Unnatural Disasters: The Türkiye Earthquake and Open Data to Fight Corruption
In the days following the recent earthquake in Türkiye (February 6, 2023), I was glued to my phone, grieving the loss of thousands of lives and the destruction of homes and historical cities in southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria. I watched as the sorrow of my Turkish friends and family transformed into a potent anger, further inflamed by existing political tensions within the country. Days passed without an effective government response, making it clear that there were people to blame for this crisis. Natural disasters are devastating, but the damage they cause is so often man-made, amplified by the self-serving decisions of a corrupt few. In Türkiye, corruption has clearly paved the way for the tragedy that continues to unfold there.
This moment in Turkish history has led me to reflect on the role of corruption in intensifying the effects of natural disasters, and how they disproportionately affect the Global South and/or democratically unstable countries. It is after events such as this, that we are presented with the opportunity (and necessity) to evaluate the importance of government accountability and transparency. As someone whose main academic and professional interests center on how data can be used to protect rights, I would like to explore the role of open data in the fight against governmental corruption, and how data related to corruption and transparency can be used to save lives in the event of another natural disaster.
Following the 1999 earthquake in northwestern Türkiye, which devastated the region, President Recep Tayip Erdoğan came to power in 2002 promising radical change that would prevent such destruction from ever occurring again. Twenty years have since passed, and right before another election, we are left with the sobering reality that these promises were not kept. In fact, the tragedy of continued corruption of the Turkish government can be directly associated with the severity of the most recent disaster’s impacts. What makes the situation in Türkiye even more (tragically) ironic is that the construction industry boom celebrated by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) owes its success to their ability to evade building regulations, which led to the construction of structurally unsound buildings.
So how did corruption in Türkiye compound the severity of this disaster? Several overlapping and interconnected features of the Erdoğan government have affected the country’s ability to prevent and respond to the crisis. These include:
- Lax government enforcement of building regulations.
In 2019, construction companies that had built 75,000 buildings in violation of earthquake construction codes were given amnesty by President Erdoğan through new legislation. In the wake of the most recent tragedy, the Turkish government is arresting building contractors, rather than the government officials who are guilty of knowingly approving these buildings.
- Civil society organizations have been pushed out of the country.
Under the guise of terrorism prevention, civil society organizations have been gutted, leaving humanitarian response teams severely under-resourced in this time of crisis.
- The Turkish military has been stripped of its power to respond.
Erdoğan used the failed coup attempt in 2016 as a justification for weakening the Turkish military in an effort to centralize his own power. Subsequently, the armed forces are now unable to respond to disasters without direct authorization from the government, slowing any type of emergency response by the military.
- Key positions have been filled by loyalists, enriching them in the process.
Five Turkish corporations with close government ties are among the world’s top 10 in public tenders they receive, according to World Bank data. These corporations have also benefited from winning contracts to build many of Turkey’s major infrastructure projects without competitive tenders or proper regulatory oversight.
- Independent state institutions do not exist.
The absence of institutions to provide regulatory oversight has resulted in the increased potential for corruption to occur unchecked, causing government institutions to increasingly serve private interests.
How Much of the Death Toll is a Result of Corruption?
Earthquakes cause deaths even in high-income countries that have little corruption. However, there is evidence of the tragic consequences that result from corrupt building practices. In a study published in the journal Nature, it was found that 83% of all deaths from building collapse in earthquakes in the past three decades have taken place in countries that are “anomalously corrupt”. Corruption can come in the form of bribes given in order to bypass inspection and licensing, or with essential components being omitted as a way to reduce costs for developers, leaving buildings without the design or materials needed to withstand earthquakes, and thus prevent the loss of lives.
The Role of Open Data
Data on corruption has been vital in shining light on how corruption can kill. Data collected and analyzed by the global anti-corruption coalition Transparency International, as displayed in the Corruption Perceptions Index, facilitates the exposure of the systems and networks that enable corruption, and can be used to craft policies that work to increase social and economic justice, human rights and security.
In addition, open data and transparency initiatives are key in the fight against corruption. Open data refers to the concepts of data availability, accessibility and (re)usability for everyone, but also to the need for traceability over the whole data life cycle, from the original data collection to the final usage. By securing access to public information and availability of open government data, a country is more likely to be held accountable when their corruption leads to devastating consequences.
Due to its geographic position between two major fault lines, the question of Türkiye experiencing another major earthquake is not “if”, but “when”. Which leads to another vital question: What can be done to prevent massive loss of life that results from governmental dysfunction and corruption? Continued research and use of data in transparency and open data initiatives is the first step forward, while civil society organizations must continue to push for greater transparency. Through this, we can hope that natural disasters remain as natural disasters, and do not transform to man-made tragedies such as the one Türkiye just experienced.