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Our necessary collective response to a natural disaster

Prof. Samer Bagaeen MRTPI is a Trustee of the RTPI and Chair of the Institute’s International Committee. He is Technical Director for Town Planning at Arcadis and Professor of Planning & Resilient Systems at the University of Kent


If you look through numerous editions of the WEF’s Global Risks Reports from the past few years, and then look at the 2023 edition, you’ll see that natural disasters – such as earthquakes that can cause loss of human life, damage to ecosystems, destruction of property and financial loss at a large scale – barely get a mention.

What then does mother nature give us in response, not one but two large magnitude earthquakes in a part of the world that has been straining under the pressure of the ongoing stresses of conflict and migration.

On Monday 6 February, two devastating earthquakes with magnitudes of 7.8 and 7.5 almost consecutively struck in south eastern Türkiye impacting camps, villages and cities in war ravaged northern Syria. The impact has been substantial on some communities because the two earthquakes struck in the early hours of the morning.

The damage has been devastating. At the time of writing this blog, reports, mostly from Türkiye, estimated that at least 8,700 people had been killed, and numbers are expected to rise significantly, especially as reports from Syria have started coming in. Tens of thousands more will have been injured and thousands of buildings have been partially destroyed or have collapsed.

The situation is exacerbated this week by a regional snow storm affecting all of the eastern Mediterranean. The low temperatures will make the job of the rescuers harder and will most certainly deepen existing systems vulnerabilities, such as war, refugees in camps, internally displaced people across the region and already stretched health systems.

This disaster shown how vulnerable communities end up taking the brunt of multiple stresses and shocks that affect their neighbourhoods. It also shows the critical importance of precovery in addition to recovery, i.e. building capacity and resilience to compounded shocks before they strike in addition to an effective recovery effort after they strike.

Some cities, and countries, have been fortunate in that they get the importance of anticipating, assessing, preventing where they can, mitigating, responding to, and recovering from known, unknown, sudden, direct, indirect or emerging contingency risks.

Sometimes we see these risks coming. In the majority of cases, we cannot anticipate earthquakes even though their impact teaches us about the importance of whole society resilience that incorporates the physical infrastructure, design coding and standards, social resilience, and the resilience of critical care and emergency sectors. It is no good to anyone if a hospital is built to high standards for earthquake resilience if the roads leading to it are not.

This is a whole society mission and a duty on town planners and members of the Royal Town Planning Institute around the world to bring valuable technical expertise to humanitarian crises. I highlighted this week the need for enforcing design codes and standards to protect lives and livelihoods (Turkey earthquake death toll prompts questions over building standards | Global development | The Guardian)

RedR UK, with whom I worked in the past on the Syrian refugee crisis, are supporting the earthquake response with technical support, advice and training on structural damage assessments, entering buildings safely and, when the time is right, repair and seismic retrofitting. One of the things they have received numerous requests for are technical advisors willing to provide remote or in-country support to those responding, humanitarians or local organisations without technical knowledge. The call is for RTPI members who would be interested in providing technical expertise and advice to the reponse.

Noor ([email protected]) is the technical coordinator at RedR collating advisors and experts. Please also reach out to Katie ([email protected]) who is coordinating the overall RedR response.

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