By Emre Rona
Almost five months have passed since the devastating earthquakes, which hit eleven provinces of Türkiye, causing tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of displaced people in the south-southwest region of the country, as well as Northern Syria. I like to give a brief update on how everything’s holding up in Hatay province, where I am personally involved in various activities and which is now accepted as the worst affected province in the whole region. I don’t have any first-hand experience in other provinces, so my (and my friends’) observations are somewhat limited to this particular province, focusing on Antakya (central Hatay) and Samandağ districts.
First, I like to give a quick update on our YUVA Project, which is a mid-term, modular housing design, aimed to provide the people in the earthquake zone a healthy living environment, as well as providing a much more environment-friendly alternative (wooden structure, harmless insulation materials, rainwater, greywater, sun & shade harvesting) to ‘container houses’ and all the while trying to offer some amount of employment to local people, as these houses are produced in a local wood-workshop in Samandağ district, and then assembled on the spot. Currently, 24 local workers (8 women) are supervised and taught how to build these YUVAs in a 300 m2 working space since the beginning of June 2023. We have an agreement with Support to Life Association, who provide the financial means to channel the necessary funds to us legally, so we’ve got funds for 21 YUVAs and bought the building materials for 16 houses already. These will be donated to NGO’s working to support vulnerable groups such as The Turkish Down Syndrome Association to be used as classrooms and/or social spaces on their grounds in Hatay province. We are eventually and ultimately hoping to hand over the system to local owners in a legal coop. when it starts to run itself technically and financially.
It would be best to be able to build houses using only local materials, but wooden structures (imported wood from other provinces in the country) are much faster to build in this emergency state and we have plans for building other prototypes of mudbrick and rammed earth housing units.
Donations are welcome via: https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/homesweethome-yuva/
As for the larger view, Hatay is still a mess. Some shops and eateries are now open and commerce somewhat started to roll again. People seem to have accepted what happened, but the deep trauma that lies deep can still be seen in people’s eyes. Drug use and suicide rates raised considerably in younger population, as well as adolescent pregnancy cases. Sexual abuse, rape and violence against women are big problems in both formal and informal settlements. MHPSS (mental health and psychosocial support in emergencies) professionals working in the area are forming peer support networks to be able to diagnose the situation better.
Some neighborhoods especially in the city center are mostly ghost towns; large blocks of apartments are gone, leaving behind strange open spaces. Most of the rest of the buildings are waiting to be demolished, so around 80% of all the buildings in some neighborhoods will be gone after the work is done. Of course, some hundreds of millions of tons of debris is (said to be in a relatively uncontrolled or completely ignorant manner) being hauled to various spots in the province, including watercourses, forest valleys and natural wetlands, forming enormous mounds.
Two thirds of the population are living in informal settlements and Hatay Metropolitan Municipality started to shut down all informal camps on their public grounds (such as parks and gardens). Also, most of the people who had the chance to leave the province after the earthquake have returned, so there’s a lot of pressure on food and water supply as well as shelter and sanitation capacity. People who have been living in tents set up next to their highly damaged buildings were using the facilities in their partially damaged houses after the earthquake (quite a high number of people). So, after the demolition of damaged houses, they now do not have sanitary facilities anymore, which puts more pressure on other shared facilities and of course increase public health risks. But the broken sewage system is still being used widely since the earthquake, and we have been increasingly hearing more news of clogged sewer lines backing up. Lice and scabies are common and flies and mosquitoes have become serious vectors with the increasing temperatures (rising up to 40-45OC). The city and it’s main districts were built next to the Orontes River, which runs to the Mediterranean via the famous wetland bird sanctuary Mileyha (which is also a hotspot for debris accumulation). So there’s a lot of suitable breeding grounds for these species. And the Orontes River needs serious rehabilitation; raw sewage was informally being dumped into the tributaries of the Orontes even before the earthquake, and now this has become common practice. The number of ‘container cities’ increased considerably in the last couple of months. While driving past highways and main roads, you can see many of these barren grounds with hundreds of containers crammed inside; obviously without an effort to include social spaces, security, privacy and a care for physical and mental well-being of their residents.
Our next step is to organize a gathering for the people/communities working in regenerative design and ecological restoration. This was supposed to happen on the first days of July, but circumstances pushed us to postpone it for a later date for now. We are aiming to bring together local people/communities with ‘outsiders’ in order to start/enhance communication about the problems and possible solutions. We like to learn how regenerative design approaches and techniques can be applied to Hatay context, integrating local knowledge and regenerative design/permaculture principles, hopefully defining some areas, approaches and/or locations suitable for creating demonstration sites. These would have the purpose of demonstrating the power of using local resources, building techniques, short-chain, decentralized water and food supplies and creating resilient social bonds, all of which would help not only during the aftermath of a disaster, but also to
provide stronger systems that would not collapse easily during a disaster.