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We need sustainable disaster management

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By Ilkay Demirdag

· 9 min read

The magnitude 7.7 and 7.6 earthquakes, centered in the Kahramanmaras province, affected more than 13 million people across 11 provinces, including Adana, Adıyaman, Diyarbakır, Gaziantep, Hatay, Kilis, Malatya, Osmaniye, Sanliurfa, and Elazığ.

While we were trying to heal our wounds, the emergency of rebuilding the affected areas and getting ready for other disasters is on Turkey’s agenda. This can only be achieved with new, rational, science-based, regulated, transparent, ethical, and honest systems.

In doing so, let us first evaluate this major disaster's economic, social, environmental, and governance dimensions.

The economic dimension of the disaster

Natural disasters cause adverse economic effects on employment, growth, and inflation in the short term. They also have negative long-term effects, such as reducing property, development, and growth.

Various organizations and economists are calculating the cost of the earthquake to Turkey. Estimates of the earthquake's damage range from 24 to 84 billion USD*. Its impact on growth is expected to be between 0.5 and 2 percentage points.

1) Morgan Stanley estimates the direct cost of housing damage at 24 billion USD.

2) JP Morgan predicts that direct costs from the physical destruction of structures could reach 25 billion USD (2.5% of GDP). JP Morgan also expects a budget deficit of 4.5% of GDP and a current account deficit of 30 billion USD (3% of GDP).

3) According to the "2023 Kahramanmaras Earthquake Disaster Situation Report" published by the Turkish Enterprise and Business Confederation (TÜRKONFED):

  • A total of 13.4 million people, or 15.7% of the total population of Turkey, live in the provinces declared disaster areas.
  • The earthquake-affected provinces' share of the total national income is 9.3%, and the share of the agriculture, industry, and manufacturing sectors is higher than their share in GDP.
  • While the agricultural sector of 10 provinces accounts for 14.3% of the country's GDP, the finance and insurance sector's share is only 4.4%.
  • The provinces affected by the earthquake account for:
  • 20.9% of the country's plant production,
  • 12% of cereal and other plant production,
  • 14.5% of the total cultivated land,
  • 12% of the cattle, and;
  • 16.3% of the small ruminants in the country.
  • The provinces in the disaster zone account for 8.7% of the country's total exports.
  • The earthquake is expected to cause a total loss of 84.06 billion USD, including:
  • 70.75 billion USD in housing damage,
  • 10.4 billion USD in national income loss, and;
  • 2.91 billion USD in loss of workdays.

4) According to Bloomberg analysis, based on previous disasters, it is predicted that earthquakes centered in Kahramanmaraş will affect 1% of the national income.

5) The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) also argues that the earthquake may cause a loss of up to 1% of GDP. EBRD lowered Turkey's 2023 growth forecast from 3.5% to 3% in this context.

The social dimension of the disaster

Natural disasters create social disintegration as much as they cause physical destruction. The heavy damage that communities experience after natural disasters disrupts order and routine, and the process of re-establishing social cooperation and solidarity highlights the importance of social integration after the disaster.

As a result of the two earthquakes centered in Kahramanmaraş, there have been significant losses in a large area. Millions of families have lost their homes, jobs, and livelihoods. In addition, it is predicted that a large wave of migration will occur in a wide geography from Adana to Istanbul as a natural consequence of the earthquake. Although no data or official statement is available, experts predict that the demographic structure of cities will change in the coming period.

It is essential to restructure our cities, especially those that have been home to civilizations for centuries, such as Hatay, in a way that preserves their sociological and cultural infrastructure, prevents the population from migrating from the region, and develops sustainable development models in the region. Instead of quickly starting housing construction in the region, city, and regional planning should be done with a multidisciplinary and inclusive approach considering ecology, geology, architecture, and sociology. For this purpose, the state, NGOs, and private sector representatives must create an action plan to provide permanent welfare.

Solving the health and education needs of families who have lost their homes in the earthquake zone and providing psychological support are among the most crucial priority issues.

Environmental dimension of the disaster


Due to the vast extent of the geography affected by the earthquake and the impact of winter conditions, the full size of the disaster's impact on rural nature and wildlife has yet to be fully known.

The region affected by the earthquake, especially Hatay, is home to many endemic plant and animal species. Chemical leaks from mines and industrial facilities may occur after the earthquake, and inspections must be urgently carried out in the region.

Experts state that the earthquake zone can generate 100 million tons of debris. This is equivalent to a pile of debris the size of 660 stadiums or Mount Erciyes. Many harmful substances exist for human health and the ecosystem in the debris scattered from the collapsed buildings due to the earthquake. Chemicals in insulation materials, harmful plastic derivatives, and asbestos are among the most important ones. The management of debris waste generated as a result of earthquakes should be carried out in accordance with the "Regulation on the Control of Excavation Soil, Construction, and Demolition Wastes" primarily.

When determining the debris disposal areas for the preservation of biodiversity, attention should be paid to the following issues:

  • Formation / preference of impermeable grounds,
  • Prevention of contact with underground and surface water sources,
  • Preservation of protection areas, wetlands, and wildlife habitats.

