Tuesday briefing: Why the Turkey and Syria earthquake was a catastrophe

<span>Photograph: Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images

Good morning. A little over 24 hours after the devastating earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria, there is very little good news. The death toll has passed 4,300 this morning, with thousands more injured, many more trapped in the rubble, and thousands of buildings in ruins.

A massive rescue effort is underway, with 13,000 more rescue workers, including volunteers, on their way from Istanbul. But conditions are hampering that work on both sides of the border, with anger in some areas that no help has yet arrived. Last night, the World Health Organisation warned that the toll could pass 20,000.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that it was the worst disaster to hit the country since 1939, and in Syria, a volunteer with the White Helmets rescue group, Ismail Alabdullah, said: “We are used to digging people out of the rubble but this is different … There is nothing left, nothing at all.”

You can find the latest on the live blog here. For today’s newsletter, Ruth Michaelson, who has been covering the disaster for the Guardian from Istanbul, explains the confluence of factors that made it such a catastrophe. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. UK politics | Rishi Sunak is planning a mini-reshuffle to replace Nadhim Zahawi as Conservative party chair as he tries to reassert his grip over his divided party, according to reports. The changes are expected to take place on Tuesday morning.

  2. Energy | A “significant number” of households in Great Britain received unneeded financial support through the government’s energy bill support package, the public spending watchdog said. But a report estimated that the scheme would cost £69bn rather than the £139bn first forecast.

  3. Crime | The serial rapist David Carrick sent a photo of his police gun to one victim with the words: “Remember I’m the boss” and sexually assaulted another while her daughter could hear, a court has heard. Carrick is expected to be sentenced on Tuesday.

  4. Salman Rushdie | In his first interview since being stabbed last year, the author has said he feels “very lucky” to have survived. Rushdie said his “big injuries are healed, essentially” but he was still dealing with the aftermath and struggled to type because of the damage.

  5. Media | One of GB News’s leading presenters has quit after the channel tried to make him personally responsible for paying Ofcom fines. Mark Steyn is already subject to two investigations by the media regulator after he used his show to cast doubt on the safety of Covid vaccines.

In depth: ‘Nothing can prepare you for this’

Rescuers carry out a girl from a collapsed building.
Rescuers carry out a girl from a collapsed building. Photograph: Sertaç Kayar/Reuters

When the magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck before dawn on Monday, about 20 miles from the city of Gaziantep, the vast majority of residents were inside and asleep. TV footage showed some of those who were able to flee their homes standing in the snow in their pyjamas. When the sun rose, it revealed a picture of devastation across south-eastern Turkey and north-western Syria. This gallery captures some of that staggering impact.

Within half an hour of the quake hitting, the governor of the Turkish city of Osmaniye had confirmed five deaths. By 10am the confirmed toll stood at 300. This morning it was 4,300, and still rising. Rescue workers were unable to reach the city of Antakya in Hatay for nearly 24 hours – this video shows damage to the runway at the provincial airport.

“Turkey and Syria have suffered catastrophic earthquakes multiple times in living memory,” said Ruth Michaelson (who you can also hear on this morning’s episode of Today in Focus). “Everybody here remembers 1999 [when a quake hit Istanbul and killed 17,000]. But the consequences of this are massive. What we are hearing from people living in the region is profound shock. Even if you know that earthquakes are relatively common, nothing can prepare you for this.”

Here are some of the reasons the impact this time is so severe.


The location and depth of the initial earthquake

The first earthquake took place on the East Anatolian fault – the boundary between the Anatolian plate, the African plate, and the Arabian plate in the Earth’s crust. (There’s a useful visual guide here.) While it has been more than a century since an earthquake caused such devastation on this fault, there have been a number of smaller quakes in the last 25 years, and the region has been considered at serious risk of something worse.

There have been higher magnitude earthquakes than this one even in recent years around the world, but that is not a sufficient measure of impact on its own: crucial to the devastation here was the location of the earthquake near large population centres, and how close to the surface of the Earth it hit.

A deep earthquake takes place between 300km and 700km down. This one was very shallow – about 17km below the surface – meaning that it was felt more powerfully and across a wider region above ground. The tremors that resulted were felt in Cyprus and Cairo, and registered by seismologists as far away as Greenland.


