Climate shifts and rising demand leave Turkey battling growing water
Changing tide
Published: May 10, 2021 06:43 PM
In winter of 2020, the massive dams, and reservoirs that supply water to Istanbul's 15 million residents fell to critically low levels, sparking fears of shortages.

Flamingos and storks are seen at Dikilitas Pond in Golbasi district of Ankara, Turkey, on July 7, 2020. Photo: VCG

Flamingos and storks are seen at Dikilitas Pond in Golbasi district of Ankara, Turkey, on July 7, 2020. Photo: VCG

Late-arriving snow and rain ultimately gave Turkey's largest city a reprieve. But water and climate experts say the country's water worries are far from over - and more dams are part of the problem.

"Instead of trying to reduce our water demand, or decrease the amount lost through broken pipes and leaks, we are just focused on creating more supply by building new dams," said Akgun Ilhan, a water management expert at the Istanbul Policy Center.

Turkey has built more than 1,000 new dams over the last 18 years, with 90 more expected to be completed in 2021, according to the country's General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works (DSI).

Figures from the DSI show that available water in Turkey has been dropping steadily over the past two decades, from about 1,650 cubic meters per person in 2000 to less than 1,350 in 2020.

The United Nations defines a country as water-stressed if it falls below 1,700 cubic meters per person, and water-scarce if it reaches 1,000 cubic meters.

Population growth, urbanization, climate change, and - critics like Ilhan say - poor water management are all straining Turkey's water supplies.

As that happens, shared water has become an increasing source of political tension between Turkey and its downstream neighbors Iraq and Syria.

"There is no difference between protecting our water and protecting our homeland," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in March, at a ceremony inaugurating a new parliamentary Water Council. At the event, Erdogan promised 5.2 billion lira ($645 million) in water investments including new dams, water-treatment plants, and improved irrigation.

Agriculture - largely reliant on irrigation from dams and groundwater - accounts for nearly 75 percent of Turkey's annual water consumption, said Sara Marjani Zadeh, a regional water quality officer for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

So far, water-saving drip and sprinkler irrigation are used on less than a third of Turkey's 6.7 million hectares of irrigated farmland, according to the FAO.

Efforts to get farmers to shift to water-saving - but also energy-demanding - irrigation methods so far have yielded "no major change," said Gokhan Ozertan, a professor of economics at Istanbul's Bogazici University.

Climate risks

Turkey's water troubles are likely to intensify as the effects of climate change increase in frequency and severity, said Ilhan, a water management expert.

"Turkey has been facing droughts every four or five years since the late 1980s, and climate projections show that precipitation levels will further diminish," she explained.

The Turkish government has repeatedly pledged to fight climate change, announcing a new 14-point strategy in February which includes boosting solar and wind power capacity and reducing fossil fuel use in buildings by 25 percent by 2023. 

However, climate impacts like drought and flooding are intensifying and may cut yields of key Turkish export crops like hazelnuts, apricots, and wheat by as much as 40 percent in the coming decades, according to Ozertan's projections.

Many farmers who struggle to make a living end up relocating to big cities like Istanbul, the capital Ankara, and the Aegean port city of Izmir, putting further pressure on water supplies there.

New vision

The growing municipality of Izmir, in western Turkey, is trying to break that cycle for residents of the city and its surrounding areas.

The river basins that provide water to the city have become strained in part by the growing production of water-intensive fodder for cattle, said Guven Eken, an advisor to Izmir Mayor Tunc Soyer.

So the municipality has begun using targeted subsidies, buying guarantees, and marketing support to encourage farmers to take up less-thirsty crops and growing methods, he explained.

That includes focusing on more high-value foods like olives and goat's cheese that were traditionally produced in the region and are better suited to its dry climate, as well as swapping to more efficient irrigation, Eken said.

Izmir officials are also shoring up infrastructure to reduce water waste in urban areas.

Nationwide, nearly half of Turkey's drinking water is lost to leaks before it reaches the tap, according to a 2020 report published by the Water Policy Association, an Ankara-based nongovernmental organization.

In March, Izmir hosted a summit for mayors and other officials from 22 cities led by Turkey's political opposition, representing about 65 percent of the country's population.

The mayors signed a manifesto pledging to better manage water, in line with some of the strategies Izmir is now pursuing and called on the national government to do the same.

"The manifesto has no legal obligations, but it's on the right track," Ilhan said. 

"Even putting 10 percent of it into practice would make a great change."
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