Turkey spent only a fraction of forest protection budget before fires erupted

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces criticism for lack of firefighting planes

Turkish authorities battling the country's worst forest fires are accused of failing to prepare for the threat after official data showed they spent only a fraction of the modest funds budgeted to prevent forest fires this year.

Eight people have been killed in the fires, which have swept through Turkey's south-western coastal regions, forcing tens of thousands of people, including tourists, to flee and briefly threatening to engulf a power plant.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government is facing criticism that its response has been slow and inadequate – with opponents zeroing in on a lack of firefighting planes, which forced Ankara to scramble to procure them from abroad.

In the past two weeks, fires in Turkey have burnt an area more than three times what is affected in an average year, a European fire agency said. Neighbouring countries also battled blazes resulting from heatwaves and fanned by strong winds.

Turkey's state forestry agency said that in the first half of the year, it spent less than 2 per cent of the 200 million lira ($24 million) it had set aside this year for construction, projects and equipment used to fight forest fires.

In contrast, Portugal budgeted €224m ($265m) to prevent and combat forest fires this year, and Spain's central government budgeted €65m.

While countries may measure allocations differently, opposition politicians said the data published by Turkey's General Directorate of Forestry (OGM) showed Mr Erdogan's government disregarded a predictable danger.

“The OGM budget was planned as if there wasn't going to be any fires,” said Republican People's Party deputy Murat Emir, who filed parliamentary questions to the Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli on Tuesday.

“These figures show why there has not been effective intervention against the fires,” Mr Emir said. The ministry, he said, had been “caught unprepared".

The ministry did not immediately respond to Reuters questions about the spending, and it was not clear if other resources were allocated for forest fire protection apart from the forestry directorate budget.

No planes to fight fires

The government blamed the lack of resources on the Turkish Aeronautical Association, saying it failed to maintain a fleet of firefighting planes despite generous funding.

“They say 'We can't renew the planes due to material difficulties', whereas they could have used this money to renew the planes rather than spending it elsewhere,” Mr Pakdemirli told the Haberturk news website.

Among the 16 planes and 51 helicopters in the current operation are aircraft from Russia, Spain, Ukraine, Croatia, Iran and Azerbaijan.

Mr Emir, the opposition politician, noted that the OGM report showed forest-fire-related spending plans included the purchase of 26 helicopters, for which spending plans set aside a nominal sum of only 1,000 lira ($119).

He asked the minister why resources for helicopter purchases had not been allocated if the ministry did not have enough planes or helicopters.

The report budgeted 40m lira to build an aircraft and helicopter hangar and 15m lira to buy walkie-talkies, but showed no funds were spent on these in the first half of the year.

It also showed planned construction of 192 kilometres of fire safety roads, with just 34km completed so far.

In a television interview on Wednesday, Mr Erdogan said the opposition was spreading a “terrorism of lies” concerning the firefighting operation. His government had handled natural disasters professionally during its 19 years in power, he said.

The Peoples' Democratic Party, parliament's third-largest political force, has requested an investigation, alleging fire preparations and responses were late and inadequate.

It also voiced concern about Turkey not ratifying the Paris accord on climate change – the only G20 country not to do so yet – and linked the issue to the fires.

“The non-ratification of this accord is a reflection of the government policies which have led to massacres of nature,” the party said.

Updated: August 6th 2021, 9:24 AM