In the Wake of the Turkish Earthquake: Turkish Internet

Ege University

Malcolm I. HEYWOOD <>
Dokuz Eylul University


This paper relates the facilities of the Internet in general and its usage in the developing countries, with particular application to the Turkish 1999 earthquake. The authors believe that increasing and supporting the usage of the Internet in developing countries like Turkey will improve cooperation, knowledge sharing and participation when natural disasters such as earthquakes occur.


1. Introduction

One of the attributes that makes the Internet so popular is the ability to withstand partial outages and still function as a medium for transferring video, audio and text simultaneously. Not only does it offer the promise of robustness, but it effectively provides the basis for bandwidth self-regulation, and is thus scalable to large numbers of end users of widely varying needs. Thus, the Internet in developing countries has the potential to become a significant factor in enabling millions of people to improve their standard of living. Particularly by becoming better informed about their environment, they are therefore more able to participate in the decision-making process of their nation. The desire for information in developing nations has the potential to push decision-makers towards identifying key sources of critical data and supplying these data via the Internet. This paper relates the facilities of the Internet in general and its usage in Turkey, with particular application to the Turkish 1999 earthquakes.

A major earthquake caught people off guard in Turkey, Izmit, on August 17, 1999, at 03:02AM while they were asleep. A second occurred on November 12, 1999, at 18:58PM in Duzce. Thousands died and thousands more were wounded. People lost their lives, homes, livelihoods and dreams. In the wake of this earthquake, many national and international communities offered help and assistance. However, it rapidly became apparent that one of the main obstacles to efficiency in conducting the rescue operation was the lack of coordination in the earthquake region. A significant contributing factor was the disruption to the telecommunications infrastructure. All the phone lines were overloaded; even the mobile phones were not working. It soon became apparent that the only reliable working telecommunication medium was the Internet. As a consequence, it became the medium of choice for informing volunteers and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), both nationally and internationally, about the needs of the earthquake region. In order to achieve these objectives, specific discussion lists were formed, whiteboards were established and many websites were set up. In this study, the usage and implementation of the Internet facilities to fulfill the objectives of the Turkish earthquake region are discussed. To do so, this study brings together information contributed from NGOs, national government and private individuals directly affected by the quake. General trends are also identified in the usage of Internet resources in the aftermath of such a natural disaster.

The authors of this paper believe that increasing and supporting the usage of the Internet in developing countries like Turkey will improve cooperation, knowledge sharing and participation in medium- and long-term projects. This will ensure that when natural disasters such as earthquakes occur, the lack of coordination, information and trust may be minimized.

2. Effect of earthquakes on telecommunication infrastructure

Before attempting to assess the effects of an earthquake on a disaster region, it is first useful to divide the available telecommunication infrastructure into two parts: that available to public individuals and that available to state bodies or private organizations. For the purposes of this study, we are principally interested in the former, where this is extended to include NGOs as well. Such a distinction is made due to the comparatively high level of utilization made of the Internet by public individuals, in comparison to that of the state in developing countries, and the over-riding necessity that individuals in developing countries help themselves at times of disaster. Additional comments will, however, be made to include the use of the Internet by private organizations as and when required (e.g., as in the dissipation of information by news organizations).

From the perspective of a public individual in Turkey, the following methods of telecommunication are deemed available: mobile phones (1 per 12 individuals); privately owned, copper-based telephones (approximately 1 per 3 individuals). On the other hand, the public will be expected to have access to various forms of national and international media, the most notable examples of which are radio (national and regional -- approximately 400 channels all over the country), cable TV (national and international -- 1 per 34 individuals), satellite and terrestrial TV (national and international -- 1 per 20 individuals). The role of this last category naturally falls into that of disseminating information, preferably live, as it occurs at the scene. A graphic example of this from the Turkish earthquake experience was the use of footage taken by a national terrestrial TV provider whose office was in Istanbul. At 3.00AM when the quake occurred, the office security camera captured the event, or rather the effect of the event on the contents of the organization's offices. The first time at which information regarding the quake appeared on the Internet, and therefore in an international form, was 10 minutes after the earthquake when the CNN website reported with pictorial information [1], and the source of this information was the Turkish NTV news channel [2].

The immediate aftermath of the August 17th quake resulted in widespread disruption to both basic utilities, transport networks and telecommunication facilities. The state control of information in developing countries such as Turkey means that it is very difficult to be specific about the number of affected sites. Table 1, however, does provide quantitative figures where available (roads and bridges closed, disconnected power lines, phone switches rendered inoperative, broken train lines, disruption to radio broadcasting stations or telecommunication repeater stations, backbone links that were broken or subjected to power loss).

