Feature: Lurking catastrophes for Istanbul

By CHRISTOPHER DELISO, UPI Business Correspondent  |  March 17, 2003 at 1:20 PM
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SKOPJE, Macedonia, March 17 (UPI) -- Turkey's tenuous role as American ally for an Iraqi war has been analyzed primarily in terms of security (the dangers of hostile Iraqi Kurds) and economy (the war's potential financial fallout). However, either or both of these dangers could be exacerbated by natural occurrences beyond anyone's control.

The Gulf War caused steep trade and investment losses. Anywhere from $65 billion-$80 billion was erased from the economy. Should another, more prolonged war occur, the economic damage will exceed this -- especially if Iraqi Kurds attack Turkish troops. Should the campaign misfire, post-Saddam Iraq could become a vortex of regional instability.

Ankara's original request for $92 billion in war compensation, therefore, was not unrealistic. But it was laughed right out of Washington. The United States instead offered an aid package one-third the size and composed mostly of loan guarantees. Turkey's position as the IMF's largest-ever debtor, already assured, would swiftly become unassailable.

Last week's political shake-ups saw Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party, win a parliamentary seat in by-elections. He was swiftly named the prime minister.

Previously banned from holding office because of the military's suspicions of his Islamic allegiances, Erdogan's elevation testifies to the extraordinary exigencies of the times. He's perhaps the only politician capable of delivering for the Americans. They are hoping his popularity can win pro-American party unity. However, the new vote appears to depend on Turkey first receiving greater assurances from Washington.

The specter of Iraq is now terrifying Turkish economic planners. However, other potential hazards could also ruin economic -- and even political -- stability. A tanker crash in the over-trafficked Bosphorus Straits is one, or an earthquake in Istanbul -- a steadily increasing possibility -- could spell disaster.

Since its founding almost 1,700 years ago, Istanbul has been seismically susceptible. On Aug. 17, 1999, a earthquake, which measured 7.4 on the Richter scale, in Izmit left more than 18,000 dead. More than 15,000 buildings collapsed. Total damages were estimated at $25 billion. More recently, a earthquake of 6.5 magnitude struck Tunceli in eastern Turkey this January, but caused minimal damage.

In 1999, luckily, Istanbul avoided the brunt of the blow. However, geologists believe that its time will come. A major study conducted in 2000 calculated a 62 percent chance of a similar sized earthquake by 2030, and a 32 percent chance by 2010. The study's leader, Tom Parsons of the U.S. Geological Service, recently told United Press International that that prognosis still remains essentially valid. Although getting the exact timing is difficult, he states, "I can say with certainty that the earthquake will happen -- and it will be costly."

Istanbul sits on the western end of the North Anatolian Fault, which stretches along Turkey's Black Sea coast to Georgia. Over the past century, this fault has been activated in a generally westward direction. Like the San Andreas in California, the North Anatolian is a slip-stream fault. A kind of domino effect makes one earthquake trigger the next. Istanbul, while not sitting directly on the fault line, is close -- and it's the last domino.

A major earthquake here would be "catastrophic," said Parsons, not only in terms of casualties, but also in terms of widespread structural collapse. Holding tanks and pipelines could rupture, releasing oil, chemicals and other toxic substances. Maritime Istanbul could suffer tidal waves and flooding: according to Parsons, major tsunamis struck in Izmit Bay during earthquakes of 1509 and 1766. The environmental and economic costs of such a multi-faceted disaster are beyond calculation.

Preparedness, if not prevention, is key. Some officials have claimed it would cost more to rebuild many structures after the fact than to make them earthquake-proof now. Yet Turkey should at least attempt retrofitting programs like California's, said Parsons. However, Turkey's financial ability to do this is somewhat less than that of the world's seventh largest economy. This is why broader thinking is required: "if Istanbul were to suffer a major earthquake, it would require a global effort to rebuild. Perhaps it would be a wise investment for the global community to help with the retrofit."

However, given the hundreds of billions that will be required to rebuild a post-Saddam Iraq, it's unlikely that Turkey will get such international support anytime soon.

Istanbul's second potential disaster is at least more manageable: that posed by excessive tanker traffic in the tortuous, 19.2-mile Bosphorus Straits. Minor oil spills, groundings and collisions have long occurred there. The Bosphorus problem is dangerous in that it isn't containable. Fast-moving currents could carry oil slicks south into the Aegean Sea, threatening the environment and vital tourism industry of neighboring Greece.

David Tonge is an expert on Turkey and managing director of IBS Research Consultancy in Istanbul. For him, the dangers are exacerbated by some shippers' non-compliance with the rules. He recently told United Press International that, "it's almost impossible for any vessel of 150,000 tons or more to comply with the IMO's (International Maritime Organization's) turning regulations." Nevertheless, VLCC supertankers of more than 200,000 tons regularly traverse the narrow and congested straits.

Another major problem is the sorry state of many tankers currently in use. "Many are substandard, registered in places like Cambodia and Sierra Leone," said Tonge. "They are just old rust buckets that shouldn't be allowed anywhere... we hope that the Turkish authorities will press foreign countries to enforce port regulations. Russia could control them in its ports. Oil companies should refuse to load vessels unless they fulfill the requirements."

The Turkish government has attempted to get serious about tankers, limiting their operations to daylight hours and requiring that they enlist a pilot when making the passage. This has resulted in a stack-up of ships at both end of the Straits. It can take up to ten hours to get the official OK for passage. The added transit costs make cooperation for the better even less attractive to charterers.

However, some charterers, such as British Petroleum, claim full adherence to these stringent regulations. BP has invested in, and lobbied for increased preparedness training. Nevertheless, Tonge reiterated, "The Turkish government must also develop an organized contingency plan, involving fire drills and other practice."

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