Drought in Turkey: A social or a physical phenomenon?


Akgun Ilhan, Turkish Review 4(3), May 2014, Drought, if not anticipated and managed properly, has complex impacts on both nature and society. Yet official declarations by the Turkish state regarding drought all relate to increasing water supply – often at high economic and environmental costs – rather than effective drought management. Without combating its root causes, especially anthropogenic ones, drought is likely to be among the worst problems Turkey will face in the near future.

Turkey is in the middle of the worst drought it has seen in decades. As a semi-arid country, Turkey is already familiar with this concept. It went through extremely dry periods in the years 1928-1930, 1950-1951, 1973-1974, 1988-1989, 1994-1996, 2000-2001 and 2006-2008.[1] The official figures point at a significant increase in not only the frequency, but also the intensity of droughts in the country[2],  and with global climate change affecting the Mediterranean basin in particular, it seems even drier days await Turkey.

What is a drought?

According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) drought is a decrease in precipitation that adversely affects land resource production systems, and it occurs in stages. The first is “meteorological drought,” in which the number of days with precipitation is less than a specified threshold. The second is “agricultural drought,” that is, the negative impacts of precipitation shortages on agricultural production. The third is “hydrological drought”; decrease in stream flows and levels of lake, reservoir and groundwater resources. However, the time lag between decrease in precipitation and water in streams, rivers, lakes and reservoirs makes hydrological drought difficult to spot. Such delay often exacerbates the problem without attracting much public attention.

Global climate change: no joke!

Drought is a result of climate change; a complex social-ecological phenomenon with many aspects. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the leading international body for the assessment of climate change – concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) have increased, and this has led the world’s atmosphere and oceans to be increasingly warmer, while causing a significant amount of snow and ice to melt and a rise in sea level all around the globe. The atmospheric concentrations of GHGs have gone up to levels unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. In particular CO2 concentrations have increased by 40 percent since pre-industrial times, primarily because of fossil fuel emissions. IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report “Climate Change 2014: The Physical Science Basis,” published on March 31, 2014, indicates that the warming of the global climate system is an unequivocal fact and notes that in the northern hemisphere 1983–2012 was the warmest 30-year period of the last 1,400 years.

Drought and climate change

The world’s climate is warming up with GHG emissions, and this increases evapotranspiration; the movement of water into the atmosphere from land and water surfaces and plants due to evaporation and transpiration. This has been particularly pronounced in the Mediterranean basin, where countries such as Turkey have suffered from significantly declining precipitation since 1970. What is worse, drought-affected areas will continue to grow, resulting in a 30 percent decline in water resources available for human use and in the expansion of semi-arid and arid areas.

Turkey’s semi-arid climate is rapidly moving towards “arid.” 2013 saw drought impact even unexpected places such as Ordu in the Black Sea region, which is usually known for its high precipitation levels. As a result of low precipitation, amongst other factors, within the last couple of years agricultural production in Ordu has shifted from hazelnut to wheat, i.e. a dry agriculture crop that requires no irrigation. Even so, precipitation was so low last year that helpless farmers resorted to rain prayer ceremonies in efforts to save their wheat. In 2014 the situation worsened for urban populations as well as farmers. Water levels in the dams are extremely low. Large cities such as Istanbul find short-term solutions in water transfers from surrounding cities such as Kirklareli and Duzce.

The consequences of drought

Drought results in decrease in water quality as well as quantity, because lower precipitation means higher concentration of pollutants in remaining water sources. This creates a series of interlinked social and ecological problems. Among some are forest and wetland fires (e.g. the fire around Lake Sapanca in April 2014); habitat damage affecting wildlife (e.g. habitat loss of 69 native bird species and many more migrating birds due to the same fire); environmental conflicts over natural resources, including both water and food (e.g. two cities, Kocaeli and Sakarya, are under an increasing threat of a possible conflict due to falling water levels in the Sapanca Lake as both obtain their drinking water from the same lake); dust bowls, storms, erosion and desertification (e.g. the Konya region); diminished crop growth and carrying capacity for livestock, which cause food prices to go up (e.g. tremendous decrease in grape, olive and fig production in the Aegean, as well as in hazelnut, apricot and kiwi — calculated to be more than 80 percent); famine, hunger, malnutrition, dehydration and related epidemic diseases; migration and poverty due to loss of livelihood; reduced electricity production from hydroelectric power (HEP) plants; water and electricity shortages often resulting in rising prices; and falling access to water and electricity for the economically disadvantaged.