Moreover, given the time of the disaster, most of the population was sleeping and unable to escape the immediate after effects of the quake. This meant that the apparatus for decision making, be they official state representatives or NGOs, first had to convene a forum for decision making. Unfortunately, the above disruption to the transport and telecommunication infrastructure made public (copper-based) phones useless. The principal remaining alternative form of voice-based communication was therefore mobile phones. The success in using mobile phones for communication between isolated individuals in environments not conducive to copper-based telephony is well established. Examples include the use of car phones to alert medical organizations in the case of road accidents and heart attacks. In the case of the quake, they provided a similar facility in alerting rescue authorities as to the whereabouts of trapped individuals [3]. However, mobile phones are subject to the same bandwidth constraints as copper-based platforms. Hence, the volume of prospective users in the aftermath of the quake, at best, rendered the medium an unreliable form of communication. In the following sections, the contribution of the Internet to the rescue operation is summarized in terms of Internet facilities and applications.

Table 1. Preliminary Casualty Assessment as Reported by Government Crisis Center (Last Update: 09 Sep 1999)
Earthquake Deaths Injured
Izmit earthquake 15,370 (about as many missing) 24,000
Duzce earthquake 700 1,500
Table 2. Building/Household Damages as Reported by Government Crisis Center (Last Update: 09 Sep 1999
Type Number
Households damaged beyond repair (medium damage to heavy damage and total collapse) 120,000
Heavily damaged to collapsed households 50,000
Collapsed (pancake or similar) buildings 2,000
Heavily damaged buildings 4,000
Number of people that need to be housed 600,000
Table 3. Monetary Losses as Reported by Government Crisis Center (Last Update: 09 Sep 1999
Type Number
Industrial facilities (majority insured, about 15 billion USD insured value) 2 billion USD
Buildings (about 8% insurance penetration) 5 billion USD
Railroads 1 billion USD
Highways 0.2 billion USD
Ports 0.2 billion USD
Socioeconomic losses As much as physical losses
Total losses 16 billion USD (about 7% GDP)

3. Facilities of the Internet applicable to natural disasters

As indicated in Tables 2 and 3 the earthquake inflicted significant losses, both of a humanitarian nature and to the infrastructure. Moreover, the earthquake region covers a significant geographic region of the country (spans a region of approximately 120km by 45km), which also represents 70% of the industrial base. The rescue operation therefore faces a multitude of problems, not just because the transportation and telecommunication infrastructure is badly damaged, but also because of the degree of disorganization and lack of information.

As indicated above, when a natural disaster occurs, the first objective is to establish communication with the people in the region, and preferably with those able to facilitate information collection, organization and decision making process. In such a case, the telephone network typically represents the first medium employed. However, as mentioned above, during the Izmit earthquake, the telecommunication infrastructure was so extensively damaged that it proved impossible to even control access to emergency services alone. This rendered the use of public phones almost impossible. On the other hand, some of the mobile phone network was still working, but again with much reduced bandwidth. (Mobile phones rely on a microwave; hence they are a line-of-sight-based communication medium. In an industrialized region in which housing is based on multistory apartments, many of the microwave repeaters would also be mounted on apartment buildings, hence destined to the same fate.)

Moreover, use of a voice-based communication medium represents a very inefficient utilization of communication bandwidth. That is to say, duplex telephony occupies an entire line between arbitrary points for the duration of the conversation, irrespective of the voice content. Data-based communication, however, is both much more robust and efficient in the utilization of the available communication bandwidth. In particular, a data network has a variable traffic load arising from each end-to-end transaction [4]. The Internet protocol (TCP, transmission control protocol) attempts to adapt load to the characteristics of the network using a flow-control algorithm. Therefore, as long as there is a medium to carry the data, the data network will work. This gave the Internet a unique advantage over other mediums of communication after the disaster.

In addition, given that specialist personnel are in short supply during times of disaster, this also implies that the asynchronous nature of the Internet actually facilitated more efficient utilization of such personnel. That is to say, rather than disrupting the work of specialist personnel by repeated requests in real time, such personnel are in a position to receive information in real time but prioritize how they respond. Examples of Internet mediums that facilitate such a method of operation are discussion lists, whiteboards and e-mail itself. How they were used during the Turkish earthquakes will be dealt with in more detail in the next section.

Having convened the initial meetings between decision-making individuals (state or NGO), the next objective is to stay in touch and monitor progress. All the above applications naturally support such activities, with the advantage that pictorial information may also be communicated. A final aspect of the Internet is that, due to the often overlooked significance of the medium by national governments, the level of debate and distribution of information is often much more frank than that expressed using radio, TV or newspapers. In short, since the data network will work as long as there is a medium, the Internet becomes the most reliable tool to send information, request help and/or organize volunteers. Facilities such as e-mail, discussion lists and the World Wide Web are fast, are very easy to use and have the potential to provide millions of users with information.

