In Syria, the earthquake that struck the country on February 06 caused 819 buildings to collapse fully and 5,890 to collapse partially in the Idlib governorate. The damage killed 2,114 people, according to statistics issued by the Syrian Salvation Government’s (SSG) Emergency Response Committee (ERC) on February 23.
This article will explore the reasons for those residential building collapses in the cities of Salqin and Harem, as well as the village of Basania, which all saw a similar pattern of informal urban expansion in recent years to meet the huge demand for housing from people forcibly displaced by the war.
In Salqin, a city in the northwestern part of the Idlib governorate, 33 buildings collapsed entirely and 60 buildings partially. More than 500 people were killed, including around 400 people originally from the city. The remaining victims were people who had been displaced to Salqin from other parts of the country, according to the ERC’s statistics.
Because Salqin sits along the Syrian-Turkish border, Russian and Syrian regime warplanes did not target the city with aerial bombardment, making the area a relatively safe refuge for displaced Syrians. However, the relocation of internally displaced populations led to massive overcrowding in the city. By the end of 2022, Salqin had a population of 200,000 people, according to local opposition authorities, from only 75,000 in 2004, the year of the last official census.
The earthquake did not damage old houses built before 2011. Instead, destruction was concentrated in newer, informal housing areas on the city’s outskirts that did not meet structural safety standards. Much of the damage was in Al-Qusour and Al-Sulaikha neighbourhoods and opposite Al-Rifia School in Sadoun Square, which is no longer functioning.
The city witnessed widespread informal urbanisation in response to increased demand for housing by people displaced to opposition-held areas of Syria. Most of the buildings that had collapsed – whether fully or partially – were newly constructed, all unlicensed, and had at least four storeys. Yet, no proper engineering studies were conducted to determine whether certain buildings could bear additional storeys.
Outside of Salqin, the damage extended to 25 towns and villages, including Al-Hamzia, where 50 homes collapsed; Taloul, where 40 homes collapsed; and Azmarin, where 14 collapsed. These towns and villages are located along the Orontes River, where the soil is soft and unsuitable for safe construction.
Most people who fled their homes after discovering cracks in their buildings moved into 17 shelter centres in Salqin and the surrounding areas. Most of these centres were mosques and camps.
Like Salqin, Harem, a city in the rural northwestern part of the Idlib governorate, also witnessed incoming waves of displacement during the conflict. More than 70,000 people relocated to the city by late 2022, according to local estimates, from 12,000 residents in 2004.
The resettlement of displaced populations led to the widespread unlicensed construction of entire informal neighbourhoods. These areas faced massive damage during the earthquake, especially the neighbourhoods of Karam Al-Marad and Al-Qasha. The local council in Harem counted 35 buildings that collapsed fully and 360 that sustained cracks.
Around 500 people were killed during the earthquake, including more than 100 people from one building alone. The Al-Bakhara Building was constructed in 2018 without a licence on privately owned land that a contractor had purchased. The building, distinguished by its location overlooking the Amaq Valley, had six storeys, each with four apartments that the contractor sold to doctors, medical workers, and NGO employees.
Those who survived the earthquake in Harem moved in with city residents whose homes were still safe. Another 400 families moved to four shelter centres in the city and its outskirts.
Basania investment project
The town of Basania, which is located west of Harem, hosts a new residential investment development known as Al-Batal Residential Project. The project, located in the northeast of the city, consisted of 20 five-storey apartment buildings.
Except for just one building, the entire residential project collapsed fully, killing 200 people, according to the ERC’s statistics. What remained of the building was at risk of collapsing fully. Teams from the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, demolished the building by detonating its foundations.
Construction on the Basania project, which is on private agricultural land, broke ground in 2017. Three investors participated in the project without obtaining licences from municipal or engineering authorities. Two of those investors were killed when the project’s buildings collapsed.
The cost of each of the project’s 100-square-metre apartments was USD 4,000 to purchase, i.e. USD 40 per square metre. The homes were considered cheap, given that construction costs for other apartments in the same area were around 55 USD per square metre at the time.
It appears that the low prices were due to poor construction and materials. Civil Defense teams reported that they faced difficulties during their post-earthquake rescue work in the project due to the fragility of the roofs, columns, and shear walls, according to The Syria Report‘s correspondent in the area. The walls of the apartments had been turned to gravel after the earthquake, impeding rescue operations.
The SSG’s Ministry of Justice and the various Idlib governorate branches of the Syndicate of Syrian Engineers formed a committee to investigate why the project collapsed. The ministry took samples from the reinforced concrete of the collapsed buildings for study.