by Çiğdem Özgen, guest contributor
Şanlıurfa/Haliliye, Türkiye. 7th of February, 2023. Photo by Ömer Çörten
From the city of Gaziantep in southern Türkiye (the country formerly called ‘Turkey’), close to the epicenters of the strong earthquakes that recently killed thousands of people, it is easy to think, “it all started here.” And by “it all”, I mean human civilization.
About 150 kilometers east of Gaziantep (less than 100 miles) in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains, is Göbekli Tepe, a Neolithic-era complex at least 10,000 years old that contains the world’s oldest-known megaliths. Its purpose is still debated, but it has been described as the “world’s first temple” and believed to be some sort of seasonal encampment that had few or no permanent inhabitants. Regardless of its purpose, its construction was clearly an important step on humanity’s path to who we are today.
About 500 kilometers to the west of Gaziantep are the ruins of Çatalhöyük, an early proto-city that was home to perhaps 10,000 people at its peak, making it the largest settlement in the world eight thousand years ago.
And just outside Gaziantep run the headwaters of the Euphrates, one of the two great waterways that define Mesopotamia, ‘the land between the rivers’. The waters run south through Syria and then Iraq, and near their fertile shores far downriver you will find the sites of ancient Uruk, Babylon, and numerous other legendary places that made up the cradle of civilization. Somewhere in these lands people invented agriculture and first domesticated sheep and cattle, invented writing and pottery, and invented (or at least, rapidly adopted) the wheel.
From the sites near Gaziantep, and from the myriad other sites scattered throughout Türkiye – what I call the ‘world’s largest museum’ – it is also easy to think “this could all come crashing down” at any time.
Türkiye is home to 85 million people of which 16 million live in Istanbul, myself included. In this country you will find the church-turned-mosque the Hagia Sophia, Nicea (where the Christian ‘Nicene Creed’ was formulated), the cave dwellings of Cappadocia, and the ancient cities of Antioch, Troy, and the Hittite capital of Hattusa. Alexander the Great passed through these lands, as did Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta. The Greeks ruled here, and so did the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Ottomans.
In fact it was the Hittites, Romans, and Byzantines who built and expanded Gaziantep Castle, whose walls came crashing down in the earthquakes that struck on February 6, after standing for nearly two thousand years.
Then the Earthquakes Struck
Those back-to-back earthquakes, each ranking above 7 on the Richter Scale, impacted more than just the castle. Ten cities in the area have been devastated, leaving more than 35,000 people dead (at latest count) in Türkiye and across the border in Syria, and many more missing and unaccounted for. Not including those two, there have been sixteen other deadly earthquakes in Türkiye since the year 2000. One in August 1999 killed more than 17,000 people. Another in 1939 killed nearly double that.
Earthquakes are not the only natural disasters you will find here. In 2009, flash floods in Istanbul killed more than thirty people. Wildfires along Türkiye’s southern Mediterranean coast killed nine people in 2021 and burned more than 1700 square kilometers (650 square miles). Also in 2021, the Sea of Marmara, which separates Europe from Asia, became infested with ‘sea snot’, a sort of phytoplankton slime caused in part by wastewater and agricultural runoff entering the water.
So disasters are nothing new here. But what is new, for first time in Türkiye’s long history, are the technology disruptions unfolding right now in areas like energy, transportation, and agriculture that RethinkX has extensively described in their reports and presentations. With proper governance (always an uncertainty in a country like Türkiye), my country could become significantly more resilient to disasters with an electric system based on solar power, wind power, and batteries (SWB), transportation based on autonomous, electric vehicles (AEVs), and an agricultural system that uses precision fermentation and cellular agriculture (PFCA).
These recent earthquakes could provide lessons that would be useful around the world.
The Disaster After the Disaster
The danger from the Gaziantep earthquakes did not end when the ground stopped shaking. In many ways, it only just began. The temperatures in that area fell to a few degrees below freezing at night, and only a few degrees above freezing during the day. Tens of thousands of people in the area, some of my own family included, were left temporarily homeless by the quakes, and therefore at risk of hypothermia.
Fossil fuels are difficult to transport and distribute along damaged and rubble-strewn roads. An explosion in a natural gas pipeline was caused by the quake. Operation of oil pipelines was disrupted. Unfortunately, Türkiye relies on fossil fuels for the vast majority of its energy supply, including almost all transport. However, Türkiye in general, and particularly the area near Gaziantep and to the south and east, is blessed with sunshine. The northwest coast and upland regions have ample wind.
For inspiration as to what can be done, Türkiye should look to the people of Vietnam. Although there was basically no solar power generation in that country in 2018, just four years later, solar power accounted for more than 10% of the nation’s electric demand. According to the Rapid Transition Alliance, “in 2010, the South East Asian country was ranked 196th in the world according to its solar energy capacity. By 2021, Viet Nam had climbed to ninth in the global rankings, jumping above both Spain and France”.
