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Prevention is a ‘no-brainer’: top UN disaster risk reduction official on Türkiye-Syria quakes

‘We need to learn from each disaster.’

A father and son are walking above the rubble of what used to be their apartment building. They're trying to retrieve their belongings. Picture taken in Antakya, Hatay province, Turkey, February 20, 2023. Eloisa Lopezh/Reuters
A father and son take belongings out of their destroyed apartment in the Turkish city of Antakya in the aftermath of the deadly earthquakes that struck southern Türkiye and northern Syria, 20 February 2023.

This month’s earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria have been called a “once-in-a-generation” disaster – one so devastating that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said it wasn’t possible to be prepared for them. Is that really true?

 

The New Humanitarian sat down with Mami Mizutori, the special representative of the UN secretary-general for disaster risk reduction, to hear her take on planning for the catastrophic, and what we can learn from what happened in Türkiye and Syria.

 

While the devastation is shocking – more than 47,000 killed across both countries, tens of thousands of buildings either collapsed or destroyed in Türkiye, and nearly 9 million people impacted in Syria – the fact that the earthquakes happened should not come as a surprise.

 

Scientists have been warning about the seismic gap in the region for years. A 1939 earthquake in eastern Türkiye is believed to have killed 33,000 people, and a 1999 quake east of Istanbul killed 18,000 people and levelled 113,000 buildings.

 

Türkiye has also been touted as a leader in disaster risk reduction (DRR) efforts. After the 1999 disaster, the country said it was developing software to model earthquake impacts, stepping up preparations in schools, retrofitting older buildings, and initiating stronger codes to make sure new buildings could withstand earthquakes. The country’s disaster management authority, AFAD, was established in 2009, and a major part of its remit is to prevent disasters and minimise disaster-related damages.

 

But in the aftermath of the latest earthquakes, some are questioning if prior claims of preparedness were a facade, as shaky perhaps as the buildings themselves. Building contractors in Türkiye have been issued arrest warrants, and anger is rising over what critics say is the mismanagement of prevention and relief measures, including an earthquake tax citizens have been paying for 20 years.

 

It’s not just Türkiye: Nature reported in 2011 that 83% of all deaths from collapsed buildings due to earthquakes in the previous three decades took place in countries characterised by corruption – be it poor construction, incompetent leadership, or diversion of funding.

 

On the other side of the border, in northern Syria, many of the people hardest-hit by the earthquakes had already been dependent on humanitarian assistance, a number that has grown since Syria’s war began almost 12 years ago. Disaster specialists have long warned of situations where such events collide with conflict contexts where disaster preparation and risk reduction are pushed far down the priority list.

 

That’s why the term “natural disaster” is a mischaracterisation. Earthquakes may be natural, but they only become disasters when they hit people. And vulnerability isn’t necessarily linked to living near a fault line or a river bank, but to the social, political, economic, and environmental conditions in which a population lives.

 

So can any country really be ready for this kind of disaster? Are expectations for countries with seemingly robust disaster plans realistic? And what can other countries facing increasing threats from climate-related disasters learn from what has happened in Türkiye and Syria?

 

Here's what Mizutori, who has been heading up the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) since March 2018, had to say.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

 

The New Humanitarian: Türkiye has long been touted as a risk reduction leader, and has a national earthquake strategy and action plan in place. Government preparations were supposedly quite robust. Given this, what were your initial reactions when you saw the scale of destruction? 

 

Mami Mizutori: Türkiye is a very committed member state on the disaster risk reduction agenda. You mentioned the national earthquake strategy action plan, but there’s also the disaster risk reduction plan, and, of course, the disaster emergency management authority, AFAD. We first need to recognise this, because it's not like the country has not been focusing on prevention. 

 

So what comes to my mind is that… even when you have a strong commitment to disaster risk reduction and prevention, the risk that surrounds us can sometimes overwhelm us. 

 

I do believe that there are other drivers of risk which may be involved: the rapid urbanisation that we're seeing all over the world, sometimes not in a structured way, and the way we are  degrading the environment. This is a global statement — it’s not about Türkiye — [these factors] make the impact of certain hazards even more powerful than probably decades ago, or even years ago. 

 

"When prevention has worked, we don't talk about it. We only talk about when prevention has failed."

