Reducing risk before disaster strikes: Seven lessons from Turkey

Source(s): World Bank, the
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Background: Population centers in Turkey are highly vulnerable to earthquakes

Turkey faces high vulnerability to earthquakes, with Istanbul posing the most serious risk due its high seismic risk and its role as the population and economic center of Turkey. A major earthquake near Istanbul in 1999 led to over 17,000 deaths and damage estimated at $US 5-13 billion. The World Bank supported a post-earthquake reconstruction project over 1999-2006, but vulnerability to earthquakes remained high, especially for Istanbul.

A major earthquake in Istanbul would be catastrophic, and could derail the country’s development trajectory. The government was committed to undertaking disaster risk mitigation, but needed external assistance and support to do so. The World Bank was a suitable partner based on its financing capacity, technical expertise in disaster risk management and mitigation, and credibility and trust in Turkey based on prior disaster risk management engagements. These considerations motivated the creation of the Istanbul Seismic Risk Mitigation and Emergency Preparedness Project (ISMEP) as a proactive risk mitigation effort.

About the Project

ISMEP’s project development objective in the Loan Agreement was “to assist the Borrower in improving the city of Istanbul’s preparedness for a potential earthquake, through enhancing the institutional and technical capacity for disaster management and emergency response, strengthening critical public facilities for earthquake resistance, and supporting measures for better enforcement of building codes.

The project sought to improve earthquake preparedness and reduce vulnerability through several pathways. Designing, financing, and implementing retrofits and reconstruction of priority public buildings (especially schools and hospitals) were expected to reduce deaths, injuries, and damage from public buildings. Establishing emergency communication, information management, and response capacity were expected to allow for more effective disaster response. Awareness raising campaigns and training programs would also seek to change behavior to improve household and institutional preparedness as well as disaster response. Private sector housing risks were addressed indirectly, through standards and training of engineers on retrofitting, and through pilot efforts in municipalities to improve compliance with building codes and land use plans.

The project received $US 300 million in an initial loan, and additional financing of $US 150 million in 2011, but it also created a platform which attracted close to $US 2,000 million (€ 1,600 million) from other international financial institutions. This enabled the project to increase its scale for retrofits and especially for reconstruction, within the same scope.

What worked, and why?

The project was highly successful in achieving its objectives. Several key factors led to this.

ISMEP was one of the first in a new generation of projects that supported disaster risk reduction without being in response to a particular disaster. The project design focused on reducing disaster risk and vulnerability as a standalone project, rather than as an emergency response and reconstruction project. A major success driver was the decision to adopt a sub-national, multi-sectoral approach, with the project and its implementation unit housed locally within Istanbul. The project design covered many of the most critical needs for improving disaster risk management. The design set an appropriate project scope, setting ambitious but realistic goals. The decision not to expand the project scope further by including financing for risk reduction of private buildings is likely to have been correct given the limited government appetite at the time, limited willingness to pay by homeowners, and unresolved issues of financing models. Financial disaster risk management remains a challenge for Turkey, but at a national level. Thus, on balance it would not have been advisable to seek to address in a sub-national project.

Project implementation benefited greatly from a semi-autonomous, highly capable, professional project coordination/implementation unit. A strong project platform structured with extensive World Bank support attracted substantial additional financing from international financial institutions (IFIs) and so to increase its scale. The project developed and implemented an evidence-based system for identifying investment priorities. It also benefited from practical and effective approaches to procurement, and from sustained and useful support from the World Bank over a decade.

Project evidence shows that there has been a significant reduction in vulnerability to earthquakes in Istanbul for public buildings. ISMEP produced high quality buildings, superior to typical new public buildings construction in Turkey. Sub-projects were cost-effective because of the use retrofitting techniques where appropriate, reduced operations and maintenance costs (particularly from energy efficiency), and synergies in carrying out multi-sector investments through a single project. The project supported a dramatic improvement in disaster management and emergency response capacity in Istanbul. Furthermore, evidence from impact assessments carried out by the project suggests that awareness raising and training activities have had a positive effect.

What didn’t work, and why?

The project was highly successful and had few deficiencies, but there were some missed opportunities largely for increasing the impact of the project beyond its scope and objectives. Some design elements – the sub-national implementation model, the professional coordination/implementation unit, and the extra-budget financing arrangements – contributed both to the success of the project but also to a lack of replication of the project model. The project had only partial success in demonstrating the effectiveness of retrofitting: demonstration was successful at a technical level but many non-engineer policymakers remain unconvinced because they favor more expensive reconstruction approaches that allow for more amenities. While successful in achieving its objectives, the project has had not induced replication elsewhere in Turkey because of a lack of ownership by central government and limited resources for large scale disaster risk reduction investments. Pilot efforts on improving compliance with building codes were successfully implemented, but data was not collected to assess their impact on disaster vulnerability. Progress on reducing the vulnerability of cultural heritage buildings was slow, as there was difficulty in reaching consensus between civil engineers (who prioritized protection) and cultural heritage specialists (who prioritized preservation).


