By Jonathan Fowler
ISTANBUL, Turkey – The lamp in the classroom begins to sway. The desks start to shake. If you’ve never faced an earthquake, Turkey’s AFAD national disaster management authority can give you a taste.
“This is based on real experiences,” said Mr. Zekeriya Ozturk, information officer for AFAD’s simulator truck, at the European Forum for Disaster Risk Reduction.
To prove the point, the operator pushed a button. That halted the simulation of the magnitude 6.7 Van quake of 2011, and the furniture shook more violently, replicating the magnitude 7.4 Marmara disaster of 1999.
Lying on the hinge of Europe and Asia, densely-populated Istanbul is home to over 14.6 million people, or almost one-fifth of Turkey’s population.
It sits on top of an active fault line, and has undergone breakneck urbanisation over the past 50 years. Experts warn that it has a 50% chance of being hit by a major quake in the next two decades.
It’s no accident that the earthquake simulator is set out like a classroom. Turkey is a leader in global efforts to make schools hazard-safe and to train young people about risk and how to reduce it.
“We use the simulator for students, especially,” said Mr. Ozturk. “It helps them learn the right behaviour: crouch, protect their head and chest, turn off gas and electricity, switch on the radio for information, and evacuate properly.”
Rolled out in 2015, the truck is one of a quartet deployed in Istanbul, Sakarya, Samsun and the capital Ankara. There are plans to station at least one in all 81 Turkish provinces.
Around 200,000 pupils aged six to 17 – almost 63,000 in Istanbul – have experienced the truck quakes so far.
And seven million have taken the schools-based “Ready for Disasters” training programme, launched three years ago.
Teaching pupils about disaster risk has a multiplier effect, as they are a conduit for information to their families and communities.
Earthquakes are Turkey’s most common natural hazard, accounting for the largest share of deaths and economic losses.
It was the 1999 Marmara earthquake, east of Istanbul that turned Turkey into a risk reduction leader.
In the wake of the tragedy – in which 18,000 died and 113,000 buildings were levelled – the country refocused from response to risk. It’s an approach epitomised by the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, a 15-year global agreement adopted in 2015.
Underscoring the political importance Turkey gives risk reduction, AFAD, formed in 2009, is part of the prime minister’s office.
“The creation of AFAD was clear recognition that policies for effective disaster prevention need strong institutions to ensure their implementation,” said Mr. Robert Glasser, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction.
“AFAD has provided great momentum to efforts that were already underway to address Turkey’s vulnerability to earthquakes in particular,” he added.
Structural safety is a notable issue.
A post-1999 study found that six million out of 22 million buildings nationwide either needed retrofitting or demolishing and rebuilding to meet seismic standards.
“Earthquakes don’t kill you. Buildings can kill you. That’s our slogan,” said Mr. Veysi Kaynak, Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey. “The most important thing is to prevent disasters before they happen.”
In 2000, Turkey launched a sweeping retrofitting programme for schools. It has vowed to make all 80,000 of the country’s schools – 4,000 in Istanbul – disaster-proof by 2018. It is also a driver of the Worldwide Initiative for Safe Schools, unveiled in 2014.
Besides saving lives, resistant school buildings can offer a community shelter in the aftermath, and help prevent education from being disrupted, thereby lessening the social impact.
Long-term risk is something that Mr. Ibrahim Tari, Provincial Director of Disaster and Emergency Management for Istanbul, understands well. He has been working in the sector for 34 years.
“If Istanbul’s ready, the whole country will be ready,” he said, as he showed off AFAD’s situation room for the megacity.
The AFAD command building can meet its own energy, food and water needs for 15 days, and the situation room can bring together officials from four dozen institutions.
“If there is a disaster in Istanbul, this place is the top of the umbrella,” Mr. Tari said.
The building is the nerve centre for regular drills, has powerful radio broadcasting facilities, and monitors pre-positioning of supplies across Istanbul.
It also houses a vast database of impacts big and small – an early-hours Istanbul house fire was logged when Mr. Tari demonstrated the system, with details of damage and the time it took rescuers to arrive.
Given that learning lessons from the past is a way to avoid future disasters, AFAD also mines the national archives, even beyond the 1923 birth of the Republic of Turkey. Its Istanbul building houses an exhibition of documents about Ottoman Empire-era catastrophes.
Harnessing cutting-edge technology is also a key tool for reducing risk, and AFAD has developed powerful software to model earthquake impacts.
“Thanks to this software, if an earthquake occurs, we can calculate the probable number of deaths and buildings destroyed,” said Mr. Halis Bilden, AFAD’s President.
Istanbul also has a 15-year programme launched in 2006 with two billion euros of funding from international development banks.
Known as the Istanbul Seismic Risk Mitigation and Emergency Preparedness Project, or ISMEP, it focuses on enhancing the capacity of rescue services, reducing risks to public buildings, and enforcing building codes through public awareness-raising and expert training.
Underscoring the megacity’s efforts, the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Directorate of Earthquake and Ground Research last week won the Damir Cemerin Award for Local Change, a pan-European honour for innovative approaches to reducing disaster risk.
Turkey will also showcase its policies at the 2017 Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, in Mexico in May.