 

Then you have the systemic nature of risk, where you see vulnerabilities combined with the hazards — this is more in the case of Syria — where the loss and damage can be much greater [than we are aware of so far]. 

 

Even for countries which have focused on risk reduction, the nature of contemporary risk is becoming overwhelming, and we need to learn from each disaster. I'm thinking about my own country, Japan, where in 1995 we had a big earthquake in Kobe. Japan took those lessons and put a lot of anti-seismic measures in place.

 

I do believe that because of that, during the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, mortality from the earthquake itself was quite low. However, the scale of the tsunami was something that people had not thought about. But the lesson there is that Japan did make their country more resilient to earthquakes from 1995 to 2011. 

 

This is such an unfortunate tragedy. We need to learn from it. 

 

The New Humanitarian: Since the earthquake, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said that it’s “not possible to be prepared for such a disaster”. What do you make of that statement? 

 

Mizutori: It really depends on what level you're talking about. But definitely you can be prepared better. What I hope we all know by now is that disasters are not just about a hazard [like a fault line] that can be mitigated. It's a combination of the hazard and exposure and vulnerability. 

 

So even with an earthquake — which are hard to predict in terms of when it comes and how strong it will be — you emphasise eliminating the creation of new risk, ensuring that you have building codes, ensuring that they are enforced, putting that extra dollar or more in when creating new buildings. This is what the Sendai Framework [a UN-led set of targets and actions for states to prevent and reduce disaster risk] says that we need to stop creating new risk and reduce existing risk by, for example, retrofitting older buildings. 

 

The New Humanitarian: But it seemed that Türkiye did have strong building codes, and was supposedly in the process of retrofitting older buildings. It’s one thing to have the codes, but another to enforce them. What went wrong? What are some of the challenges that countries face when it comes to actually enforcing codes? 

 

Mizutori: On what went wrong in Türkiye, I would be cautious and don’t want to speculate. I’m sure that Türkiye — which has focused a lot on prevention — will look into this, and hopefully the lessons will be learned for building back better. 

 

But in a more general way, what can go wrong is the perception that we have about risk. There is this psychological perception that even if we feel that risk is there, we don't think that it's with us right now, or with us in terms of geography. It’s not something that could happen here, but in another province, another country; not tomorrow, but 10 years from now. That psychological perception of risk hampers us to take action now. 

 

This short-term [thinking] is true for most of us. But when it comes to the electoral cycle, or the lifespan of an elected official, then whether or not to take a bold decision to invest in [risk reduction] today or tomorrow becomes a big challenge. That is also more true in a country or a city where financial resources are limited. You have a lot of pressing needs. Even the same constituents might tell you: ‘Instead of retrofitting that school, why don't you build another school which would mean children can have more education opportunities?’

 

There are 125 countries which have national disaster risk reduction strategies. Few of them have turned them into legal requirements. What we are always saying is that, yes, you need to have a plan, but the plan needs to be based on law, and it has to be imposed. And if it's not imposed, or enforced, then there should be a penalty. 

 

The New Humanitarian: Are there any elements of Türkiye’s disaster prevention efforts that you think worked or were successful?

 

Mizutori: I wouldn’t call it a success, but there are positive stories about people who have been rescued after so many days underground. 

 

The reality is that in times of crisis, what has been successful is usually not highlighted. When prevention has worked, we don't talk about it. We only talk about when prevention has failed. 

 

I think it will be important for organisations like ours, once the country comes back to a bit of stability, to actually look into what has worked maybe at the national, local, or individual scale. Are there differences, let’s say, between different cities? 

 

We talk a lot about the importance of local resilience. Can we identify a community or a city which invested more in prevention, and hence, was less impacted? These are things we definitely need to look into. Because if we don't, if we can't prove with real stories that prevention works, people will not put money into it.

 

The New Humanitarian: The other side of the border, in Syria, paints a very different picture in terms of disaster prevention, and where arguably it’s far more complicated to manage the risk of disaster. There’s an assumption that DRR in conflict areas is simply too challenging in conflict zones like Syria – as there are so many other priorities, and funding to meet immediate needs is already stretched. But some in the DRR community are challenging that. Is DRR possible in a context like northwest Syria? 

