A water crisis of Turkey’s own making

Ataturk Dam Euphrates River Turkey
(File photo: Jordan News)

Alarming meteorological imbalances topped with decades of poor water management are pushing Turkey to the brink of an avoidable hydrologic crisis. The data speaks volumes.اضافة اعلان

In 2022, Turkey experienced its warmest December in more than half a century, as the average temperature hit 8°C — 3.2 degrees above previous averages. The heatwave was made worse by record low rainfall. Over the last three months, rainfall totalswere40 percent lower than three decades ago, and30 percent lower than 2021.

Climate change is not unique to Turkey.Europespentthe first months ofwinter with little snowas ski lifts stopped turning and holidays were canceled.Extreme temperatures havebankrupted farmers in Argentina, sparkedwildfiresin the US, and fueled gender inequalityworldwide.

But in Turkey’s case, a lack of preventative measures has contributed to abnormal conditions that are affecting millions across the country.

Turkey is awater-stressed country. According to theState Hydraulic Works, the annual amount of usable water per capita in Turkey fell from 1,652 cubic meters in 2000 to 1,346cubic metersin 2020. TheFalkenmark indicator, a widely used measure to gauge water scarcity, labels countries with less than1,700 cubic metersper capita as “stressed”. 

Water availability per person in Turkey is expectedto drop even further this year, to 1,200 cubic meters, which is one reason why the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that 60 percent of Turkey’s land area isprone to desertification.

Turkey’s largest cities — such as Izmir, Istanbul, and Ankara — have already been declared water scarce by theWorld Wildlife Fund. Two years ago, the reservoirs supplying water to Istanbul fell below 25 percent capacity, thelowest in 15 years. This led the Istanbul Water and Sewage Administration (ISKI) to call for voluntary water conservation. Levent Kurnaz, a climate expert at Bogazici University, says water conditions are so bad that Istanbul’s population might eventuallyneed to be capped.

Mitigating climate change is no longer sufficient. We must also adapt. Unfortunately, Turkey’s leaders only recently began taking environmental concerns seriously. For instance, the countryratified the 2015 Paris climate agreementjust two years ago and continuously underperforms in meeting climate targets. The 2023 Climate Change Performance Index, which measures climate progress in 63 countries in Europe and around the world, placesTurkey at number 47 below Egypt, India, and Belarus.
Simply put, the lack of preventative measures has contributed to Turkey’s drought conditions.

In the last 20 years, 60 percent of the country’s 320 lakes have shrunk or dried up completely. Runaway urbanization, commercial activities, and farming missteps have fueled the crisis.

Lake Marmara, in the country’s west, is one of the casualties. Between 2011 and 2021, the lakedecreased 98 percent. Once a bird sanctuary that was home to 101 different species, Lake Marmara is now a barren wasteland, and government officials have done next to nothing to reverse the damage. In response, a group of local fishermen have sued the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in Turkey’sfirst ever climate change-related lawsuit.

Cem Altiparmak, a lawyer representing the group, says damming upstream and overuse by area farms caused the lake to vanish. But despite repeated pleas for intervention, local water officials “constantly turned a deaf ear to … solution proposals,” he said.

Mitigating climate change is no longer sufficient. We must also adapt. If a water crisis is to be averted, Turkey must shift from a construction-based model of development to a more sustainable solution.
One of those solutions is agricultural reform. Currently, 73 percent of Turkey’s total water supply isused for irrigation. Farmers mainly use surface irrigation, which leads to runoff and depletes groundwater at a high rate. By converting to drip irrigation, farmers couldcut water use in half, saving the country some38 billion cubic metersannually.

Although Turkey has updated its farm regulations to meet EU standards, most farmers continue to waste water. The country’s newwater management law, which includes regulations on dams, ponds, and hydroelectric power plants, omits agricultural irrigation entirely.

This is not surprising. The government has repeatedly launched environmental projects only to abandon them by the next news cycle. Among the most egregious was its “1,071 ponds in 1,000 days” initiative, a 2016 plan to build irrigation basins across the country. The project died a quietdeath after not being completed.

Another high-profile gaffe was President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s tree planting project — an ambitious effort to plant11 million saplingson National Forestation Day in November four years ago. Ninety percent of thesaplings later died.

The governing Justice and Development Party isn’t fond of expert opinion and presses on with its own agenda, regardless of the consequences. We saw this on devastating display most recently with the earthquakes that claimed tens of thousands of lives. Engineers believe that if building regulations were enforced, far fewer buildings would have fallen, andfewer people would have died.

Turkey’s water is also too valuable to gamble with. If a water crisis is to be averted, Turkey must shift from a construction-based model of development to a more sustainable solution. The government must also start listening to its own experts — and the reams of data they produce.

Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs toculture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise, and Istanbul Art News.

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