4. Applications of the Internet during Turkish earthquakes

Several Internet applications were used during the two Turkish earthquakes. In the first case, we distinguish between communicating with population(s) outside of the effected region and those inside the affected region. In the first case, the majority of information takes one of two forms, either requests for donations or information regarding the affected region. The Internet played significant roles in both cases. In the case of donations, in order for a donation to be useful it is necessary for donated material to be specific and timely. That is to say, the requirements of victims and survivors are different and vary depending on the time elapsed since their rescue. Moreover, the efficient distribution of donations once obtained also has a decisive factor on the survival rate of the victims. The initially low level of state support in these activities contributed further to this aspect of the donation problem. In effect the donors also found themselves acting as the distributors as well. NGOs played a central role in the provision of discussion lists for the coordination of donations, so much so that donors could explicitly identify where to find those in most need, what they were in need of and in some cases how to get there. Finally, another important aspect of communicating with the population at large is to provide information regarding the whereabouts of family members. In this case many organizations formed "Message Lines," which acted as a database of people found, their condition or the degree of damage to the region in which relatives live.

In the case of communicating with those inside the affected region, we highlight the issue of coordinating volunteers (international or national) during the rescue operation. In particular, it became specifically important to provide volunteers capable of acting as translators for international rescue teams or more generally to direct specialists to the most needy. For example, during the first days of the search and rescue activities, volunteers or rescue teams coming from abroad were unable to locate guides or translators capable of directing them to the earthquake region. This of course lost valuable time in the most sensitive period if the maximum numbers of survivors were to be found. Moreover, many Turkish people wanted to help by working in the region but did not know what they could do or where they could go. However, once NGOs and government bodies began to broadcast information on the Net using the web and e-mail facilities, anyone who wanted to help or learn more about the region could access the correct information. This especially helped the international society to learn more about the region and also many Turkish students/academicians to volunteer their expertise as and when required.

Specific examples of websites established by NGOs to give information about the earthquake region include, but are not limited to,

Examples of government agencies and private organizations include, but are not limited to,

Finally, as is shown in Figure 1 and Figure 2, not only were the various needs of people in the earthquake region announced on websites or discussion lists (in order to collect medicine, food, clothes and any other basic goods that are needed to survive in the region), but also, donations of money were collected over the Net by broadcasting the relevant bank account numbers. For example, the AKUT organization received 3500 e-mails in one month regarding the best way for individuals to provide aid to the people in the earthquake region [5]. Furthermore, many of the aforementioned applications (e-mail, discussion lists and Internet chat) were also used to control the flow of information among the members of the NGOs.

Figure 1. Website of AKUT (the only search and rescue team in Turkey)

Figure 2. A website set up by one of the universities in Turkey

5. Quality of life with and without Internet support

The Web, providing as it does the ability for material to be published to a worldwide audience with generally available computing equipment, software, and network connections, provides an attractive method for communication. Turkey tried to make use of all these mediums during the earthquake.

However, examination of the information placed on the Web shows that there are further issues that require addressing by the Web community. For example,

On a more positive note, the World Wide Web (WWW) has been growing at a logarithmic pace for several years now and shows no sign of slowing down, barring bandwidth and throughput problems. As it becomes as ubiquitous as the telephone, the Internet and WWW are being adopted as a medium of choice for people in any subject. This has several sociological implications. In particular the percentage of newspaper readership in Turkey is a mere 2%. On the other hand 70% of the population [6] watch TV on a regular basis, where there are no controls to ensure the independence of the broadcasters (most of the national channels in Turkey are owned by politicians or large corporations with strong political affiliations). The combination of TV and Internet access may well significantly improve the ability of the population to find good independent debate.

People in the developing world are using the Internet in groups. Most of the applications that are used are e-mail, file-transfer, traditional client/server applications, and the WWW for broadcasting news and information about their country [7]. However, if the Internet is to be socially beneficial, it needs to be used for alleviating poverty, improving access to health care and education, conserving and fairly distributing resources, and strengthening participation in decision-making processes. Thus, in the wake of the Turkish earthquakes, Turkish people got more familiar with the Internet. They actually used it to improve their life standards, decision making process, and coordination of people and aid for the natural disasters. This shows that the success of the Internet should be measured less in terms of sheer numbers of connected individuals and more in terms of accessibility and contribution to social progress in the developing countries as seen, for example, in the wake of the Turkish earthquake.


  1. CNN website,
  2. NTV website,
  3. NTV archive,
  4. Huston G., ISP Survival Guide: Strategies for Running a Competitive ISP, Wiley Computer Publishing, 1999
  5. AKUT, Internet Services Administrator,
  6. The Institute of State Statistics,
  7. Zincir-Heywood, A.N., Heywood, M.I., Regulations, Funding, and the Turkish Internet, INET'99, San Jose, USA, 1999