Corruption and earthquake destruction: Observations on events in Turkey, Italy and China

The impact of corruption goes far beyond the specific misbehaviour of the actors involved. Its repercussions sweep across entire populations…through derailed development plans and incoherent investment decisions. Unfinished roads, crumbling schools and crippled health systems are but a few examples which illustrate the impact of this phenomenon (Secretary General OECD

Corruption is globally so widespread, of such enormous scale in some countries but affecting all countries to some degree, that ominously it is variously regarded as normal practice, as a source of amusement and, in Italy as such, as a tourist attraction. Responses such as these deny recognition of deeper insidious consequences of increased and severe vulnerability to eventual earthquake destruction and loss of life.

Construction, by its necessary stages of cover and concealment, lends itself to covert corrupt practices involving omissions and substitutionsi. Actual construction, however, is the end product of procurement chains that in their complexity and obscurity, also lend themselves to corrupt dealings. Collusion, cartels, cover pricing, bribes and backhanders, all contribute to overhead costs that, ultimately, are paid for out of construction contract budgets, and by shortcomings and substitutions on site. For procurement networks so incestuously powerful, building regulation, control and inspection are easily bought.

Some significant measures have been taken against corruption in construction. For example, across earthquake-prone Japan in 2005, 78 buildings including 36 hotels were declared unsafe, their specification to falsified earthquake resistance data having been submitted by their architect during pre-construction stages. Apartment block residents were ordered to leave and hotels were forced to close to await demolition. In some cases, it was reported, steel structural members were one quarter of their required size.

Building location is as significant to destruction in earthquake and other hazards, as is quality of construction. The places in which people are obliged to build, or where buildings are built which people then occupy, have as much to do with vulnerability to natural hazards as does building construction and occupation. Vulnerability is further exacerbated for millions of people for whom there are no options about the places they inhabit, who are obliged to respond to policies and activities in the control of others or to corrupt external pressures in the interests of others.

Can it be simple coincidence that Turkey and Italy, the two most earthquake-prone countries in Europeii are also the two most closely identified with endemic corruption? On the 2010 corruption indexiii, Italy, at 67th, is the lowest Europe15 country and Turkey is 56th (Greece is 78th).

During the twentieth century, earthquakes have caused the destruction of almost 650,000 buildingsiv. The August 1999 earthquake in densely populated north-west Turkey affected an area of approximately 72,000 sq kms (28,000 sq miles) and killed more than 17,000 people. Forty-four thousand were injured and 600,000 were made homeless; damage was estimated at US$8.5 millionv. Another earthquake occurred in the same year. Ninety per cent of casualties of the 1999 earthquakes were mid-rise apartment blocks constructed of reinforced concrete. Victims of these earthquakes are described as “urban middle class people”, corrupt construction practice being identified as the reason for poor quality building stock.

In 2003, an earthquake in eastern Turkey caused a school dormitory building to collapse in which 85 people lost their lives. It was observed that, as routine practice, government service buildings are built to “template designs”, the same building of each type being replicated “all over the country” for schools and hospitals etc. Done for reasons of economy, design or specification errors are automatically transmitted from location to location; modifications in response to varying seismic risk levels, usually to steel reinforcement, being too easily forgotten or ignored where constructional and administrative integrity is variable or uncertain. “Surely the minor expense in construction costs would more than make up for constantly recurring replacement costs and the accompanying social trauma”vi.

Ninety-two per cent of Turkey’s overall area is stated as being “at risk of a ground tremor”. Turkey’s first seismic code was issued in 1944, updated in 1975 and again in 1997, but the code underestimates the effects of earthquakes on the majority of building stockvii. As well, less than 25 per cent of all buildings in Turkey conform to the 1997 code, Turkey having failed, until 2009, to relate earthquake risk with an administration capable of assessing drawings and calculations, visiting buildings under construction, exercising punishments for non-compliance and preventing inadequate structures from being erected.

