There’s a grim familiarity to what the world is witnessing in Turkey and Syria, where powerful double earthquakes spread death and misery over such a wide area. 

Although the potential damage rates are among the worst in human experience, earthquake readiness continues to lag in resources and public policy in many of the most vulnerable regions of the earth. As in this disaster, earthquakes hurl into poverty hundreds of thousands of people who have scant resources to sustain them—and the cost in human life is appalling. 

China has seen the worst losses of life in all earthquakes between 1900 and 2016: more than 870,000, according to the website Statista. Haiti had the second highest number of deaths in the same period, at more than 220,000. Turkey had until the recent disaster suffered 89,000 earthquake deaths in those years. That total now seems bound to rise by more than the current estimate: 35,000.

The east Anatolia fault system where the Feb. 6 earthquake was centered has been well known, especially following a severe earthquake of May 22, 1971, in Bingöl.

If anything could have jolted Asians into seismic safety action, it would have been the years from 2001 to 2005, when a string of four earthquake catastrophes in four countries each took 20,000 or more lives: The Gujarat, India, earthquake of 2001 (20,085); the BAM earthquake in Iran (26,271); the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004 (227,898) and the Kashmir earthquake in Pakistan in 2005 (87,351).

Contractor arrests by Turkey’s Erdogan government, whose policies may have undermined code enforcement, show how politics can obscure disaster learning.

What effect the new earthquake disaster will have is unclear. The reality is that seismic protection stands far back in a long line of needs in war-torn Syria. Turkey, too, has been in an economic crisis under an increasingly authoritarian government. 

The best course for those outside Turkey and Syria is to support those who champion engineering and code compliance as one of the life-preserving foundational virtues of good government. The post-disaster learning must never end. Even earthquake protection-minded nations need to keep improving.

Engineering professor Michel Bruneau, in his recent book, The Blessings of Disaster, notes that Japan’s response to the Kobe, Japan, earthquake of 1995 (death toll: 6,200) shocked the nation into awareness that its advanced seismic protection measures were lacking. It provided the impetus for the government and engineering community to revise seismic design and detailing requirements and to mandate more stringent inspection rules.

Inconsistent code enforcement in Turkey has emerged as a possible lesson from the double-quake disaster. But quick arrests of contractors by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose policies and decisions may have undermined code enforcement and diverted seismic safety funds, shows how politics can obscure disaster lesson-learning.

Much courage will be needed from engineers and contractors in Turkey to speak truthfully about what occurred and why.