An unusually large aftershock

That impact was magnified by a 7.5 magnitude aftershock – on a different faultline 100km away, and much larger relative to the initial quake than aftershocks typically are. Earthquake magnitude is measured on a logarithmic scale, meaning that this aftershock only released about a third of the energy of the first even though the figures are close – but in hitting buildings already severely damaged by the initial quake, it greatly amplified the original damage, and put many rescue workers at risk. There were dozens of other smaller aftershocks that continued into Tuesday morning.

“Even on Turkish TV news, you could see people trembling as they hit, watching the building quake, and trying to work out the right thing to do,” Ruth said. You can see examples here and here.


The fact that it took place during winter

There have already been warnings in recent weeks that a snowstorm across Syria and parts of Turkey had left millions of displaced people at risk of freezing to death.

“This came at a terrible time – there are incredibly bad winter conditions,” Ruth said. “Many areas are covered in snow, and temperatures very low. In northern Syria even buildings that have survived may not have adequate heat. People ran into the streets and into really bad storms; people who can are sheltering in their cars, and others have nowhere to go. It’s clear that it increases the scale of the relief effort that’s needed.”

The NGO International Blue Crescent Relief and Development Foundation said that “heavy snow in the entire region including heavy rain since yesterday has made the lives of the people who abandoned their houses very difficult to survive”. Meanwhile, those who have been trapped under rubble must be reached more quickly if they are to be saved.


Many buildings already vulnerable to collapse

Emergency personnel search for victims at the site of a collapsed building after an earthquake in Diyarbakir, south-east Turkey.
Emergency personnel search for victims at the site of a collapsed building after an earthquake in Diyarbakir, south-east Turkey. Photograph: Refik Tekin/EPA

In Turkey, Ruth said, “the problem of how to deal with earthquakes is something every government knows they have to be on top of. The 1999 quake is very fresh in people’s minds, and that includes officials. The government was very quick to say that this was a level four emergency, which means that international aid is required.” The country also has well-trained, experienced rescuers and a massive operation is underway.

Even in Istanbul, which was unaffected this time, concerns over unregulated development and ageing building stock prompted warnings in 2020 that a major earthquake could leave 10% of the city’s 15m residents homeless. “You do find apartments for rent in buildings marketed as ‘earthquake proof’, but whether that is reliable is a different question,” Ruth said. “In much of the south, you are much less likely to find that.”

Most of the buildings which have fallen appear to have been constructed pre-2000, when new regulations in response to the 1999 quake kicked in. In a 2020 piece for catastrophe modelling firm Temblor, Istanbul-based seismologist Haluk Eyidoğan warned that in the south-east of Turkey, “stone masonry and adobe masonry structures in rural areas are weak, and the so-called reinforced concrete carcass multi-storey buildings are demolished in cities”.

The same or worse is true in the affected region of Syria, ground down by the damage inflicted by years of civil war and with many already displaced.


The complexity of the situation in Syria

Search and rescue operation in Idlib.
Search and rescue operation in Idlib. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

With the earthquake coming against a backdrop of freezing weather, civil war, rocketing prices and fuel shortages, as well as the region’s first cholera outbreak in a decade, the International Rescue Committee has called this “a crisis within multiple crises”, particularly for displaced people.

“Northern Syria is where we’re going to see the most acute need,” Ruth said. “Trucks from across the border in Turkey are already the sole lifeline of international aid. It is a rebel-controlled region that gets no support other than basic supplies from international aid agencies. Without that, there is nothing in a place like Idlib [above].”

Today’s Guardian editorial notes that Damascus only allows entry via one border point and adds: “It would be unconscionable if the others remained closed at this time of desperate need.” You can also read Patrick Wintour’s piece on urgent calls for those restrictions to be relaxed here.

With hundreds of thousands of refugees on the Syrian side of the border, volunteer rescue NGO the White Helmets said that the region was in “a state of catastrophe”. The scale of the damage in government-controlled areas was less clear because of an independent media blackout, Ruth said.

Meanwhile, she noted, there are millions of Syrian refugees across the border; ahead of an imminent election in Istanbul “there has already been a lot of talk about deporting, or in the words of the Turkish government, having people voluntarily return to Syria. These are the same people who are now seeking for help from the government which is in charge of their care. They are in a desperate situation.”

