International conference: How Natural Disasters Impact Society

On July 19th, 2023, Bahçeşehir University hosted Project Aladdin’s international conference on “How Natural Disasters Impact Society”. The devastating earthquakes of February 2023 in Turkey and Syria served as a reminder that environmental changes and natural disasters are not contained by state borders. The importance of international solidarity in the fight against climate change and degrading natural environments was particularly underlined. Gathering prominent figures from the political and diplomatic sphere, heads of UN agencies, scholars and experts, this event was an important opportunity to discuss how to better anticipate catastrophes and spark new solutions.

The panel was composed of H.E. Ambassador Jonathan R. Cohen, former US Ambassador and Distinguished Fellow at the Royal United Service Institute; Dr. Giovanni Di Cola, Officer in Charge of the ILO Office in Turkey; Philippe Leclerc, Representative of the UNHCR in Turkey; Louisa Vinton, Resident Representative of the UNDP in Turkey; and Prof. Dr. Nilüfer Narlı, Chair of the Department of Sociology, Bahçeşehir University, who moderated this exchange.

Prof. Dr. Nilüfer Narlı opened the debate with remarks on how Turkish society dealt with the February 2023 earthquakes and the survivor guilt that plagued citizens.

Louisa Vinton pointed to the responsibility of decision makers when it comes to catastrophe management. According to her, it is the way authorities handle natural events that turn them into a natural disaster. She concluded by underlining that as the state of our climate deteriorates, disaster preparation will become more difficult: it is time to act today for a         better tomorrow.

Dr. Di Cola provided insight on the work done on the ground by the ILO, especially in Turkey, by shedding a light on how international organizations adapt to each situation. According to him, the challenge of disaster recovery is that “there is more than one reality of a crisis”, as each affected party has a different interpretation of the event. It is therefore up to the organization to listen to all voices in order to rebuild in a way that considers everyone.

Philippe Leclerc spoke on the importance of including all victims of natural disasters and looking beyond differences in times of urgency. In this spirit, he recalled the work of the UNHCR to provide accommodation and emergency support not only to those who hold refugee status but to Turkish citizens as well in the wake of the 2023 earthquakes.

Ambassador Cohen broached the topic of responsibility in fighting climate change, and the opportunity that working with the private sector could represent, as countries may not always have sufficient means, but companies might. By making going green more attractive, it becomes easier to join efforts with all relevant parties in the fight against climate change.

These discussions were an important opportunity to take stock of the actions of international agencies, and to share best practices from past disasters in order to better prepare for those to come. While these are unavoidable due to climate change, improving infrastructure and increasing the capacity of governments to act in tandem with international organizations will help minimize the devastating consequences of catastrophes. Project Aladdin continues its important mission of education by uniting the fight against climate change and the fight against inequality: it is essential to lead these fights together.