 

Mizutori: Before COVID-19, we developed [guidance on] scaling disaster risk reduction and humanitarian action. That was exactly why we embarked on that journey, because we have the expertise to say that yes, disaster risk reduction is not only about development – as important as that is – but we also need to embed it into humanitarian activities. 

 

In contexts of fragility, exactly what we're seeing right now in north Syria, where [millions of people were in need of humanitarian assistance before the earthquake], we do feel that it is imperative that disaster risk reduction also becomes part and parcel of humanitarian action. 

 

The problem is that [we are] not seeing it [happen]. We have a checklist, we have this conviction, but probably because of the demanding challenge of humanitarian assistance itself, [disaster risk reduction] is not always embedded in the core of it. When something like this happens, we see that they could have done it better. 

"We need to put more emphasis on how we tackle the systemic nature of risk in a time when the risk drivers are structural, systemic, and connected."

Let's be very honest, the United Nations is [coming] under quite a lot of criticism right now [for its response to the earthquakes and preparation for them]. Some [of what happened], I feel, is not the system's fault, but is due to larger issues. 

 

But we need to also look into this: What could have been done better in embedding disaster risk reduction in humanitarian assistance so that when something like this earthquake happens, we could have saved more lives and livelihoods?

 

The New Humanitarian: How confident are you that Türkiye and Syria will be able to build back better? 

 

Mizutori: We're in the midterm review process of the Sendai Framework, and a lot of voluntary national reviews have been submitted. Interestingly, the build back better [component] is where we really don't see evidence of it happening. 

 

We talk a lot about it right now – build back better has become like almost a buzzword, I heard [US] President [Joe] Biden mentioning it. 

 

Build back better [incorporates] a lot of ambition and transformative qualities, starting with you don’t relocate people back to the same place [where a disaster took place]; you don’t reconstruct in the same place and, if you do, you make people more resilient. 

 

When large disasters happen, there is a rush for a lot of funding, both internationally and domestically. But are we really coordinating funding support in a way that it is not driven by the funders and what they want to do, instead of looking at what the community really needs in order to make sure that it is truly building back better? 

 

I really feel when we see these devastating disasters, that the cost of prevention, when compared to the cost of reconstruction and recovery, it’s nothing. It’s effective; it’s a no-brainer. But it’s not happening. 

 

The New Humanitarian: Why isn’t it happening? 

 

Mizutori: It's not very clear. It's not only about cost, it's about our courage to transform societies. 

 

The area where [the Great East Japan Earthquake] struck was already depopulating and ageing even before the earthquake and tsunami. [After], they tried to decide where the [reconstruction and recovery] money should go, instead of just building houses in the same place and constructing a giant [sea] wall. 

 

I know that some cities [in Japan] tried to use the opportunity [after the earthquake] to build back better, not only in terms of hard infrastructure, but to make the city more diverse. They were trying to bring in more non-Japanese residents, bring in younger people, bring in LGBTQ people, to take the momentum around this tragedy and make the city more diverse and resilient.

 

I wonder whether that kind of bold thinking at the time of reconstruction and recovery is happening in other places?  That's what we need to really think about.

 

The New Humanitarian: What are the lessons here for other countries? What should they be focusing on? Are there specific measures they should be taking now? 

 

Mizutori: We need to put more emphasis on how we tackle the systemic nature of risk in a time when the risk drivers are structural, systemic, and connected: the climate emergency and environmental degradation, the risk that comes from rapid and unstructured urbanisation. 

 

Unfortunately, wealth inequality is growing, and poverty is not diminishing. These are all risk drivers which compound the impact of disasters. So we do need to go back to the notion that understanding hazards [like earthquakes or floods] are important, but [we must] also better understand the underlying risks, and address those vulnerabilities as well. 

 

We talk a lot about women and girls, and people living with disabilities. There's still no evidence right now [from the Türkiye and Syria earthquakes] about who has been most affected. From the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, we know that more people who were senior or with disabilities died. But [often] we don't know the full picture, because we don't have disaggregated data. 

 

[We need to gather] this data so that we can understand the vulnerability element of disasters, and really double down on using that. That was one of our main messages at COP27. And if we do that, at some point we can reach zero climate disasters. I feel strongly about that every day, but especially when these big disasters [like the recent earthquakes] are so devastating. 

 

Edited by Annie Slemrod.

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