Extensive earthquake damage in Turkey results from the collapse of inadequately constructed buildings, and buildings in inappropriate places. It is insufficient, however, for state authorities to allocate blame solely to a failed system of building control, allegedly to deflect blame away from facilitation and condonation of corrupt practices within their own management systems.

Since 1900 in Italy, 115,621 people have been killed in 30 earthquakes, for which the total estimated cost of damage has been US$ 33,485 millionviii. All of the four mafias are based in the southern Mezzogiorno, where incomes and standards of living are generally lower, illiteracy higher, and earthquakes are larger and more numerous than in other parts of the countryix. Large-scale land reforms were instituted in 1946, much later than in the prosperous north. In 1950, the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno (Fund for the South) was initiated by central government to stimulate social and economic development, being superseded in 1986 by the Agenzia del Mezzogiorno. From these and other development initiatives, billions of dollars intended by the Italian and United States governments, the World Bank, and the European Commission as development support have “disappeared”. As a result, it has become impossible to separate the mafia from political corruption in this region of Italy.

In Avellino, east of Naples, a maternity wing of a then recently built six-storey hospital collapsed, killing most of its occupants. Subsequent investigation indicated that drawings and specifications had been adequate but that “substantial economies”, involving foundations to inadequate depths and serious omissions in reinforced concrete structure, had been made by contractors during construction in which inspection had been absent or ineffective. Similar inadequacies were revealed in the wreckage of many other modern buildings that failed to withstand earthquake motion in an area known to be earthquake-prone.

In public works construction in which collusion between levels of administration, elected officials, bureaucrats and private contractors is regarded as endemicx , it has been observed that for the abuse of public office for personal gain to persist country-wide, elected officials are necessarily and regularly involved. Extensive and persistent corruption in public works, or any other sector, cannot be regarded as a phenomenon isolated from its broader political environment, and that in such political environment corruption involves a non-benevolent principal rather than bureaucratic or institutional slippage from a benevolent one. Revealed as intended and premeditated is the extent and enormous scale throughout Italy, of criminal fraud and corruption in the management of public works construction. In 2005 public works infrastructure was declining in spite of declared national policy to achieve the contrary. This comparison of built infrastructure values against government public works expenditure per region, shows southern Italy as having received more public works finance over the years, even though it has less infrastructure, with the most corrupt region spending four times more per infrastructure unit than the least corrupt. The difference is interpreted as a measure of corruption: the regions that did not get what was paid for are those where politicians and bureaucrats were siphoning-off public money during the construction process.

In contexts of this kind, where endemic criminal fraud and embezzlement have become entrenched, almost traditional and in some areas a tourist attraction, it would be difficult for any relatively small-scale building contractor to behave honestly - if after paying his backhanders, such a contractor could afford to do so.

The Chinese government has more than 1,200 laws, rules and directives against corruption but their implementation is ineffective. With only a 3 percent likelihood of a corrupt official being sent to jail, corruption is a low-risk high-return activity. Even low-level officials have the opportunity to amass an illicit fortune of tens of millions of yuan. The CCP secretary in Janwei county of Sechuan province acquired 34 million yuan (£2,472,872 / US$4,897,018) and the colleague of another CCP secretary, his city’s anti-corruption chief, collected bribes worth more than 30 million yuan (£2,182,380 / US$4,320,898).

Corruption in China is concentrated in those sectors with extensive state involvement, such as infrastructure projects and government procurement, the consequent increased costs of which have been estimated as 10 per cent of spending during a ten year period ending in 2005. Such a depletion of funds contributes to environmental degradation, social instability and inadequate health care, housing and education: “To estimate roughly the direct costs of corruption, we can suppose that 10 per cent of government spending, contracts, and transactions is used as kickbacks and bribes or is simply stolen”xi. China is 78th on the Transparency International (2010) corruption index.

The total of dead and missing in the 2008 R7.9 Sichuan earthquake was recorded as 75,000, caused by collapse of buildings and by landslides; housing, apartment buildings, hospitals, industrial buildings, and 7,000 school classrooms are reported as having been destroyed. The inward total collapse of Juyuan Middle School itself caused the deaths of 900 children, triggering vociferous local protests: “The local officials get money from above and then they take it for themselves”. The school has become “a bleak symbol of the deadly mix of natural destructive power and slipshod building...”.

