Turkey on the precipice of climate disaster as lakes dry and forests burn

As climate conference Cop26 approaches, Turkey should be doing more to help its environment, experts say

From a distance, eastern Turkey’s White Lake still looks wet. A greenish residue left behind by its waters creates a mirage from the hills above, but get closer and all that is there is hard cracked mud.

Locals say the lake, known as Ak Gol in Turkish, used to be full in summer but for the first time this year it has completely dried up. It is just one stark warning in what has been a terrifying year for Turkey’s climate.

Hit by a blistering heatwave this summer, parts of Turkey recorded the country’s highest temperatures yet, while severe droughts led to flash flooding near the Black Sea that killed almost 100 people.

The worst wildfires in living memory raged for nearly two months along the south-west coast, usually a tourism hot spot, scorching almost 200,000 hectares of land. Eight people were killed, including two firefighters, with damage to the delicate forest ecosystem projected to take more than six decades to recover.

Prolonged dry spells along with diminished groundwater levels caused sink holes to open in central Anatolia, while a revolting “sea snot” caused by an explosion of phytoplankton plagued the Sea of Marmara. Fishermen in the area told The National that it was wrecking their trade.

As much as 60 per cent of the country’s 300 natural lakes have dried up over the past 50 years. The losses are devastating for wildlife and the people who make a living from the land.

Gorsum, 20, a shepherd who lives in a small farming village next to what were the banks of Ak Gol, said that life has become difficult for people there, too.

“The sheep don’t have grass to eat now, so it’s affecting us a lot,” he said.

“We don’t let the big animals graze here any more. This year the snow and rain didn’t come and for the last few years it was not much. This place is changing.”

The Mediterranean Basin has been singled out by the United Nations as a climate hot spot, with Turkey the worst affected part this year. They say more than half the country’s land area is prone to desertification.

After a difficult 2021, Turkey in September became the last G20 country to ratify the Paris Agreement to tackle climate change, almost five years after it came into effect. But critics claim the motivation was €3.1 billion ($3.6 billion) in World Bank-funded loans towards meeting clean energy goals rather than genuine commitment to lasting change.

While President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to attend the UN’s Cop26 climate summit in Scotland later this month, there are as yet no plans to cancel any of the large construction projects the country is working on, many of them a cause of concern for environmentalists.

Chief among them is the $9bn Kanal Istanbul, which will carve a new waterway through Europe's most populous city, threatening already stretched water sources and destroying forests and wetlands.

Mr Erdoğan has also encouraged investment in intensive agriculture, manufacturing and tourism, all of which are thought to have a negative impact on nature, as well as huge coal and hydroelectric projects to supply power.

“Turkey has been dragging its feet on climate change for years. There has actually been a significant increase in carbon emissions in recent years – almost 100 per cent since the 1990s,” said Prof Ecmel Erlat, a climate scientist at Ege University in Izmir.

“We still have about 32 coal power plants in Turkey, so no serious steps have been taken.”

Phasing out coal power is a key target for the Cop26 summit, but its use doubled in Turkey in the 10 years before 2018 and the fossil fuel generates a third of the country’s electricity.

Spokesman for Turkey’s Green Party, Koray Dogan Urbarlı, said that reducing reliance on fossil fuels is “not even being talked about” and that more needs to be done to help people whose lives are affected by the fall-out.

“Beekeeping is almost over in Mugla; farmers are in great distress due to drought – they should all be supported economically,” he said.

“More importantly, it is necessary to give importance to the restoration of natural areas. If we leave these places destroyed, things will only get worse.”

Updated: October 22nd 2021, 2:07 PM
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