The main lessons from this project are:

  • A sub-national multisector model can be highly effective for reducing disaster risk in a well-functioning major metropolitan area, even in a country where these approaches are unusual. In this project, the institutional and physical mapping of the project to the provincial government in Istanbul was a key driver of success. This approach was unique in Turkey in adopting, where major government projects are typically nationwide and managed from the capital through a single line ministry. A multisector project design (supporting disaster risk management across multiple beneficiary ministries and agencies) allowed the project to reach critical mass, to build synergies across activities, and to include activities for smaller agencies as well as the priority works for the education and health sectors. Basing the project in Istanbul improved its ability to identify respond to the needs of beneficiaries and to build relationships with local stakeholders - which were crucial to effective implementation. Housing the PCU outside of line ministries or direct beneficiaries contributed to stakeholder perceptions of impartiality and improved its ability to serve as a coordinating platform.
  • A semi-autonomous professional project coordination unit can help to ensure effective and efficient project implementation even when dealing with many stakeholders and beneficiary agencies. This implementation approach was unusual for Turkey, where most projects are implemented centrally through national line ministries. The PCU included staff with prior experience in World Bank disaster risk management projects and was able to manage relationships constructively with Turkish government agencies, the Bank and other IFIs. It was able to attract, develop, and retain significant technical expertise and project management experience. These helped it to deliver high quality outputs in a timely and cost-effective manner.
  • Even highly successful project models may not be replicated if they cannot generate strong government ownership and if they rely on exceptional measures. In this project, there has been no replication of the model in Turkey due in part to financing constraints, but also due to inconsistent ownership of the project and approach by central government agencies, and by government concerns about exceptional features in the model (operating at a sub-national level in a highly centralized country; operating under unique enabling legislation outside of normal budget procedures). These exceptional features helped to achieve the results in Istanbul, but also made it more difficult to replicate the model elsewhere in Turkey.
  • The World Bank can achieve large scale impact by creating effective project platforms that are able to attract additional financing from other institutions. Here, the Bank established an institutional framework for project implementation, a set of financial management and procurement procedures, and a track record of success which provided confidence to other IFIs that they would be able to achieve their desired development objectives, and that their resources would be used efficiently and responsibly. This allowed the program to reach a much larger scale than initially envisioned, with roughly 80% of program financing (thus far) coming from non-World Bank sources, even though the Bank was not directly involved in engagements that led to this financing.
  • The World Bank can offer significant value to clients from financing, access to technology, project management experience, and influence - even in megacities in high capacity upper middle-income countries. Budget constraints meant that large scale investments in risk reduction were likely to be challenging to finance within existing line ministry budgets, so IFI financing was a major part of their appeal, especially given lower interest rates and longer tenure than what the government could access at the time from financial markets. The Bank provided valuable knowledge on technology in some specialist areas. Advice from the task team to the PCU was useful throughout implementation. The technical credibility and impartiality of the Bank helped reassure decisionmakers of design decisions. And the Bank helped to foster dialog and coordination between stakeholders.
  • Pilot efforts may not support learning if they do not have monitoring and evaluation systems that assess their contribution to program objectives and draw conclusions for the design of future interventions. In this project, municipality pilots in the project were intended to contribute to disaster risk management by improving compliance of private sector construction with building codes and land use plans. It sought to do this through an innovative method, working indirectly by supporting digitization of municipal processes. If this approach was effective in contributing towards disaster vulnerability reduction, there would be a case for including this approach in future disaster risk management interventions. However, even after successful implementation of the pilots, there is little evidence on the efficacy of the pilots on building code enforcement or disaster management, because the monitoring and evaluation systems focused on data that was most interesting to the municipalities (e.g. efficiency of processes, customer satisfaction) but not on how the pilots contributed to the project objective.
  • Small grants to support municipalities in digitizing their processes can have a significant impact on efficiency and transparency if coupled with highly motivated municipal leadership. In this project, grant payments of roughly $US 2 million to each municipality for equipment coupled with advice from the Bank helped to trigger much larger reform efforts by municipalities using their own resources (with at least 10 times the funding). The reforms to processes and systems led to simplification and reduced time to issue permits, along with improved transparency and governance, and customer satisfaction. Even without direct support from the project, the reforms are diffusing further and being replicated in other municipalities.

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