Water resources

In cities affected by earthquakes, the underground infrastructure has suffered significant damage. The possibility of sewage mixing with drinking water is a major risk due to the damage to wastewater and drinking water infrastructure. In addition, the mixing of soil layers in the region due to the earthquake can also lead to the contamination of underground water resources.

Waste disposal

Due to the lack of electricity in the disaster area, a lot of food has gone bad. Since the tap water is not usable, water supply is done with plastic bottles, and in the food distribution centers, disposable foam, paper, or plastic utensils are used due to hygiene conditions.

As a result, both organic and packaging waste has started to fill the streets of the cities. Organic waste poses a threat to human life, while other wastes create serious threats to the environment.

Urgent systems must be established to manage organic and inorganic wastes in new living areas such as tent cities or container cities. If the waste disposal problem is not adequately addressed or removed from living areas, serious soil contamination and subsequent groundwater pollution can occur. Rain will accelerate this process and the leaking of wastewater will mix with rainwater and enter nature in unwanted ways.

Recycling/circular economy

Another important issue related to the debris that will emerge due to the destruction is the coordination of recycling scrap and materials obtained from the debris. The scrap iron-steel obtained from all buildings is expected to be 1 million 750 thousand tons. The correct separation and coordination of the stages of recycling these materials obtained from the debris is necessary. Minimizing the debris by being separated at the source of debris waste should be the main priority.

Governance dimension of the disaster 

From the first day of the disaster, what happened revealed a deep structural dysfunction in many critical institutions and organizations regarding planning, coordination, and communication, which caused disruptions in the processes and prevented aid from reaching its intended recipients.

To fill this gap, individuals, representatives of the private sector, and NGOs made great efforts to launch relief campaigns to reach the affected area. However, due to the lack of coordination in the field, there was significant waste of labor, time, and resources. On the other hand, individual relief efforts in the field also made coordination more difficult.

How should sustainable disaster management be?

Starting from our most basic needs, such as shelter, nutrition, health, energy, transportation, and communication, we need a fair, transparent, sustainable, nature-friendly transformation based on a circular economy in all production and consumption models.

When evaluating the problems experienced in the acute phase, we once again experienced the importance of the following concepts for sustainable disaster management:

  • Scientifically based planning: Scientifically based planning should be made at the national and local levels for what to do before, during and after the disaster. The authorities and responsibilities of all institutions and organizations should be determined. City and regional planning should be reviewed according to disasters and necessary changes should be made quickly.
  • Resource optimization: To reduce disasters and damages, it is necessary to have an approach that prioritizes preparation and reducing risks before disasters occur, rather than using most of the resources during and after disasters. This approach should be sustainable and continuously improving. Reducing disaster risks is the most logical investment for sustainable development. Investments that are not made within the disaster management program result in damage after the disaster. Therefore, identifying, evaluating, and managing risks along with hazard and damage analysis is integral to sustainable development.
  • Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) focus: Environmental and social factors should be considered in disaster management and reconstruction processes, and appropriate governance structures should be established and their functionality should be tested according to disaster scenarios.
  • Creating awareness about disasters: Disaster awareness should be created in the community during the pre-disaster preparations, and work should be done on possible disasters that could occur in advance to minimize potential damage.
  • Competent/educated workforce: All personnel involved in search and rescue, disaster management, and coordination should receive relevant training regularly.
  • Process management & coordination: The entire process and coordination for disaster management should be system-designed. Relevant institutions and organizations should conduct disaster drills at regular intervals. All stakeholders actively involved in the field and aid to be directed to the field should be directed according to the needs of the field, in order to prevent losses in resources, time, and labor.
  • Communication: Correct, clear, and regular information flows should be provided through the identified resources after disasters. In addition, critical infrastructure investments that are necessary to prevent telecommunication channels from being affected by disasters should be urgently completed.
  • Impact-focused philanthropy models development: Traditional philanthropy models need to change to create impact-focused action and action-oriented awareness. Instead of only providing financial resources, stakeholders need to integrate their knowledge, skills, social and business networks, and workforce into models that will create measurable impact. Impact Circles Foundation, established to develop and disseminate impact-focused philanthropy models, should conduct its work to create a sustainable future and provide development in this regard.

In short, as we prepare for the future, we need collective intelligence and a new thought and action plan. It's time for each of us to become active citizens. That means being aware that we are followers, partners, and stakeholders of every event in our streets, neighborhoods, and cities. We must know and defend our rights as citizens, speak up, stand in solidarity, and take ownership of our future.


*The wide range of estimated costs is due to differences in the studies' scope.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

Cover photo: Hatay in the 2023 Gaziantep-Kahramanmaraş earthquakes by Hilmi Hacaloğlu (VOA).
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About the author

Ilkay Demirdag is an Investment and Impact Strategist with 24 years of experience working in multinational companies, conglomerates, banks and private equity funds in Turkey, the UK and Bahrain. She leads important initiatives to maximize value creation for all stakeholders, transform responsible and impact investments into the mainstream, and ensure sustainable economic development.

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