Building Disaster-Resistant Communities: Lessons Learned from Past Earthquakes in Turkey and Suggestions for the Future

November 2000 (VOL. 18, NO. 3)

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This paper presents findings from a pilot study aiming to strengthen community participation in disaster mitigation and preparedness in a province, Bursa (Turkey), which is located in the first-degree seismic zone. The study was initiated in 1998, right after the Ceyhan-Misis earthquake and a year prior to the devastating 17 August Marmara, Turkey, earthquake. Therefore, the findings will be discussed within the framework of what happened before and after the devastating earthquake in order to analyze possible effects of a major disaster on the momentum and processes of community participation efforts. The initial phase of the pilot study focused on the collection of data through in-depth and focus group interviews aiming to uncover local views on disasters, mitigation, preparedness, and multisectoral collaboration and participation. The results of the initial phase showed an eagerness for local multisectoral participation and favorable attitudes towards community participation. Earthquakes were delineated as the most threatening type of natural disasters in this initial phase. Thus, the study focused solely on earthquakes as a first area to start community involvement and to analyze mechanisms for such involvement. In the second phase of the study, an attempt was made to bring together the local state authorities, municipalities, the private sector, and the nongovernmental organizations, in order to develop an action plan for mitigation and preparedness through the involvement of the local community. This collaboration took place under the initiative of the Local Agenda 21, a local municipal initiative under the U.N. Rio Summit 1992. The most important issue identified by the local multisectoral committee was the need to increase community awareness for earthquakes and to train them on what to do before, during, and after earthquakes. Subsequently, a pamphlet and a training-of-trainers handbook were prepared, and a phase of training of trainees was undertaken. The program had very little momentum due to mainly the hesitancy of the actors from different sectors in forming alliances and due to the purely voluntary nature of the work. There were also problems related to the lack of funding for the project. As the study came to its second year, with a further loss of momentum due to local elections and change of the initial municipality, the August 1999 Marmara earthquake occurred. This very devastating earthquake produced a significant momentum for the community participation initiative in Bursa which was considerably slow to develop. The occurrence of a major disaster while a community participation project was underway provided us with valuable insights on what was hindering the project. It was basically the lack of fear/anxiety, lack of acceptance of risks, lack of local ownership, and the lack of an awareness of possible consequences of such a disaster. The Marmara earthquake of August 1999 demonstrated that there were significant shortcomings in earthquake mitigation and preparedness measures. Due to the extensive damage and the fact that the quake affected a very large area, the response of the government in the immediate postdisaster phase was slow and uncoordinated. However, the Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) were rapid in their responses, and numerous NGOs were involved in the recue phase and thereafter. Unfortunately, the NGOs were also not prepared for such a disaster, and thus their efforts were not coordinated. This recent earthquake once again pointed out the necessity of increasing community involvement in disaster management and creating collaborative alliances among local governmental bodies, municipality, the private sector, and the NGOs. Due to very extensive media coverage of the Marmara earthquake, the majority of people in Turkey watched the consequences from the TV and got sensitized to the damage and losses. Furthermore, the popular cultural view broadcasted through the interviews with survivors was that “you cannot trust and rely on external aid. You have to rely on your own resources.” The progress in the Bursa study will be discussed within the framework of the impacts of the Marmara earthquake. The strengths and the weaknesses of the present disaster management system in Turkey and the mechanisms uncovered in the Bursa study will be presented together with implications and suggestions for the future.