Turkish Permaculturalist reports from earthquake epicenter

Report by Emre Rona

In early February 2023, a series of powerful earthquakes devastated a large region straddling the border of Syria and Turkey (now officially known by its Turkish name, Türkiye). Tens of thousands of people were killed, and the massive destruction will take years to rebuild in a region already significantly affected by forced displacement due to the civil war in Syria. Permaculture for Refugees has been in ongoing contact Turkish permaculturalists who knew about us since our work in camps there in 2019 to learn more about the needs and situation on the ground. The following report comes from one of those permaculture practitioners, Emre Rona, who spent 10 days in one of the most affected areas near the earthquake epicenter, Hatay, and offers this report and photos.

It would be a long story to write down everything, so here are a few highlights of my experience and what we’ve been up to:

– The affected area is huge. There are still too many people in need of basic facilities/commodities and a much smaller number of people trying to help. It is difficult to pass from the ’emergency’ state into humanitarian and then development stages. I have seen some neighbourhoods completely destroyed and the ones that seem to be doing ok need to be demolished because the buildings are not safe. Even just clearing the area of debris will take at least a year. Some experts say it will take 8-10 years for everyone to get some sort of safe shelter. 

– Sanitation’s a big problem. Lice and scabies are still the biggest health problems, aside from malnutrition and diarrhoea. Weather is getting warmer, so things will get worse. This is especially true for central neighbourhoods, where people have to move into large ‘tent camps’. The Orontes River passes through Antakya, the central area of Hatay; broken wastewater lines, as well as uncontrolled defecation, etc. is killing the river slowly; you can smell it. 

– Peripheral neighbourhoods/villages are in slightly better condition; they have not received a lot of support compared to more central neighbourhoods, but they have more open space and tap/spring water to help with daily issues. Thus, most people in these settlements still use the toilets and showers in their houses/apartments, taking their chances. 

– We have seen great examples of local solidarity. Hatay is a special place in a way, because locals are very attached to their land; geography, food, culture and the way of life. It is also important to notice that there are some religious minorities; Alevi’s, Armenians and other Orthodox Christians who feel they don’t have anywhere else to go. But this does not mean that they want to leave but can’t, on the contrary, they don’t want to go. People who had to leave in the first few days after the event want to come back. They say what will make them come back is their children’s safety and education. So we saw and helped with some efforts to start local youth centers, pre-schools, etc. 

A communal neighbourhood kitchen run by volunteers, which provides lunch and dinner for around 1.500 people everyday. There are many volunteer organizations like this in the province.

– We managed to try Effective Microorganisms in some central camps where open defecation, food waste, scabies and other problems were still persistent. The people we worked with did not have enough personnel or time to follow up what we started, but we passed on the information to relevant and interested people, and they have started using it in their own operation centers. 

– We tried to get local solidarity platforms, unions, associations, volunteers, etc. to work together to save time and energy. We saw that many people were trying to do the same thing or similar things in the same areas/neighbourhoods. So we managed to organize a few meetings, getting them to know each other and the work they have been doing since day one, so ‘not everyone throws a rock in the same well’, so to speak. To help this, we started using a Telegram ChatBot, which was already in development for wildfire disaster management in another part of the country. People can pinpoint their location and what they need, so other people can see and help. This is sort of trying to create a database of ‘needs’ with details and connect these needs with ‘resources’, such as other people in similar needs or NGOs, etc. I’ve already seen it work, but it will take some time and experience to see how efficient it will be.   

– Small-scale farmers are in big trouble. The supply chain has been broken so their produce is left to rot in the fields and greenhouses. We managed to help some of them by funding their vegetables and moving these vegetables to local, voluntary ‘food houses’ where thousands of meals are provided to the people in need. Some connections are made, so we’re hoping these will continue. But people living in unaffected areas of the country, who have been trying to help by sending money and funding projects, are exhausted. Turkish economy hasn’t been going well and people can’t just send money all the time. So, in time, we’re hoping to see local markets buying directly from small-scale farmers. People just need to regain their strength. Just a reminder: every single person that we met there has lost at least one close relative. It will take time for these people to regain their trust and strength. 

– Housing and shelter with basic facilities will still be a problem for the next few years. The easiest solution for the majority of the people, the government, and large scale NGOs and philantropy organizations seems like supplying people with shipping containers turned housing units. This poses many problems. We know that just for Hatay province, the number of container-houses needed is around 70.000 (as of the last week of March.) Together with other provinces, the number skyrockets. It would take years to be able to source, build and ship these containers to the people in need. Not to mention the logistics of it and the fact that these are really bad living spaces. So, together with some friends, building on previous experience, we started to design and build an alternative housing option. A modular housing unit built with wood, plywood and boron insulation. These are made of panels that can be shipped on pallets, so large trucks can carry tens of them, compared to just two pre-made containers, making logistics easier. But the main thing that we’re trying to do is to actually get local makers and handymen to build these themselves in the disaster zone. We’ve already found some key people. The plans will be open-source as soon as we finish the prototype. It is much easier to transport the raw materials this way; a medium sized wood workshop with around ten people can build 2-3 units in a day. This would help people by empowering them to build their own shelters, creating employment and actually solve the housing problem in a much shorter period of time. It is also designed as a passive solar unit with proper roof eaves, window placement to provide natural ventilation, etc. We will also help people with designing their living spaces, including a rainwater/greywater harvesting system for each unit, individual/neighbourhood composting, growing food, maybe even composting toilets/treebogs, etc. One thing that I need to mention at this point is that no one (especially residents of peripheral neighbourhoods) wants to leave their houses/neighbours/neighbourhoods. They will either want to put these units in their own or shared gardens, or get 10-20 of them together to form a small community (compared to camps of hundreds of units put together). So, this creates an opportunity to demonstrate and make actual use of some of the tools that we use in permaculture. 

A makeshift camp where mostly marginalized people, including Syrian asylum-seekers, live.

I just want to finish with an observation regarding how a tool that we use in permaculture can actually create resilience after a disaster. Access to clean water was and still is a big problem for many neighbourhoods. Some NGOs are providing neighbourhoods with 3-5 ton water tanks, attach 4-5 taps to these tanks and regularly provide water with trucks when these are empty. But getting these tanks to the right spots in the first place was difficult and took precious time. If, say, just 10 buildings in every neighbourhood were harvesting rainwater from their roofs before the earthquake, this would provide these people with at least a few tanks already full of water, making them survive the first few days. And also, it would make NGOs’ work much easier and faster because they wouldn’t have to provide tanks, only water. 

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