On 6 February 2023, two earthquakes tore through southern Türkiye and northern Syria, tragically claiming more than 45,000 lives, reducing homes and infrastructure to ruins and leaving 3.3 million displaced. How can the affected regions regroup and rebuild?
Rebuilding lives, not just infrastructure
According to the Türkiye Earthquakes Recovery and Reconstruction Assessment (TERRA), overall costs amount to USD 103.6 billion, equivalent to 9% of GDP. Yet wider losses will be higher still, including the longer-term loss of employment prospects, learning, mental and physical health, and social institutions. For this reason, well-being losses from natural disasters can be 60% higher than asset losses.
Meeting the needs of vulnerable groups must be a priority, especially given that the affected region was host to many refugees, children and poorer households. Experience with similar disasters suggests it will be just as important to support their mental health as to meet their material needs. For example, after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the prevalence of moderate or serious mental health issues appears to have risen by 50% among survivors.
The affected provinces in Türkiye
A long road
It will be a long road to recovery. Past experiences from large-scale earthquakes suggest that it is likely to take 5-8 years, but possibly up to 10 years to permanently resettle displaced households. In the interim, temporary settlements need to be carefully designed, resilient and well located to provide access to schools, hospitals, care facilities, transport, and employment opportunities. Following past disasters, when temporary housing was located at a distance from employment and services, this led to isolation and stress, as well as dissatisfaction with the government – or people returning to more centrally located shelters.
Innovations can be explored to meet the needs, such as by harnessing prefabricated and containerised buildings and standardising infrastructure design.
Following the 2010-11 earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, a “pop-up” container mall called Re:START and “cardboard cathedral” were created in the central business district. Alongside physical accommodation, “soft” support and care is needed to help them integrate into their new communities, schools, and workplaces.
Building the workforce
In parallel, training the workforce needed to support the reconstruction effort should begin as soon as possible. Efforts should be made to develop the skills of workers that have been displaced and reemploy them to meet emerging needs. Following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the government of Japan launched an innovative cash-for-work project to support people who had lost their jobs due to the emergency. As part of this initiative, over 31 000 jobless people were hired to work on reconstruction projects or perform need assessments at evacuation centres.
Make no little plans
The public goodwill and the hope that often marks the first years of reconstruction tends to be short-lived with people becoming frustrated and losing trust in the reconstruction process within three to six years. However, haste can result in poorly designed projects that are not resilient to future disasters, lack the necessary supporting infrastructure (public services and transport), and do not prepare communities for future transitions (green and digital).
Instead, plans must be ambitious. After the 2009 earthquake struck the Abruzzo region (Italy), the regional capital L’Aquila was able to improve, not just replace, infrastructure by embedding new technologies and network systems, for example fibre-optic cabling, renewable energy sources and increased energy efficiency in the city’s buildings.
Achieving this requires efforts to rebuild local institutions to oversee planning and maintain public support by putting communities at the centre of the process. After the 2009 “Black Saturday” fires in Victoria, Australia, a Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority was established which adopted a planning framework that put the local community at the centre. It involved them in design and implementation of recovery projects, providing support to the vulnerable.
Protect the purse
In the weeks after the earthquakes, international donors pledged USD 7.5 billion (0.7% of GDP) to cover humanitarian needs and help the reconstruction of the affected regions.
Strong co-ordination structures will be required to manage these funds and head off risks of aid flows being captured by vested interests and corruption. To achieve this, policy makers should consider investing in accountability mechanisms such as citizen advisory boards and mechanisms to collect and communicate data on public spending and contracts. In Ukraine, the creation of the ProZorro electronic procurement system supports transparency by publishing information on public procurement.
Hope as well as hurt
The economic and social aftershocks of the crisis will continue to be felt within the region for generations. Yet while public policies will never be able to fully compensate for the losses inflicted on so many households, past disasters have shown they can give the gift of hope to communities – and help to build a brighter future.
Read more on the OECD work on Regions.