As parts of southeastern Turkey struggle to recover from last month’s earthquake, many are questioning why so many relatively modern buildings collapsed in the 7.8 magnitude tremor, with some engineers pointing the finger at Turkish government policy.

‘Liquefied’ buildings

Piles of concrete and twisted metal tower over the roadsides in southeast Turkey’s worst-hit towns and cities. Bodies are still buried inside. More than 45,000 people died in the earthquake in Turkey, while the death toll in Syria is estimated at more than 6,000 people.

The damage extends across 11 provinces in Turkey. Millions of metric tons of debris are slowly being removed. But questions over the level of devastation are not going away.

Survivors describe buildings “liquefying” as the tremors hit, each floor collapsing onto the next. Why did some buildings survive relatively unscathed – while others collapsed? 

Construction failures

Hasan Aksungur, chairman of the Chamber of Civil Engineers in the city of Adana on the edge of the earthquake zone, told VOA key stages in the buildings’ construction – what he called interlocking rings – had failed.

“The fact that the buildings next to those [collapsed] buildings, which were exposed to the same impact, were not destroyed shows that either the design, the implementation, or the control stages of these collapsed buildings were broken,” Aksungur said.


Critics of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan say his government repeatedly offered amnesties for illegal buildings — what Erdogan called “zoning peace” — allowing builders to skip crucial safety regulations. Millions of buildings were certified in this way. 

“Since 1985, there have been consecutive zoning amnesties. In the last ‘zoning peace’ (in 2018), these buildings were given a building registration certificate without being subject to any control — without being subject to anything — by paying certain fees,” Aksungur said. 


Since the earthquake, more than 200 people have been arrested on suspicion of breaching building codes, with hundreds more arrest warrants issued.

However, before the earthquake hit, the government was mulling another building amnesty ahead of the May presidential election. President Erdogan boasted of these amnesties during the 2019 election campaign, including on a visit to the province of Hatay, now one of the worst-hit by the earthquake. “We have solved the problems of 205,000 of the citizens of Hatay, with ‘zoning peace’,” he told supporters in Antakya on February 24, 2019.

The Turkish government has not responded to VOA requests for comment.  


Turkey’s justice minister has pointed out that opposition parties also supported the building amnesties. President Erdogan accused rivals of exploiting the earthquake for political gain. “We know that some are rubbing their hands, waiting for the state and the government to fall under the ruins along with our people,” Erdogan told lawmakers March 1.

Erdogan said the presidential election would be brought forward from June to May 14. It’s not clear how the vote will go ahead in the regions affected by the earthquake.

The emergency response – and what caused more than 45,000 people to lose their lives – looks set to be a key issue as the incumbent president seeks a third term in office.