Electricity is more than for heating and cooking. Electric power is also the primary means in most parts of the world to pump clean water for drinking and bathing. Lose electricity and a disruption turns into a disaster.
Finding a Path Out of the Rubble
Although electric cars are not yet common here, Türkiye is a major automotive production center and it is reasonable to think that, as lithium-ion batteries get cheaper and therefore electric cars and trucks more affordable, electric vehicles will get more popular. In a disaster situation, the power reserves held in their batteries could be life savers. Even if they could not supply power to the general electrical grid, electric vehicles could be used directly to recharge phones, lights, and portable tools.
The Turkish people are planning to spend US$15 Billion to dig the new Istanbul Canal, a channel which will run parallel to the Bosporus Strait that connects the Black Sea to the outside world. According to Wikipedia: “the stated purpose of the project is to reduce the large marine traffic through the Bosporus and minimise the risks and dangers associated particularly with tankers.” Of approximately 41,000 ships that pass annually through the Bosporus, about 8000 are for moving oil.
But the rapid switch in wheeled transportation from combustion-powered to electric-powered, driven by the sort of autonomous robotaxis that are already on the road in places like San Francisco, California, and Phoenix, Arizona, going as quickly as cars replaced horses a century ago, would result in a steep drop in demand for oil products in the coming decade that could make the new canal obsolete before it even comes into service.
The money being spent on that project could be used instead in electrifying Türkiye’s transport, particularly in its largest urban areas. Electric scooters and motorcycles would be extremely useful in the aftermath of a disaster. Electric vessels and electric road vehicles, charged by distributed SWB power, would not only be useful in disaster scenarios, but would also improve urban air quality and noise levels at all other times too. Istanbul is already the world’s number one city for total passenger traffic by ferry. How many other places around the world might benefit from clean, low-maintenance ferry ships?
The geographic center of Türkiye could make an excellent location for an emergency logistics hub serviced by all-electric airplanes, as it is no more than 800 kilometers (500 miles) in any direction to almost any part of the country, within the range of the announced first generation of small aircraft that are soon entering production. Shorter-range electric VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft would certainly be helpful in transporting first responders. I ask the manufacturers of autonomous road vehicles to begin training their software systems now for the possibility of traversing rubble-littered streets in poor lighting and chaotic conditions. Even purely vision-based autonomous navigation systems might benefit from working out the bugs now.
And the stranding of old petroleum assets could provide a local business opportunity for the Turkish people. 40% of all the world’s large ocean-going vessels are used for moving fossil fuels and Türkiye is already one of the world’s leading centers for shipbreaking, the process of tearing apart old ships for recycling. Turning old oil carriers into the steel needed for renewable energy infrastructure could provide jobs for a long time.
Another use of steel, and of renewable power, would be to make the bioreactors needed for cellular agriculture and precision fermentation. Türkiye is one of the world’s top per capita consumers of dairy products. Although we do not consume as much as, say, Finland or Denmark, consumption of dairy in Türkiye is slightly below Sweden and slightly above Norway and above many other places that are thought of as dairy-loving countries, like Canada and Germany.
Factories for producing dairy without the use of animals are already in operation or under construction in places like the US, Denmark, and Israel. There is no point for Turks to wait for foreigners to set up factories. We should not only be constructing our own for cow milk and goat milk, but also for egg proteins, oils and other fats, and even meats.
Building Back to Build Forward
Dealing with major disasters requires a four-pronged approach: prevention, preparation, short-term response, and long-term recovery. Clean energy, electric transport, and modern food production can help with all of these. Preventing the worst effects of a disaster requires a strong and vibrant economy based on good-quality construction and high-performing tools (including vehicles). Preparation means having ample and functional emergency response equipment and training. And both the short-term response – focused on saving lives in the first days after a disaster event – and the long-term recovery in the months and years that follow the disaster, benefit from ample, distributed electric power.
Türkiye has a diverse economy based on agriculture, tourism, manufacturing, and services. All of these sectors can benefit from the disruptions that RethinkX describes, as long as the Turkish people choose to take advantage of them. Any people in the world could benefit from them, if they make the right choices.
My recommendation to Turks is to build on our existing automobile manufacturing industry to not only lead production of electric vehicles of all kinds, but to also diversify into humanoid robots. Wouldn’t thousands of strong, nimble humanoid robots be useful in a disaster situation? Wouldn’t they be useful at all other times as well? Lidar scanners are now cheap and portable, exactly as Tony Seba told us years ago that they would be. Of course, Türkiye’s cultural and historical heritage sites are being scanned with this technology. Everything else should be too – every street and building interior – in preparation for when that information might be needed. Türkiye should be a leader in PFCA food production. We were responsible for the first domestications of plants and animals. We should be responsible for the Second Domestication too.
We should take advantage of all of these new technologies now, since the next disaster could strike at any time. We can already look at agriculture, wheeled transport, urban living and say “it all started here”. In the decades from now we should be able to look at clean energy, clean transport, and clean food and say “it all started here”, too.