What else we’ve been reading

La Rose Lane, formerly Black Boy Lane in Tottenham.
La Rose Lane, formerly Black Boy Lane in Tottenham. Photograph: Matthew Chattle/REX/Shutterstock
  • I think I could go a lifetime without seeing another headline about why boomers hate young people and why millennials love avocados. But the generation wars aren’t just boring. In the Big Idea this week, Bobby Duffy examines why the focus that conflict absorbs distracts from the underlying problem affecting us all. Nimo

  • Legendary crime novelist Val McDermid writes in praise of Happy Valley, and in particular creator Sally Wainwright’s deep sense of place and of her central character, Catherine Cawood. Wainwright’s gift, she writes, is in her “astringent wit that confounded our expectations of what drama should do”. Archie

  • Five months since the death of Mahsa Amini led to an eruption of public fury, the Iranian authorities’ heavy handed tactics to crush the nationwide protests have resulted in hundreds of deaths. Deepa Parent and Ghoncheh Habibiazad spoke to people who have been detained and say they have suffered extreme brutality. Nimo

  • Lots of great details in Michael Winterbottom and Steve Coogan’s account of how they made 24 Hour Party People - but you can’t argue with putting the fact that Coogan “took half an E” in the movie’s recreation of the Hacienda nightclub in the headline. Archie

  • Haringey councillors thought renaming a street from Black Boy Lane to La Rose Lane (above), in honour of John La Rose, a black writer and local political activist, would be a fairly straightforward task. Instead it has been the source of significant controversy in the area. Nimo


The Etihad stadium, Manchester City’s home ground.
The Etihad stadium, Manchester City’s home ground. Photograph: Manchester City FC/Getty Images

Football | The Premier League has charged Manchester City with breaching its financial rules on more than 100 occasions over multiple years. Barney Ronay writes: “This is serious, an array of new charges that threatens, if proven, to undermine the entire edifice of English football’s dominant power of the last decade.” Here’s a useful explainer.

Football | Head coach Jesse Marsch has been sacked by Leeds after a 1-0 defeat by Nottingham Forest on Sunday left the team just outside the relegation zone. The American had been in the role for less than a year. In her analysis, Louise Taylor writes that Marsch “had started to resemble a hill walker lacking a compass”.

Rugby | The England head coach, Simon Middleton, is leaving his post at the end of the Women’s Six Nations campaign after guiding his side to a 30-match winning run but narrowly missing out on two World Cups. Middleton said: “I can’t put into words how proud and fortunate I’ve been”.

The front pages

“‘Catastrophic’: thousands dead as earthquake hits Turkey and Syria” – our Guardian front-page lead this morning is just as you would expect. The Daily Express has “Quake horror” and “Thousands more feared dead in ‘truly apocalyptic’ earthquakes”. “Giant earthquake kills thousands in their sleep” says the Times. “Moment of hope amid quake horror” – that’s the Daily Mirror, which shows a rescue from a damaged building. Its strapline is “Thousands die in quake hell”.

The Metro uses the same picture with the furniture “Saved from hell quake”. “Help them” – the Sun promotes a quake aid appeal, while the Financial Times focuses on the historical magnitude: “Thousands dead after biggest quake in 84 years shakes Turkey and Syria”. Others have the earthquake as a front-page picture but not as their splash. “Truss comeback has damaged the Tories, pollsters warn” says the i. “Defenceless” – the Daily Mail feels exposed from a possible lack of extra military spending in the budget. The lead story in the Telegraph is “Sturgeon trans row set us back years, says Salmond”.

Today in Focus

Rescuers sift through rubble in search of survivors in the Syrian city of Hama
Rescuers sift through rubble in search of survivors in the Syrian city of Hama

A devastating earthquake in Syria and Turkey

A 7.8-magnitude quake has struck Turkey and Syria, killing at least 2,600 people and razing entire neighbourhoods. Experts say it could not have happened at a worse time

Cartoon of the day | Sarah Akinterinwa

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

On Colombia’s Lake Nare, you will find the boto, the local name for the rare pink Amazon River dolphin. Even though botos are considered divine creatures by Indigenous peoples across Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, they have become endangered because of fishing as well as habitat disruption from dam-building, deforestation and pollution from chemicals and heavy metals, such as mercury from illegal gold mining.

Diego Cifuentes and his brother, shoemakers by trade, had the idea of starting a dolphin-watching project after moving to the area in 2011, realising that tourists wanted, and needed, guides to help them navigate the area. The two men unwittingly kickstarted an ecotourism industry which has the potential to promote marine conservation, as well as create jobs and educate people.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords are here to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.