Ankara, Turkey – In the early hours of a Tuesday morning 20 years ago, a powerful earthquake shook the densely populated Marmara region to the south of Istanbul, Turkey‘s largest city, for 45 seconds.
Within days, the official death toll stood at 17,500.
The 7.4-magnitude quake, which centred on the town of Golcuk on the shores of the Marmara Sea, left some 500,000 people homeless and devastated the nearby city of Izmit, also affecting districts of Istanbul, Duzce, Sakarya and Yalova.
The immediate response to the disaster saw the government face severe criticism, with victims complaining of the slow arrival of emergency teams and poor planning for those left homeless.
Ten years after the 1999 quake, the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) was established to cope with natural catastrophes in a country crisscrossed by fault lines that cause tremors frequently.
The authorities also introduced tighter building codes, revised urban planning and sought to improve key public infrastructure.
However, despite these reforms authorities have been accused of failing to crack down on the construction of substandard buildings, punish building code violators and properly manage urban development.
Earlier this year, the collapse of an eight-storey building in Istanbul’s Kartal neighbourhood killed 21 people and focused attention on the dangers of widespread illicit construction.
The top three floors of the apartment block had been built illegally using low-grade concrete, but the owners had registered it under an amnesty for those who had built buildings without a permit, in a scheme that brought in billions of dollars of revenue for the government. Around 1.8 million property owners took advantage of the initiative before it expired in June.
“We said people will pay for this with their lives,” Esin Koymen, head of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects, said at the time of the building collapse. “But they did not listen.”
According to the Environment and Urbanisation Ministry, more than half of Turkey’s building stock – some 13m buildings – contravenes housing regulations. Some of it was built in the construction boom of the last 20 years that helped drive economic growth.
It is in Istanbul – home to around 16 million people, a fifth of Turkey’s population – that fears of an impending earthquake are greatest. The city lies next to the North Anatolian fault and has witnessed many catastrophic quakes in its history.
Some experts predict there is a 50 percent chance Istanbul will be hit by a major earthquake in the next two decades and warn that it is a question of when, not if, such a calamity occurs.
Tunc Cataloglu, 62, lost his mother and uncle in the 1999 earthquake. He moved from Yalova to the capital, Ankara, where there is a low risk of earthquakes, after the disaster.
“Nothing has been done,” he said. “In the years after the 1999 earthquake, they made some changes such as making sure there were open spaces and first aid supplies next to buildings, but a few years later they sold these areas for development.
“Around 60 to 70 percent of Istanbul’s buildings are old and unsafe. There is no plan designed to protect human life, it’s all done according to profit.”
Few Turkish cities can afford to be lax in preparing for such a disaster. Last week, nearly 1,000 buildings were damaged and 92 people hurt when a 6.0-magnitude tremor struck Denizli, in western Turkey.
Emin Koramaz, chairman of the union for Turkish engineers and architects, said Turkey had failed to learn the lessons of the 1999 quake.
“The biggest lesson we had to learn … was that cities established by ignoring geographical risks, unplanned or irregular urbanisation and structures that did not receive engineering services posed a great threat to people,” he said.
“Unfortunately, no steps were taken to fulfil the requirements of this painful course over the past 20 years.”
He told Al Jazeera that the commercialisation of building inspection has seen illegal structures multiply while the amnesty had “eliminated the earthquake resilience of our building stock”. Schemes to emphasise protection against earthquakes in urban planning had merely enriched construction companies, Koramaz added.
Ekrem Imamoglu, the recently elected mayor of Istanbul, has pledged to fast-track the city’s preparations, including new assembly sites, many of which have been lost to new developments, for residents to go in the event of another earthquake.
Experts say such plans are long overdue and urgently needed if Turkey is to reach the levels of preparation seen in other earthquake-prone countries such as Japan.
“We are no better off in earthquake preparedness than we were 20 years ago,” Koramaz said. “The consequences of a similar catastrophe will be much more severe.”