In the early dawn hours of February 6, a devastating earthquake with a magnitude of 7.7 on the Richter scale struck both Turkey and Syria. Its strength was such that it was felt in neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt. Casualties are estimated in the thousands, to say nothing of the painful blow to the infrastructure of a number of cities located in northern Syria and southern Turkey. Earth-related natural disasters are not unusual in Turkey’s history: the country has experienced a number of devastating earthquakes, such as that of 23 October 2011, which had a magnitude of 7.2 on the Richter scale. But the strength and resulting destruction of the most recent earthquake raises a number of questions surrounding its causes and what policies can be followed to deal with this type of disaster.
The Middle East has suffered from an increase in the number of earthquakes experienced by countries in the region in recent years, especially in areas known to be traditional hotbeds of unusual seismic activity, with Turkey and Iran heading the list. What is notable about these recent earthquakes, however, is their increasing strength, extension to neighboring geographic regions and countries, and the major amount of destruction they cause. This is to say nothing of their sudden occurrence and the declining capability of specialists to anticipate them. Elements of the mounting threat of earthquakes in the region include:
1. Structural changes in the Zagros Mountains: A number of countries and regions suffer from earthquakes, due to a combination of geological and geothermal activity, while others do not. The Middle East is home to the Zagros mountain range, which stretches from the Kurdistan region between Turkey, Iraq, and Iran in the north, to the Strait of Hormuz in the south. This mountain range periodically experiences complex structural changes resulting from the movement of the Arabian Plate and its collision with the Eurasian Plate, which ultimately leads to varying waves of earthquakes taking place in the countries located along it.
2. Middle East contains a hotbed of seismic activity: The escalation of earthquake-related threats in the Middle East is linked to the fact that the region contains some hotbeds of seismic activity. For example, there is a famous phrase that explains the relationship between Turkey and earthquakes: "geographic destiny." Turkey lies at the epicenter of the active seismic belt along the Anatolian Plateau. This region is prone to many destructive earthquakes, due to its complex geological structure and location between many major tectonic plates. Turkey experiences an average of 1,700 earthquakes every year. In addition to that, some of Turkey’s most important cities are located near fault lines that separate the Asian and European continents on one hand, and between the Arabian Peninsula, Turkey, and Iran on the other. This makes them more prone to stronger and more violent tremors during various earthquakes. Other hotbeds of earthquakes in the region include southern Iran.
3. Severe repercussions of climate change: The chances of earthquakes occurring in the Middle East cannot be separated from global climate change. Melting rivers and sea ice, rising ocean levels due to climate change, and the Earth’s increasing temperature may contribute to the increasing likelihood of some regions experiencing earthquakes. Rising water levels indicate a change in the geographical composition of the Earth and increased pressure on the Earth’s crust, which increases the likelihood of earthquakes. Climate change also contributes to a rise in groundwater levels in many parts of the world, which can translate into an increasing tendency towards liquefaction during earthquakes that increases the scale of losses and destruction as a result.
4. Human activities’ role in increasing the severity of earthquakes: In addition to natural factors and geological interactions within the Earth’s crust, human activities have contributed—one way or another—to further destabilizing tectonic plates. Oil exploration, fracking, and other geoengineering projects are some of the main activities that have increased the pressures on the Earth’s interior. This increases stress on the Earth’s crust, and makes it more susceptible to earthquakes and sudden ground movements.
A report issued by Bloomberg in April 2022 monitored the impact of gas and oil exploration and carbon fracking in the US state of Texas on its geological stability. The report confirmed that there are many indicators linking the state’s transformation into the home of many earthquakes in the US with the increased pace of exploration and fracking activities across its territory. The state enjoyed general ground stability in the past, and is not located near any seismic tectonic plates.
