, a culture, and naturally people will want to build here again,” he says. “But we must not make the same mistakes.”
Ylenia Gostoli is a reporter currently based in Istanbul, Turkey. She has covered politics, social change, and conflict across the Middle East and Europe. Her work on refugees, migration, and human trafficking has won awards and grants
Follow her on Twitter: @YleniaGostoli