Water at critically low levels across Turkey after lack of rainfall leads to most severe drought in a decade
A drone image of Alibeyköy Dam, an important water resource for Istanbul, shows its level has decreased significantly. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The Guardian-Bethan McKernan Turkey correspondent
Major cities across Turkey face running out of water in the next few months, with warnings Istanbul has less than 45 days of water left.
Poor rainfall has led to the country’s most severe drought in a decade and put the megacity of 17 million people close to running out of water, according to Turkey’s chamber of chemical engineers. The Ankara mayor, Mansur Yavaş, said earlier this month the capital had another 110 days’ worth in dams and reservoirs.
İzmir and Bursa, Turkey’s next two biggest cities, are also struggling, with dams that are about 36% and 24% full respectively, and farmers in wheat-producing areas such as the Konya plain and Edirne province on the border with Greece and Bulgaria are warning of crop failure.
The critically low level of rainfall in the second half of 2020 – approaching 50% year on year for November – led the religious affairs directorate to instruct imams and their congregations to pray for rain last month.
Turkey is a “water stressed” country, with just 1,346 cubic metres of water per capita per year, and has faced several droughts since the 1980s due to a combination of population growth, industrialisation, urban sprawl and climate change.
“Instead of focusing on measures to keep water demand under control, Turkey insists on expanding its water supply through building more dams … Turkey has built hundreds of dams in the last two decades,” said Dr Akgün İlhan, a water management expert at the Istanbul Policy Center.
“The warning signs have been there for decades but not much has been done in practice.”
Turkey has long prioritised economic growth over environmental concerns and remains the only G20 country apart from the US yet to ratify the 2015 Paris agreement.
“Everybody knows that water basins must be preserved, especially for these drought episodes which are becoming more severe and long term,” said Dr Ümit Şahin, who teaches global climate change and environmental politics at Istanbul’s Sabancı University.
“Yet in Istanbul, for instance, the most vital water basins, the last forests and agricultural land, [have been opened] to urban development projects … the new airport, the new Bosphorus bridge, its connection roads and highways, and the Istanbul canal project. These policies cannot solve Turkey’s drought problem.”
Ekrem İmamoğlu, elected in 2019 as Istanbul’s opposition party mayor despite fierce resistance from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party, told the Guardian that Istanbullus had been reassured that the huge Melen dam system would supply the city’s water needs without issue until 2070.
On entering office, however, his administration realised that construction problems would delay the project for several years.
The municipality has for now urged residents to think carefully about how to save water, including turning off the tap while brushing teeth or shaving, turning down valves feeding into sinks and installing lower usage taps.
“Water would not be a problem today if the dam was active. But we also have to think about wide climate change issues … If it does not rain in Melen, you cannot get water from there either,” İmamoğlu said.
In İzmir, local authorities are preparing against water shortages by digging 103 new boreholes, recycling wastewater and minimising loss and leakage by repairing ageing pipes, according to the city’s mayor, Tunç Soyer.
Ultimately, Turkey’s cities need lots of rain, immediately, to avoid having to ration water in the next few months – and even sustained rainfall for the rest of the winter might not be enough for farming communities to rescue this year’s crops.
Drought creates a vicious cycle, says İlhan: decreased agricultural production and increased food prices could lead to a rise in poverty and rural to urban migration, exacerbating existing pressures on water infrastructure.
“Turkey does have the economic and technological means to fix its damaged water cycle. The missing element is the political will to take these steps.”