The recent earthquake in Turkey and northwest Syria is considered one of the worst to have hit the region in over 80 years. The immediate effects of such natural disasters are devastating, but earthquakes have also been seen as a harbinger of political change or upheaval, often marking the end of ruling dynasties. This article explores the political implications of major earthquakes around the world.
Disasters and Conflict
Natural disasters can also impact long-running conflicts. This was seen in the 21st century’s most devastating tsunami to date, which struck the shores of the Indian Ocean on Boxing Day 2004. In the case of Sri Lanka and Indonesia, two of the worst-hit countries, long-running conflicts between their governments and armed rebel groups seeking autonomy or independence were underway.
By contrast, in Aceh, in the wake of the disaster, a peace process began and within a year brought an end to 30 years of insurgency and the disarming of the GAM rebel movement. The Indonesian government’s chief negotiator wrote: “The 2004 tsunami… helped to focus both sides on helping victims rather than fighting, and [brought] international pressure on GAM to enter talks.”
In Soviet-era Armenia, some analysts argue that the massive 1988 earthquake exacerbated existing tensions in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, accelerating conflict with Azerbaijan as the Soviet system lost its grip on the Caucasus republics. The disaster occurred 10 months after inter-ethnic clashes between Azeris and Armenians broke out after the parliament of the Nagorno-Karabakh autonomous region in Azerbaijan voted to unify with Armenia.
With nearly all medical centres destroyed by the earthquake, an unprecedented international aid effort opened up Armenia to the West in a way not seen for many decades, and helped accelerate its journey to independence in 1991.
The Impact of Earthquakes on Intra-State Conflict
A study conducted by Dawn Brancati showed that earthquakes can increase the likelihood of intra-state conflict, with the effects being more significant for higher-magnitude earthquakes in densely populated areas of countries with lower gross domestic products and pre-existing conflicts. Although many policymakers and relief organizations suggest that natural disasters bring groups together and dampen conflicts, earthquakes can produce scarcities in basic resources, particularly in developing countries, where the competition for scarce resources is most intense.
The Tangshan Earthquake, China
On 28 July 1976, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit the city of Tangshan, in northeastern China, killing over 240,000 people. In the aftermath of the disaster, many Chinese anticipated major changes in China’s politics. Mao Zedong was already on his deathbed, and died six weeks later on 9 September; the downfall of the Gang of Four quickly followed, and the Cultural Revolution came to an end.
There was an awareness among China’s communist rulers that in traditional Chinese belief, disasters are considered disruptions in the natural order of “heaven” (Tian) and may signify the loss of legitimacy (the “mandate of heaven”) of the government. Anecdotal evidence suggests that catastrophic ‘natural’ disasters create the conditions for potential political change – often at the hands of a discontented civil society.
The Sichuan Earthquake, China
China suffered another massive earthquake in 2008, in Sichuan, which killed 87,000 people and made millions homeless. Shoddy construction was a major issue after the quake, notoriously in the case of hundreds of schools that collapsed as students sat in class, causing anguish and fury for countless families. Locals who tried to investigate official corruption that might have allowed substandard construction were pressured or arrested.
The Bam Earthquake, Iran
The devastating Bam earthquake in Iran in December 2003 may have marked a definitive disillusionment with the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic among swathes of the population. Iranians expressed a mixture of grief and anger at the loss of over 30,000 lives in the quake. The widespread sense of corruption and violation of rules was a key element in the election campaign of conservative populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who won a surprise victory in presidential elections 18 months later.
Pakistan’s Response to the 2005 Earthquake
The 2005 earthquake in Pakistan showcased how natural disasters can stimulate intra-state conflict. The military led rescue efforts in the aftermath of the earthquake, but its response was criticized for sidelining civil society and allowing militant groups to play a major role in rescue efforts. By accepting a significant role for banned jihadi groups in humanitarian relief efforts, the government’s policies helped militants bolster their presence in the earthquake-affected areas of the North West Frontier Province and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. This resulted in Pakistan going to war with the home-grown Taliban that lasted years and cost tens of thousands of lives.
Lessons for Turkey from Major Disasters
In the wake of Turkey’s worst disaster in 80 years, it is crucial to learn from past natural disasters. Turkey’s last major earthquake was in 1999 and exposed poor governance and neglect, leading to unnecessary deaths and suffering. Following the earthquake, the Turks voted out traditional elites and replaced them with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, which has ruled ever since. With the current catastrophe, the slow arrival of rescue services at the epicenter in Hatay and thousands remaining trapped under collapsed buildings has caused enormous frustration among families and communities.
Political Consequences of Turkey’s Earthquake
Elections are a few months away, and the slow response of the government has led to growing popular anger being directed towards building contractors, the government, and Syrian refugees. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the Republican People’s Party, accused Erdogan of “primary responsibility” for the failure of building regulations to be enforced and the slow arrival of life-saving aid to the worst-hit areas. The political consequences of the quake will be front and center in the elections, and there will be nowhere to hide for the government over a disaster that experts warned was coming, given Turkey’s location on a major tectonic fault line.
Hope for Syria after Turkey’s Earthquake
For Syria, there is hope that cooperation around getting aid to the disaster zone, between Assad government areas and the rebel-held northwest, plus the easing of western sanctions for the same reason, could start a process towards reconciliation. However, this hope has been toxified by blame battles between the UN and rebel groups over who is stopping aid from getting in and aid profiteering in government areas. After 12 years of war, reconciliation is something that Syria desperately needs.
Natural disasters have the potential to trigger significant political and social changes, as they can reveal pre-existing issues of government legitimacy, corruption, and social inequality. While disasters can exacerbate existing conflicts, they can also create opportunities for conflict resolution and peacebuilding. It is crucial for governments to prioritize disaster preparedness and response, as well as to address the underlying causes of vulnerability to such events. By doing so, governments can both save lives and strengthen their legitimacy and resilience in the face of adversity.