Turkey faces ‘incomprehensible’ challenge to clear earthquake debris

Following the deadliest earthquake in its modern history, Turkey faces the daunting task of disposing of hundreds of millions of tonnes of debris, some of it potentially harmful.

Read here: Turkey earthquake caused $34.2 billion in damage: World Bank

Turkish officials said the February 6 earthquake and aftershocks either completely collapsed or damaged at least 156,000 buildings to the point where they required demolition, scattering concrete and steel across entire areas of cities. Went.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) states that the resulting 116–210 million tonnes of debris is equivalent to an area of ​​100 km² (40 sq mi), if piled up to a height of 1 m. It is roughly the size of Barcelona.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, facing an election on May 14, has promised to rebuild homes within a year, although experts have warned that safety must come before speed.

An official said tenders and contracts for some projects have already been completed and security will not be compromised.

In many cities, rescue teams have been replaced by thousands of trucks and excavators breaking up mountains of concrete. Workers in the city of Antakya in Hatay province said it could take several days to clear the rubble of a building.

“The scale of the challenge is almost inconceivable,” UNDP Resident Representative Louisa Vinton said in a statement. UNDP said the disaster generated at least 10 times more debris than the last major Turkish earthquake in 1999.

Most of the debris removed so far has been deposited in a nearby temporary dump, raising concerns about contamination. Several experts told Reuters there are fears the old building materials could contain asbestos, a cancer-causing fiber banned in many countries including Turkey.

Deputy Environment Minister Mehmet Emin Birpinar said in a tweet that dust suppression systems are being used to prevent the spread of harmful substances such as asbestos.

Reuters reporters saw some trucks of water choked with debris after it was dumped into trucks in cities including Antakya and Osmaniye, but in many other cases, there were no such measures in place. Birpinar could not immediately be reached for comment.

environmental warnings

Proximity and convenience are a key factor in choosing a dump site location, according to three people who work directly with debris removal in the southern city of Antakya.

Read here: New 5.6 magnitude earthquake in Turkey: 1 killed, over 100 injured

But Ahmet Kahraman, president of the Chamber of Environmental Engineers, said the wreck needed to be “carefully studied” by geological and environmental experts.

Some environmental activists and opposition politicians have warned that improper cleanup of the debris could lead to an ecological disaster. At least one site seen by Reuters was a wooded area.

“Dumping debris in the city, without decomposing and recycling olive groves and streams, is causing new environmental disasters,” said Gokhan Gunaydin of the opposition CHP party.

Birpinar said on Twitter last Friday that the areas chosen for debris disposal in Hatay were away from agricultural and residential areas, as well as wetlands and protected areas.

So far, 19 temporary sites have been identified in Hatay, with a total area the size of 200 football fields, and 150,000 cubic meters of debris are being removed daily, he said.

This week, hundreds of trucks with debris moved into the hills east of Antioch, dumping it on sites near lush greenery and olive groves.

Altan Arslan, 51, the owner of a pavement brick and cement block factory, said he had donated his land to the government to store the debris after the quake.

Thousands of trucks come daily and the debris has turned into a huge mound, he said. Bulldozers then flattened the waste and pushed it towards a cliff, causing some of the debris to fall into the valley and create large clouds of dust.

“We may need a few more farms like this because the destruction is huge,” Arslan said.

He said that immediately after the earthquake, the local people were worried about where the debris was being dumped.

Read here: Egypt’s foreign minister to visit Turkey, Syria for ‘solidarity’ for first time in decade

His factory helped build Antakya, but the land it stood on now became the city’s cemetery.

“We were very happy while building this city, but to see it crumbling like this…”. He put his hands on his face and started sobbing.

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