5. Fear of wide-scale earthquakes: Worries have escalated in the Middle East in recent years about the occurrence of wide-scale earthquakes. These are earthquakes whose impact does not stop at the borders of a particular country, but extends into others. Perhaps the most prominent example of that is the February 6 earthquake in Turkey, which had a destructive spillover into Syria and was also felt in other regional countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Dealing with these natural disasters requires a mixture of macro- and micro-policies focused partially on preventing disasters before they occur, and partially on providing plans and strategies to deal with disasters should they take place. Japan is one of the most important and prominent international examples of this, topping global indicators in how to efficiently and effectively deal with natural disasters and human-made industrial disasters alike. In this regard, the main mechanisms for dealing with earthquakes are:
1. Dedication to community awareness: Japan, for example, is keen to raise community awareness of how to deal with these disasters from the early childhood of its citizens. Starting in kindergarten classes, simulations are conducted for dealing with earthquake warnings, similar to the training and early warning mechanisms applied in all international schools.
The trainings focus on teaching children how to maintain their personal safety by remaining in safe locations if inside a building, especially under desks and tables, and holding onto their legs until the earthquake ends. If playing outside, children are instructed they need to immediately head to the center of open spaces, and stay away from the edges to avoid falling debris. Local rescue and fire departments in Japan also organize field trips for children to get acquainted with the uniforms of civil protection personnel, and to rush to ask them for help if the need arises. These departments also have earthquake simulators to familiarize children with the feeling of an earthquake from an early age.
2. Providing rapid rescue tools: The first few hours of natural disasters are an extremely dangerous, critical stage, during which the authorities lose the ability to provide the care and interventions needed to save many lives. This is due to the difficulty of calculating and estimating the geographic distribution of the impacted areas. Moreover, government agencies themselves face blows and structural losses that can leave them incapable of providing aid in any way. For that reason, Japanese authorities rely on the concept of self-protection and self-rescue. Citizens are provided with a disaster kit, similar to a first aid kit.
This kit contains a number of medical items needed for first aid, as well as clothing made of special materials to protect the skin from harmful substances and high or low temperatures. It also includes instant food items, which are very similar in their ingredients, nutrients, and preparation mechanism to the food used by various armies to provide a quick and balanced ration for soldiers, usually referred to by the acronym "MRE." The bags also contain gloves, masks, and tools to help people stay in touch with the outside world, such as flares and even radios that broadcast regular updates to citizens.
3. Ensuring transportation networks’ flexibility: Preserving communication between parts of the country is a fundamental measure in the strategy for dealing with various disasters. An inability to deliver aid to disaster areas could increase the scale of the human and material losses incurred by any country subjected to various disasters, especially earthquakes. Countries maintain connection by relying on faster means of transport that suit their geographic nature. In this context, some countries such as Japan—due to its complex topographical nature—heavily rely on drones and high-speed Shinkansen train networks. These networks link various rural and urban areas of Japan, and also have sensors that are highly sensitive to earthquakes and changes in the surrounding environment. These devices are activated if they sense danger.
In 2011, for example, when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck the country all 27 express trains that were in service stopped simultaneously. This led to no deaths, or even injuries, and the country did not enter a state of complete paralysis due to damage and interruptions in the main transportation networks, as is typical in the event of disasters of this nature.
4. Developing resilient structural designs: Natural disasters have prompted countries to develop resilient designs—various approaches and entry points that can increase security through building designs that reduce the severity of damage and support the possibility of a rapid recovery to normal operating levels. According to this proposal, for example, designs should be built with earthquake-resistant solid materials, and buildings should be designed in such a way as to facilitate the process of getting out of them quickly, as well as specifying evacuation routes and guidelines for the building in case of emergency.
5. Importance of international cooperation and solidarity: Millions of dollars have been allocated, and many international conferences have been held to deal with climate change and natural disasters. But many of these international efforts have not been effectively and constructively activated on the ground to deal with the scale of the danger besetting the globe. Natural disasters—such as the recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria—highlight the importance of international solidarity to develop advanced mechanisms to deal with these various disasters, especially as many countries have offered to provide assistance to Ankara and contribute to relief efforts.
Non-traditional threats, such as earthquakes, will remain a pivotal issue. It appears natural disasters will have a place on the list of top-priority topics in 2023, along with economic crisis and the fallout of the Russian-Ukrainian war. This requires countries to develop their own recovery policies to counter the threats posed by natural disasters.