Water at the intersection point of 2023 development goals

Turkey’s emerging economy creates an increasing demand for energy with the highest growth rate of not only Europe but also among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. As three-quarters of its energy comes from external sources, Turkey is keen to diversify and grow its domestic energy supply, often at the cost of water. National energy policies focus on enlarging the domestic energy supply, while paying little attention to issues such as energy intensity and energy-related environmental problems like climate change and water crises. Energy intensity is energy used to create a unit of gross domestic product (GDP), which should normally be low, but is very high in Turkey when compared with OECD countries. In order to expand its energy supply, Turkey has developed ambitious energy goals that promote the use of all domestic coal and hydropower potential by 2023. This places water right at the intersection point of both energy sources.

The coal industry uses water during the process of both mining and burning (mainly for cooling and washing). This often creates serious and often irreversible negative impacts on the quantity and quality of both surface and groundwater. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TurkStat) thermal power plants in Turkey drew 4.29 billion m3 water in 2010; 99 percent of this was used for cooling, of which only 0.4 percent was retreated. As the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) report published in March 2013 indicates, Turkey plans to build more coal power plants (CPP) than are currently in the pipeline in all of Europe; an estimated 50 in total. Bearing in mind that the average lifespan of a CPP is at least 40 years, this commitment to CPP energy means millions of tonnes of water will be contaminated for decades in Turkey. In addition, one-third of Turkey’s rivers are already dammed for HEP product. This number will double by 2023, with even the smallest streams impacted by HEP plants.

Such an aggressive demand for water brings nothing but ecological conflicts in a country that is facing drought. On the one hand, water is essential for life and meeting the needs of living beings and ecosystems. On the other, Turkish water policy and practices seem to view water as raw material for the energy sector. With an intensifying drought the question becomes even more crucial: Is water a source of life or of energy?

The drought discourse in Turkey

The drought has been particularly acute on Turkey’s western and southern coastlines; that is, the Marmara, Aegean and Mediterranean regions. Precipitation in February 2014 across the entire country was 67.9 percent lower than figures for 2013, but 80.1 percent lower for the Marmara region. Turkey has already passed the meteorological and hydrological drought phases and reached the phase of agricultural drought. It was the severity of the hydrological drought that brought the drought discourse growing media coverage and triggered social debates within public circles. The alarming decrease in the water levels of dam reservoirs for Turkey’ major cities and in its large natural lakes also made the issue more visible.

Towards the end of 2013 drought-related news was mostly about meteorological drought, focusing on rain prayer ceremonies by concerned farmers. In the first months of 2014, drought news had more urban content; such as the decreasing levels in drinking water dams and the forthcoming water cuts in large cities. The alarming fall in the water levels of Istanbul’s dams was regular news. In spring 2014, agricultural and socio-economic drought started to gain greater media coverage. One example was the Agricultural Insurance Pool (TARSIM), from which 1 million farmers in Turkey have filed 73,000 claim notices since the beginning of 2014.

It is not difficult to foresee that news regarding drought will intensify in both quantity and content. However, there is also the issue of government officials’ unreliable and often flippant statements and declarations. For example, every time a press member asks about what kind of measures the government has developed so far as regards drought management, Minister of Forestry and Water Works Veysel Eroglu simply claims, smilingly, that drought measures are “professional secrets”[3]. On a number of occasions Eroglu also proposed a rain prayer ceremony as the cheapest solution to the drought[4]. On being asked whether there would be water cuts this summer, he said that he would cut off his moustache in the event of a water cut[5]. The most serious but least effective answer to these questions was the building of three more dams for Istanbul — as if there would be sufficient precipitation to fill those dams[6].

On the contrary, saving and conserving water is particularly important during drought periods. The focal strategy should be on water-saving measures to reduce consumption. Combating drought goes way beyond building more hydraulic projects. Studies show that the population of major cities such as Istanbul is growing rapidly but, conversely, the water resources available are limited and insufficient to meet demand. An effective drought management plan is urgently needed.

What kind of drought management?

The first plan for combating drought in Turkey was for the 2008-2012 period[7]. This plan aimed to raise public awareness of drought, including all stakeholders’ participation within supply-demand management; planning sustainable agricultural water use during non-drought times; and minimizing the adverse impacts of drought during crisis times. The proposed measures were collected under five titles: drought risk projection and management; sustainable water supply; agricultural water demand management; facilitating supplementary research and development and enhancing educational materials; and institutional capacity building. However, the plan was postponed as only local-scale droughts were at stake at that time. When drought became nationwide, the very same plan was revised for 2013-2017.

