For the past 10 days, as many as 32 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, mostly in the country’s southern and western regions, have been battling the worst forest fires in decades.
Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli insists that only a few of the 180 fires remain to be extinguished. But already they have claimed the lives of eight people, including two firemen, killed countless animals and severely affected more than 100,000 hectares of land, thereby damaging the region’s ecology and natural beauty. Thousands of people have had to leave their homes.
With President Recep Tayyip Erdogan facing a rising tide of public anger, his government is attempting to pass the buck, even though it has become amply clear that it was ill-prepared for such a calamity. There is no substitute for preparedness for when disaster strikes and rather than engaging in a pointless blame game, it should be focusing on ensuring that mistakes are not repeated in the future.
Summer fires are not uncommon in this part of the world, as they play a role in the forest ecology. But they are bigger this year, having engulfed other parts of the Mediterranean, including Greece and Lebanon. Scientists attribute a number of factors, including soaring temperatures, a months-long drought and strong winds. Speculation has also focused on arson in some cases, with claims by Mr Erdogan himself that the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party was involved in setting fires. One arrest linked to a fire was reported in the Mugla province and two boys are said to have burned books on forest land in nearby Marmaris.
While dealing with potential arsonists is a policing issue, the disaster itself could have been mitigated with better preparedness. Turkey's state forestry agency, for instance, reportedly spent less than two per cent of the 200 million lira ($24 million) it had set aside in 2021 for construction, projects and equipment used to fight forest fires in the first half of the year. It is even more evident that the expenditure towards disaster relief is inadequate, particularly for a country as rich as Turkey, when one compares the agency’s budget with, say, Portugal’s (one tenth) and Spain's (half). It also begs the question as to why Ankara felt compelled to borrow planes and helicopters from other countries.
Turkey and its neighbours are certainly not alone in confronting ecological disasters in recent weeks. The US had to deal with some of the worst wildfires on record, while floods wreaked havoc on parts of Western Europe, India and China. And while the climate emergency is a reality for the planet as a whole, it is easy to become fatalistic about it and call environmental catastrophes “acts of God”, as many often do.
Yet, rather than feeling helpless or playing politics – as the Erdogan government has by way of blaming opposition parties running regional governments in the disaster-affected areas – it is infinitely more useful to examine what needs to be done to be better prepared for increasingly common calamities in the future.
More than 12,000 kilometres away, the 2019-20 bushfires in Australia have proved so devastating that governments at all levels have begun to lay the groundwork for a post-coal future. First State, Australia’s second largest superannuation fund, for instance, has divested from thermal coal and contributed $750 million into renewable and low-emission technology. Change has been slow, but the wheels have been set in motion.
Tragic as these fires have been, they present Ankara – and indeed other capitals in the Mena and Mediterranean regions – with an opportunity to re-look at their respective national environmental policies, as Australia has, at a time when climate action has become an urgent necessity.