Image of rubble of destroyed buildings and people examining the damage

Corruption, Poverty and Natural Disasters

There is considerable evidence that corruption and poverty increase the death toll resulting from natural disasters. As the tragedy of the Turkey Syria earthquake unfolds, EAP’s Communications Manager Lauren Pemberton-Nelson surveys that evidence and the solutions that it points to.

Reducing corruption and enforcing construction standards is vital for saving lives and limiting the structural damage resulting from natural disasters.

We are deeply saddened by the earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria and hope that the continued recovery efforts save as many lives as possible.

With more than 40,000 people killed and over 6000 buildings destroyed, after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, it is one of the deadliest earthquakes in Turkish history, and the strongest in over 80 years. The World Health Organisation has estimated up to 23 million could be impacted by the disaster including 1.4m children. There’s growing evidence that the impact of the earthquake has been exacerbated by weak enforcement of standards, possibly corruption and certainly poor construction.

As support for the country continues in the coming weeks, months and years, it’s important to reflect on this and previous earthquakes, and consider what can be done to reduce the loss of life in future natural disasters.

Research in 2011 by Nicholas Ambraseys and Roger Bilham calculated that 83% of all deaths from building collapse in earthquakes in the last few decades occurred in “anomalously corrupt” countries.

Considering that construction is widely accepted to be one of the most corrupt sectors, anti-corruption has a vital role to play. A lack of transparency in the project cycle makes it more likely that corruption will occur. Corruption prevents regulations from being enforced, including in vital public infrastructure work, such as hospitals, schools and housing. Beyond building collapse, poor infrastructure may mean that vital systems such as sewer and water systems, roads and transport face a higher level of damage and recovery time post-earthquake. Our U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre report on corruption in public infrastructure examines the impact that corruption has across an entire project cycle.

As our chair briefly reflected on a couple of years ago, regions at risk from natural disasters also occur where existing infrastructure may be of poor quality.

The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, compared building negligence to murder and blamed poor construction for the 2011 Van Earthquakes which had a magnitude of 7.1, but this disaster took the lives of 604 people and resulted in 1/3 less buildings destroyed than the earthquake that occurred on 6th February 2023. Whilst regulations for construction have improved since then, the enforcement of those regulations have not. The Turkish Government introduced ‘construction amnesties’ that allow exemptions on vital safety requirements – for a fee.

Since the earthquake, property developers have been arrested and accused but these construction amnesties legitimised by the government are likely to have also played a part in the quality of buildings.

In both Turkey and Syria, transport infrastructure was heavily impacted by the disaster. Both countries also had a high concentration of old buildings. Syria is already vulnerable due to the ongoing conflict, and aid has been delayed since the earthquake due to damaged routes. Whilst the death toll in Syria is lower, recovery from the earthquake is expected to take longer than Turkey. This contrast in the impact of the same disaster across both countries also highlights further the impact that conflict and poverty has on a country’s recovery from natural disasters.

Reflecting on previous disasters, the link between poor infrastructure, the extent of the damage and death toll becomes clearer. Like Turkey, India and China also had good practice that wasn’t enforced which had a significant impact on lives claimed and structural damage caused when earthquakes hit. In both countries, there have been reports of links between the collapse of new buildings and lack of construction oversight.

In 2001 the Bhuj earthquake in India led to the destruction of over 460,000 rural houses. The non-enforcement of seismic codes, combined with poor inspection procedures, led to the failure and heavy damage of 179 high-rise reinforced concrete buildings in Ahmedabad, 230 kilometres away from the epicentre.

The lack of enforcement of construction regulations may have contributed to the collapse of over 7000 schoolrooms and the death of 5000 students in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In total, almost 90,000 people died. Whilst it appears that there has been a delayed inquiry with a lack of transparency in the wake of the tragedy, measures to make school buildings safer have been implemented.

Poverty also leads to more devastating results in an earthquake. 90 percent of disaster deaths between 1996 and 2015 occurred in low and middle-income nations. As we’ve seen in the UK with the Grenfell fire, there is a link between structural disparities that happen because of poor infrastructure practices.

The part that anti-corruption plays in reducing the death toll after earthquakes is also clear. Haiti and Iran are other examples where high fatalities are correlated with with high levels of corruption. Rachel DuRose compares the earthquakes in Chile and Haiti. Whilst Haiti’s earthquake was of a slightly lower magnitude than Chile, as the poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean, with ongoing impacts from colonisation and corruption, it faced a disproportionate death toll and structural damage. Chile had improved regulations and emergency preparedness in response to previous earthquakes, whilst Haiti’s buildings weren’t designed for the motion caused by earthquakes and used weaker materials.

Earthquakes are responsible for most fatalities from natural disasters, and often lead to further devastations such as avalanches, tsunamis and fires. With such a significant impact on human life, we plead for the repetition of history to stop. We ask “when will we learn from these disasters and reduce corruption to save lives?”

Support for low-income nations, including around strengthening governance, reducing corruption and improving disaster preparedness, is essential. Enforcement of building regulations means that corners won’t be cut to allow for bribes and increased profits, and that buildings are safer and more likely to withstand the impact of an earthquake which ultimately reduces the number of people killed in these catastrophes.