Rebuilding Turkey’s shattered towns and cities could run into tens of billions, say experts

More than a million buildings may have to be restored in what could be the country’s biggest reconstruction effort in 100 years

Rebuilding the vast area in Turkey ravaged by last week’s earthquake will require restoring more than a million buildings and cost tens of billions of dollars, according to early estimates of the “massive” reconstruction challenge.

While the full toll of the quake is still being calculated, local authorities and urban planners have begun to appraise what is likely to be Turkey’s biggest reconstruction effort since the republic was founded in 1923.

Half of the 3.4 million buildings in the affected region of southern Turkey may need to be demolished, said Eyüp Muhçu, head of the architects’ chamber at the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects.

“In order to rebuild these homes, you also have to build infrastructure and public facilities, so we can speak of a preliminary estimated cost of $100 billion for reconstruction,” he said, offering a rough calculation of the financial cost.


Lütfü Savaş, mayor of the historic city of Antakya, which was hit with full force by the February 6th quake, also suggested a rebuild figure as high as $100 billion (€94 billion). Estimates still vary considerably given limited information on the scale of the damage. One disaster modelling specialist, who asked not to be named, put the reconstruction cost in the $10 billion-$50 billion range.

Civil engineers, urban planners and aid groups are racing to survey the destruction wrought in the affected regions of southern Turkey and northern Syria. Some 13 million people are thought to be affected in the hardest-hit areas of Turkey, and the death toll in the two countries has climbed to more than 42,000 people.

“It’s massive, absolutely massive,” said Tiziana Rossetto, professor of earthquake engineering at University College London. “The cost is going to be really enormous.”

Residential properties, schools, hospitals, commercial buildings, airports, mosques and other places of worship will all need to be either fixed or rebuilt, said Ezgi Orhan, associate professor at Ankara’s Çankaya University, who specialises in disaster reconstruction. Vital infrastructure such as motorways and underground pipes has also been demolished, she added.

Investment bank JPMorgan said the direct cost from destroyed structures could exceed $25 billion, or 2.5 per cent of Turkey’s gross domestic output.

One of the most difficult aspects of the reconstruction process would be rebuilding historical centres such as Antakya, capital of Hatay province and a city that in biblical times was known as Antioch. Antakya is home to one of Christianity’s oldest churches, which officials said was not harmed, but a synagogue was damaged and a 13th-century mosque was wrecked.

Mr Savaş, the mayor, said the rebuild was vital not just to the city’s residents “but to the world”. “It’s at the crossroads of Anatolia, the Caucasus, the Middle East and North Africa. Agriculture started here, the first Olympics were held here, the first street was illuminated here,” he said.

The scale of the human cost was also becoming clearer. Arif, a local resident, said he and his family managed to escape their apartment block, but parts of the six-storey building, built two just years ago, collapsed and may now have to be demolished.

“Hatay has been destroyed, nothing is left,” he said. “We have to leave, because there is no life left here. Our homes are gone, workplaces are gone, our children don’t have a school.”

Ms Rossetto, at UCL, said surveyors would typically put buildings damaged in natural disasters into one of three categories: totally ruined, fixable and liveable. If this assessment is done quickly, it becomes easier to rehome people and tabulate the scale of the rebuilding necessary in any particular area.

Ms Orhan said officials should conduct a thoughtful and thorough planning process to ensure cities are properly rebuilt, which would ultimately draw back residents.

Sara Shneiderman, a professor at the University of British Columbia who studied how Nepal recovered after its 2015 quake, said construction by the state may be quicker but less successful at bringing back people. “With top-down reconstruction, dwellings are built, but they’re often not exactly what people want... and you end up with a lot of misspent dollars.”

Gencay Serter, president of Turkey’s chamber of city planners, said one of the pitfalls of the rebuilding effort that followed a 1999 quake in northwest Turkey was the creation of urban areas not properly linked to big cities. “As a result of hasty decisions, suburban cities emerged, sometimes on agricultural lands, disconnected from the cities... this led to social problems there.”

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has faced criticism for the slow delivery of aid and for overseeing an amnesty scheme that forgave faults in millions of buildings across Turkey, has pledged to “complete construction and recovery within a year”. He faces re-election in May, a vote that analysts say is likely to be the toughest of his two decades in power.

Ms Shneiderman called a timeline of 12-months “fanciful... reconstruction is a multiyear process” while Ms Rossetto said it was “completely unrealistic”.

“One thing is rebuilding the way they’ve done in the past, another is rebuilding in a way that’s safer,” Ms Rossetto added.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023