In Dujiangyan, buildings directly next to the destroyed school were left standing: “...there’s no steel in the concrete...the debris was basically sand – not even pieces of concrete”. “We cannot afford not to raise uneasy questions about the structural quality of school buildings...we saw elegant government buildings remain intact while dozens of schools crumbled like houses of sand”. “It was built in a very short time. They added one floor at a time, and continued building as they had money for it. So the base was not made for several floors. It was too weak. The whole building collapsed, straight down, hardly without shaking, even”.   

China’s building code is reported as long having required new structures to withstand earthquakes, but standards from region to region remain inconsistent. A grade of 7, of a scale up to 10, applies throughout Sichuan, the grade of 8 for Shanghai is the same and that for Beijing. Larger rooms and consequently larger structural spans, where structures are built as calculated, are not a reason for the systemic collapse of schools. Not all destroyed buildings, including schools, were a direct result of the earthquake but of landslides triggered by earthquake activity.

Not long after the 2008 earthquake and probably as a response to Chinese and foreign media pressure, the Chinese government were reported to have instituted an inquiry into why so many schools collapsed. At much the same time, it was further reported that police were preventing Chinese media from reporting on school destruction and that people were being told by police not to talk to the media. Nationwide school safety checks had been ordered after the earthquake but at Jiandi Middle School, where 50 schoolchildren were crushed to death, parents' were saying that “the school was constructed on the cheap”. The growing controversy over official negligence was reported as “eroding the wide public support Beijing enjoyed in the days after the earthquake”; a sign at the school being translated as “A natural disaster is irreversible; a man-made disaster is inexcusable”.

Until more detailed information becomes available, it can be assumed that school construction lends itself to corrupt central and local depletion of funding intended by central sources for construction. In other words, design and specification to statutory regulations and codes could have been compromised by depletion of funds for contract payments. Institutionalised depletion of funding for new schools would explain the high incidence of school building failure. Also, on site, Chinese builders are said to often use a series of local subcontractors, a practice that complicates working procedures, obscures shortcomings and substandard substitutions, and by which costs are increased “as each contractor takes his share of the project budget”.
One exceptional report nonetheless indicates normal practise: “In the heart of the disaster zone”, the Bechuan county Liu Han Hope Elementary school and all of its 483 children survived, its community expressing gratitude for “the effort the company put into building the schools in the first place”. Its project manager recalls “his bosses had stressed the importance of safety” but also he recalled “the battles that had been force the builders to replace substandard cement (concrete) and with officials who had intercepted part of the funding”.

Some conclusions
The cost of building integral resistance to R7 or 8 earthquakes has been quoted, conveniently, as an additional 7 or 8 percent. Even when appropriately constructed, some buildings could sustain damage but not collapse, allowing occupants to escape. Failure of construction can be due to all or several of the following causes:
inappropriate siting;
inadequate design and materials specification;
buildings constructed before enactment of current regulations;
earthquake intensity in excess of level addressed by codes;
inadequate building codes and regulations;
codes and regulations not applied;
unauthorised omissions or substitutions on site during construction;
absence of, inadequate or dilatory construction inspection;
construction in rural areas being less likely to be inspected;
re-use of building components from buildings previously demolished.

In these three selected countries, it is evident that corrupt procurement is more powerfully institutionalised than is the objective of reducing earthquake risk and the vulnerability of people in their dwellings and of children at school. Design and specification appears not to be the issue but illicit depletion of funding is, together with backhanders and bribery within construction industries inclusive of sectors for planning and building control, and the inspection of construction. “Retrofitting”, too universal a term for the purpose but frequently used to mean post-construction strengthening, is a different and undoubtedly a more costly undertaking than the 7-8 percent for built-in earthquake resistance (of say a new high school costing 230 million yuan). How is a completed building to be identified as inadequate before an earthquake? Corrupt practices are not recorded; they remain covert and concealed until the next earthquake - which is why corrupt construction is so lethal and why inspection during construction is so important. By the time the earthquake happens, in most cases, corrupt administrators, managers and contractor will be beyond recall or retribution. The small additional percentage required for initial construction safe against earthquakes is less achievable when twice that amount is lost in bribery and robbery from construction budgets. That all illegally constructed buildings should be demolished is not ridiculous: Japan has commenced the process, as also has Spain’s building fraud and corruption prosecutor.

