The dilemma of sustainable housing in post-earthquake Turkey
The row of pistachio-green houses stands out against the empty land, surrounded only by a few buildings.
Mehmet Ak welcomes us inside with joy. It’s small but practical.
"There will be mint, parsley and garlic here, and tomatoes behind," Mehmet tells The New Arab, showing his soon-to-be garden in front of his little house.
He moved in mid-November after living in a tent for nine months after his house was damaged by the earthquake that hit south of Turkey on February 6, 2023.
"In March 2023, the government estimated that 230,000 buildings were now 'unusable' in the 11 provinces affected. Some of these containers are already breaking because of the weather conditions, particularly multiple episodes of heavy rain"
Mehmet even settled in before it was connected with water and electricity. One morning he woke up one morning “with a mouse on my head," he fondly recounts, miming the scene. His new house is made of wood covered with tole.
In the Hatay province, in the southeast of Turkey, which was hit hard by the earthquake, many people are still living in containers, prefabs or tents.
Promises buried under rubble
In March 2023, the government estimated that 230,000 buildings were now "unusable" in the eleven provinces affected. Some of these containers are already breaking because of the weather conditions, particularly multiple episodes of heavy rain.
Local projects are trying to offer more sustainable alternatives, like the small houses built by the Yaşam Alanları Girişimi (Living Spaces Initiative) association near Antakya.
With the support of the town councils of Defne and Adana, both opposition-led, 15 out of the 33 houses have been completed. These will be allocated as a priority to disadvantaged people.
While the workers and the new residents are enjoying a tea break, Riyad Önal, the vice president of the NGO, tells the story of the project.
“The goal is to create a space where people can feel more at ease, without harming the environment,” Riyad told The New Arab.
Riyad speaks from experience as he also lives in one of those white containers. "What are we going to do with all these containers next? What will this city look like in fifteen years? If you throw them away, it will pollute the environment, because the material they contain is not recyclable," he said.
NGOs find sustainable, environmental solution
The houses created by the NGO are composed of recyclable materials like wood. However, to keep the production cost low, the team had to make some compromises such as choosing plastic window frames.
Such local initiatives in Turkey do exist but remain marginal as civil society is denouncing the lack of environmental consideration in the reconstruction process.
Nilgün Karasu, the president of the Antakya Environmental Protection Association, also stresses the environmental impact of hasty reconstruction.
"Since day one, our biggest problems have been air pollution from asbestos and chemicals, improperly carried out demolitions, and rubble thrown haphazardly into nature," she says.
She also denounces the dumping of this rubble on the banks of the Asi River, which flows through the province into the Mediterranean Sea.
According to first estimates by the United Nations Development Programme, up to 210 million tonnes of rubble need to be treated in the region.
Quickly after the earthquake, Turkey's Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change shared its debris management plan.
In a declaration to journalists, the General Director of Environmental Management, Eyyüp Karahan, affirmed that the demolition process and the debris should be managed “to cause the least damage to the environment.”
But a year later, The New Arab has observed dumping sites close to the sea, and destruction being made without the use of water, thus provoking clouds of toxic smoke.
Damages are also made to nature with the construction of much-needed social housing, on agricultural land. These constructions are made at the expense of expropriations of villagers.
Aspiring environmentally friendly initiatives are thus confronted by the difficulty and the emergency of the rebuilding process.
A few kilometres south, in the coastal city of Samandağ, a workshop opened a few months after the earthquake. The Yuva project was working with locals to construct prefabricated little houses made of wood.
The creators of the project were driven by an ecological view, and the local team was first convinced.
"We were very enthusiastic at the start, but now we are faced with more concrete realities," explains Gizem Cabaroğulları, architect in Samandağ.
“The local population was not very demanding because of the cost, but also because they were not familiar with this use of wood,” she continues.
In autumn, the decision was taken to discontinue the Yuva Project in Samandağ. Fifteen local workers decided to create a new project with what they had learned from the experience in the workshop but also their own experience of the earthquake.
Instead of building houses, they decided to focus on ways to help the people currently living in containers.
“Of course, they are not made of healthy materials, they are not practical and are worn out by rain and wind,” says Gizem.
However, the team had to face reality and stopped dreaming about transferring people to wooden structures. The workshop, now called Koru Atöyle aims at creating wooden furniture adapted to the current needs of the people affected by the quake. The goal is also to continue providing a job with a secure income and insurance.
Taking the example of families living in containers, the Koru Atölye plans to create wooden foldable furniture such as tables to improve the quality of life in these cramped spaces.
For now, the team has made and delivered desks for a school and started selling the furniture online.
Mathilde Warda is French freelance journalist. Her work focuses on the Mediterranean region with particular reference to Tunisia and Turkey
Follow her on Twitter: @MathildeWarda
Cerise Sudry-Le Dû is a photojournalist who has been covering Turkey as a journalist and then as a photographer for five years.
Follow her work here: www.cerisesld.com