However, Turkey needs a new effective drought management plan, not a copy of the plan for the previous dry period. Broadly speaking, this plan should, first of all, adopt long-term strategies to combat the root causes of drought rather than short-term solutions targeting its end results. Therefore, this plan should also combat climate change, the main driving force of drought. As water and energy are closely interlinked, the context of drought should also include what is happening within the energy domain as well as water. The crucial strategy is demand management rather than amplifying water and energy supply to meet an ever-growing hunger for water and energy. This strategy is about conservation of water, rather than its uncontrolled consumption.

Such a plan starts with a number of changes in use of energy (particularly fossil fuels) as well as water. Alternative ways of transportation such as walking, cycling, railway and public transportation should be encouraged and incentivized. Keeping energy efficiency and energy saving as a priority, lighting and heating systems should operate with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. Current urban policies that promote migration from rural areas to large cities should be abandoned. Even without a drought, Istanbul cannot escape water shortage, with a population is bigger than that of 122 countries! In short, any measure taken for drought needs to exclude policies that make major cities grow still larger.

Another key measure is abolishing the overall water-saving policy of increasing the price of water. This old strategy does not only fail to save water, but it also creates more ecological injustice for the poor. It really does not matter to economically advantaged individuals and groups how much they pay for water. This segment of society in fact uses many times more water and energy per capita than the poor. And it really does not matter to the poor how much water costs, because it is an irreplaceable need for everyone, and regardless of its price the poor have to buy it. This only means growing poverty for the poor, as they spend a growing portion of their budget on water, not water conservation.

More ecologically just and effective water-saving methods should be developed, such as the one in Dikili (Izmir)[8]. Dikili Municipality provides its citizens with free water up to a certain monthly quota per household. When one exceeds this quota, then he/she has to pay the entire amount of water consumed from the normal tariff. Since the launch of this method, Dikili has seen a significant reduction in water usage levels.

Another issue is the packaged water industry. In the face of an intensifying drought, Hamidiye Spring Water Inc., a public company of the Greater Istanbul Municipality, exports the city’s water to more than 40 countries worldwide, including countries with no water shortage problem, such as the US, Japan and Ireland[9]. In any case, in the face of climate change the environmental footprint of the packaged water industry is anyway too high to pay. When citizens are provided with sufficient clean and drinkable tap water the need for bottled water is eliminated.

Climate change and drought are not simply meteorological phenomena; they are also the result of states’ policies. Drought is both a social and physical phenomenon: Without combating the social aspects of drought, it will not be possible to combat its physical ones.


[1] Unal Akkemik, 24.08.2007, “Ağaç halkaları diyor ki: Bugüne benzer kuraklığı geçmişte çok yaşadık!” http://www.ekolojistler.org/agac-halkalari-diyor-ki-bugune-benzer-kurakligi-gecmiste-cok-yasadik-doc.-dr.-unal-akk.html

[2]Hulya Cesmeci, 31.01.2014, “Atlas Okyanusu’ndan Türkiye’deki Kuraklık: Atmosferde Olanlar”.  http://www.tema.org.tr/web_14966-2_1/entitialfocus.aspx?primary_id=1184&type=3&target=categorial1&detail=single&sp_table=&sp_primary=&sp_table_extra

[3] Transcript of Minister Veysel Eroğlu’s speech in Afyonkarahisar, Feb. 21, 2014, accessed March 1, 2014, http://www.haberler.com/orman-ve-su-isleri-bakani-eroglu-afyonkarahisar-da-5697344-haberi/

[4] Transcript of Minister Veysel Eroğlu’s speech in Afyonkarahisar, Feb. 21, 2014, accessed March 1, 2014, http://www.yirmidorthaber.com/Dunya/veysel-eroglundan-esprili-kuraklik-cevabi/haber-845896

[5] . Transcript of Minister Veysel Eroğlu’s speech in Isparta, Feb. 27, 2014, accessed March 1, 2014, http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/25903510.asp

[6] Transcript of Minister Veysel Eroğlu’s speech in İstanbul, Jan. 11, 2014, accessed March 1, 2014, http://www.zaman.com.tr/gundem_istanbula-3-yeni-baraj-yapilacak_2192820.html

[7] Türkiye tarımsal kuraklıkla mücadele stratejisi ve eylem planı (2008-2012)http://www.agm.gov.tr/AGM/Files/faaliyetler/collesme/tarimsal_kuraklikla_mucadele_stratejisi_ve_eylem_plani.pdf

[8] David Hachfeld, Philipp Terhorst & Olivier Hoedeman (2009 January). Progressive Public Water Management in Europe: In search of exemplary cases. http://www.waterjustice.org/uploads/attachments/Progressive%20public%20water%20management%20in%20Europe.pdf

[9] Official website of Hamidiye Spring Water Inc. http://www.hamidiye.com.tr/index.php/d-s-ticaret/sat-s-temsilciliklerimiz

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