When buildings are not appropriately sited and adequately constructed to take full account of earthquakes and other hazards, they represent disasters waiting to happen. Thousands of people living in self-built dwellings, medium- and high-rise apartment buildings, or who are at school, at work or in hospital, are destined to die when those buildings collapse in inevitable future earthquakes. These lethal legacies are the landmines for ill-named “natural” disasters, more potent than the legacies of conflict.

There is a strong correlation between corruption and restricted press freedomxii. Corruption thrives where the media has been subjugated, an act of corruption itself. For eradication of corruption to succeed, a free press is prerequisite; to rid itself of corruption, a country has first to free its media from control by the corrupt. A Turkish structural engineer has proposed that public knowledge of building construction needs to be improved so that people can become the observers and judges of the safety of buildings they occupyxiii. In China, public awareness appears as informed and alert, even if restricted protest is their only power of response. Without media cameramen, reporters and journalists available and permitted in the field, within hours, information nationally and internationally would be restricted and public observation and outcry would be mute. In most, but not all, countries of Europe and the west, a free press can be assumed and an alert and informed public can express its influence but for these three severely earthquake-prone countries, that is virtually impossible.


1. Lewis (2008) The Worm in the Bud: Corruption, construction and catastrophe Chapter 12 in Hazards and the Built Environment (Lee Bosher: Ed) Taylor & Francis. Abingdon.
2. EM-DAT: The OFDA/CRED International Disaster Database: Université catholique de Louvain , Brussels. Belgium.

4. Mitchell, William A & Page, Justin (2005) Turkish homeowners demand an end to earthquake devastation Box 1.2 Global Corruption Report 2005 Special Focus: Corruption in Construction and Post-conflict Reconstruction Transparency International. Berlin. pp27-29.5. EM-DAT 2010. See Note 2.
6. Gülkan, Polat, Akkar, Sinan & Yazgan, Ufuk (2003) A Preliminary Engineering Report on the Bingöl Earthquake of May 1, 2003 Accessed 29 July 2004.
7. Ellul, Frederick & D’Ayala, Dina (2003) The Bingöl, Turkey Earthquake of the 1st of May 2003 University of Bath Architecture and Civil Engineering Department and the Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team (EEFIT). July.
8. EM-DAT 2010. See Note 2.
9. Alexander, David (2005) The Italian mafia’s legacy of high-rise death traps Box 1.1 The Global Corruption Report 2005 Special Focus: Corruption in Construction and Post-conflict Reconstruction Berlin. Accessed February 2007.
10. Golden, Miriam & Picci, Lucio (2005a) Corruption and the Management of Public Works in Italy Version 2.1 (also published as: Golden, Miriam & Picci, Lucio (2005b) Proposals for a new measure of corruption, illustrated with Italian data Economics and Politics 17/1 pp37-75 March. Blackwell. Oxford. ) Accessed May 2007
11. Pei, Minxin (2007) Corruption threatens China’s future Policy Brief 55 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Washington DC. Accessed 18 May 2008
12. Lewis, James (2006) Corruption and press subjugation in earthquake-prone countries Corruption Note 1 (for Lewis 2008 see
endnote No 1). November. Mimeo.
13. Özerdem, Alpaslan (1999) Tiles, taps and earthquake-proofing: lessons for disaster management in Turkey Environment and Urbanisation 11/2 October pp177-179. London
Also and essentially:
Agence France-Presse; BBC News; Channel 4 News; Christian Science Monitor ; The Guardian; New York Times; Wall Street Journal and Reuters.

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25.5.08, Revised November 2010