What makes a place vulnerable?  

Words by Jadzia Allright

Vulnerability describes the likelihood that something, someone, or someplace will be susceptible to the damaging effects of a hazard. There are many factors playing into aspects of vulnerability, such as physical hazards, social players, economic causes, and environmental factors. For example, the poor design and construction of buildings would leave a place much more vulnerable to a geophysical hazard. Thinking about that, the recent Türkiye and Syria earthquake has left approximately 41,000 dead, and millions affected. The size, position, and magnitude of the earthquake would have already hit the population hard, but the vulnerability of the area made it catastrophic. The physical positioning of the earthquake, the social factors, and history of the area have all contributed to this vulnerability. 

Firstly, the area sits on a ‘Triple Junction’, where three major plates lie against each other: – the Anatolia, Arabia, and Africa plates. This is what caused a strike-slip fault, where the plates move horizontally and deemed one of the deadliest faults. Additionally, this 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck at a depth of 11 miles, which is shallow for an earthquake. The shallower the earthquake, the worse it is. An earthquake of this size produced, what scientists are estimating, around 1,600 aftershocks, further worsening the scale of this deadly quake. News sites are reporting that it has directly impacted around 23 million people. Already it can be seen that this quake had the capacity to be extremely deadly from just the physical facts, however, social factors had a large influence as well. 

Social factors describe the inability of people to withstand the effects of the hazard. Time of day is critical in an event. The first quake hit Türkiye at 4:17am, when most people were asleep in structurally unsound houses. When the buildings collapsed, people were inside. If the quake had happened 5 hours later, then it is possible that more people would have been outside, and therefore more likely to survive. In addition, given the time of year, the ground outside was covered in snow. Currently, rescuers are facing significant risks from secondary hazards, such as landslides and ground liquefaction, which is again worsening the effects.  

Furthermore, where the earthquake struck, in southern Türkiye, is a hub for refugees escaping the Syrian conflict, who are mostly living in temporary housing – not ideal for withstanding an earthquake. Despite the fact that the Syrian conflict has largely faded from Western new sites, the war is still ongoing and has dramatically worsened this earthquake crisis. In the wake of the war, there is only one approved route into the northwest Syrian province of Idlib, where the earthquake hit the hardest. Regardless of the UN’s calls for less pressure so that aid can reach the wounded, there is still only one border crossing from Türkiye, and that route is now badly damaged. More than 4 million people depend on cross-border aid. Aleppo, the previous hub of Syria, is littered with buildings that have been progressively damaged amid all the conflict, and the infrastructure is extremely dilapidated, hence, when the quake occurred, most of the buildings collapsed, leaving thousands stranded without a home in heavy snowfall. Already one of the most vulnerable populations on Earth, those in the northwest of Syria are looking at a terrifying few months. WorldVision stated that it is the ‘perfect environment for a health crisis’, as there was already a lack of healthcare and disease scares. With a lack of stable food supplies, medical care, and freshwater the most vulnerable population just became even more so.  

With all this chaos, people are asking about predictive measures for earthquakes. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) says that they cannot predict earthquakes, as the earth makes a lot of seismic noise, and therefore it is hard to pick out clear signals that may indicate a potential quake. Earthquakes are often harder to predict than, say, volcanic events, because in that case scientists can look at the pressure build-up in magma chambers, as well as predict the possible flow of lava. With earthquakes, geologists can produce what they call ‘hazard maps’ and calculate the probability of an earthquake occurring within several years. However, this is unhelpful, as imagine if a government told a population that at some point in the coming years a large earthquake will strike, there is not really anything that can be done. This time frame is not conducive to warning populations, and the best countries can do is to attempt to ‘earthquake-proof’ buildings and create shelters. The aftermath of this disaster will most likely see an increase in safety protocols regarding building codes and more earthquake education, as prediction cannot narrow down the scope.  

This is not the first time that Türkiye has suffered from extreme earthquakes, and it will not be the last. Since the 1999 Izmit earthquake, there has been more legislation put in place about constructing buildings that are earthquake-resilient and can withstand smaller quakes. However, these laws are rarely enforced, and many buildings were put up illegally. So, although buildings are supposed to be capable of withstanding earthquakes, they are not, again increasing vulnerability.  

It is likely that more people will die. With conditions worsening in Aleppo and other areas hit, it is seeming more likely that a health crisis will occur, as people are crowded together in freezing conditions with nowhere to stay. Aid will continue to be dished out, but people will still struggle. The physical factors of the earthquake: size, duration, and magnitude, may have caused the pain, but it is the social and economic factors that will continue for years. Although the ground has stopped shaking, the earthquake is not over.  

Note: Since the writing of the article, two more earthquakes have struck the area, further worsening the impacts and vulnerability.  

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