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From Haiti to Japan, what happens after film crews leave disaster zones?

The earthquake that has killed more than 40,000 people and brought destruction and misery to Turkey and Syria lasted approximately 75 seconds. The economic, social and political reverberations will last years.

As the experiences of countries as diverse as Haiti, Japan and Turkey itself reveal, it is only once the cameras leave and the world’s attention wanders that the real business of reconstruction begins and the long-term costs of natural disasters emerge.

Jacky Lumarque, rector of Quisqueya university in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, said the Caribbean nation had never recovered from the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people, according to official US figures, and left even more homeless.

“We were on a good path and the earthquake broke everything,” he said. Today security has all but collapsed and much of Port-au-Prince is controlled by armed gangs.

It was hard to draw a clear line between brief but violent tremors, cyclones and tsunamis and their political and economic consequences, experts said. Natural disasters affected regions in unpredictable ways, but their impact can strain public finances, change development priorities and even bring down governments.

A botched response by Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza to the devastating 1972 earthquake near the capital Managua — including allegations that his government stole relief money — precipitated the collapse of his regime in 1979 and the rise of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, president nearly half a century later.

Turkey’s poor response to the 1999 earthquake centred on İzmit may have helped clear a path to victory for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party in 2002. With elections due again this year, anger over his government’s seeming lack of preparedness and lax enforcement of building regulations could now contribute to Erdogan’s political demise.

Ajay Chhibber was the World Bank’s country head when the 1999 quake struck, killing more than 17,000 people. “I’d never seen anything like it. You saw these buildings flattened like pancakes, large submarines from the naval base flung up on the mountains,” he recalled.

Chhibber said one early problem was trying to process international aid. “There were coats and shoes and food items but a lot of it was wasted. It required a lot of effort to receive these things and organise them.”

Aid workers noticed a proliferation of pawn shops as people sold possessions to raise funds. Men were leaving their families to find work in Istanbul. The World Bank started a system of cash transfers after concluding that people needed money rather than physical goods to preserve the local economy and communities.

After the immediate crisis had subsided, the relief effort in Turkey had several phases. The World Bank raised between $3bn and $4bn for reconstruction. To allay concerns about possible corruption it insisted the money be disbursed through a new ministry inside the prime minister’s office.

While some buildings were still standing after the quake, others had crumpled. The granting of building code amnesties, a practice that continued during Turkey’s construction boom of the past 20 years, allowed shoddy buildings to be erected. This month’s earthquake destroyed an estimated 25,000 buildings, officials said last week.

The bank helped implement a system of earthquake insurance, something Chhibber said contributed to better enforcement of building standards in İzmit than in the poorer southern region where this month’s earthquake hit. Within two years of the 1999 quake most infrastructure and housing had been rebuilt, he said.

In Haiti, by contrast, Lumarque said much of the money raised by the international community for reconstruction was squandered, stolen or spent in ways that failed to benefit ordinary Haitians, who suffered another notable quake in 2021. “There is this illusion that billions of dollars fell to Haitians from the sky. But little of it had real impact,” he said.

“Haiti was flooded with NGOs who know how to get money and spend money, but not necessarily for Haitian people.” Aid agencies imported products, including food, clothing and construction materials, that could have been sourced locally, he said, damaging local businesses.

Unlike in Turkey, international efforts to move people from temporary to permanent housing largely failed, Lumarque said. Land disputes, corruption and poor location of new houses — often far from places where residents could earn a living — did not help.

The World Bank highlighted the aftermath of the Gujarat earthquake of 2001, where money was transferred to residents in the western Indian state to rebuild housing with local materials. “When homeowners were put in charge of the process, houses were better adapted to each family’s needs,” it said.

A state’s ability to direct reconstruction determines its effectiveness, Lumarque said. “When the state is broken it loses the capacity to give direction to international co-operation.”

“In Turkey you have a strong government that has a better capacity for negotiation with international agencies,” he said. But he doubted whether Syria, still racked by civil war, could co-ordinate an international reconstruction effort, particularly since much of the earthquake-affected northwestern region was under rebel control.

In Japan, buildings in the northern Tohoku region that was most affected by the 2011 earthquake had been constructed to high specifications and were largely untouched by the magnitude 9 subsea tremor. But many coastal towns were destroyed by the subsequent tsunami that overwhelmed sea defences and contributed to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The government allocated an estimated $300bn over the next decade to repair damage and shore up defences.

But despite the huge spending on “shiny new roads and buildings”, said Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University in Tokyo, communities had failed to recover and many younger people had left the affected region.

“Recovery has been uneven in a region already in decline,” said Kingston. “There is a Potemkin village aspect of gleaming beacons of progress surrounded by crumbling communities,” he said.

Perhaps the hardest challenge of reconstruction, according to experts, was preparing for the next disaster by breaking the cycle of short-term emergency response followed by long-term neglect.

Turkey raised billions of dollars through a recovery tax after the 1999 tremor, some of which was meant to be spent on earthquake preparedness. “One of the big issues is what has happened to that money,” said Chhibber, adding that the government seemed to lack basic equipment such as bulldozers. “Where did it go?”

Kevin Watkins, former head of Save the Children in the UK, said: “We need to move from crisis management to prevention, away from short-term grants for emergency junkies towards long-term recovery finance.”

Long gaps between natural disasters meant priorities often drifted, a World Bank report after the Haiti earthquake concluded, adding: “It becomes harder to get politicians to focus on a disaster once the memory of the emergency fades.”

Additional reporting by Andrew Jack in New York

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