Last winter, the massive dams and reservoirs that supply water to Istanbul’s 15 million residents fell to critically low levels, sparking fears of shortages.
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 a thousand new dams over the last 18 years, with 90 more expected to be completed this year, according to the country’s General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works (DSI).
But “these big hydraulic projects have a large impact on ecosystems and societies” including by displacing communities and destroying forests and farmland, Ilhan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
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 metres per person, and water scarce if it reaches 1,000 cubic metres.
Population growth, urbanisation, climate change and – critics like Ilhan say – poor water management all are straining Turkey‘s water supplies.
As that happens, shared water has become an increasing source of political tension between Turkey and its downstream neighbours 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% of Turkey‘s annual water consumption, said Sara Marjani Zadeh, a regional water quality officer for the U.N. 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 (16.5 million acres) 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.
“Farmers don’t want to pay for the electricity and maintenance required,” he said. “And because (farm) subsidies aren’t targeted – farmers just receive the money no matter what they are growing or how – there’s no incentive to switch.”
The lack of inducements to conserve water has left many farmers growing unsustainably thirsty crops like sugar beets and cotton in dry areas even in the face of declining water availability, he said.
Turkey‘s water troubles are likely to intensify as the effects of climate change increase in frequency and severity, said Ilhan, the 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% by 2023.
But 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% 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.
“This continuous growth in population obliges urban municipalities to keep finding new sources of water,” Ilhan said.
Often that means more large infrastructure projects like dams and pipelines – and building these can require evacuating rural villages, often driving more urban migration.
“And then the water consumption level in cities rises, so we build more dams,” Ilhan said. “It’s an absolute vicious cycle.”
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 forage 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.
With support, “we are already seeing producers shifting back to the original agricultural ways that they had abandoned because they weren’t making enough money”, he added.
Izmir officials also are 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 non-governmental organisation.
In March, Izmir hosted a summit for mayors and other officials from 22 cities led by Turkey‘s political opposition, representing about 65% 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.
“Finally, we heard the mayors say things that academics and activists have been talking about for years,” said Ilhan.
“The manifesto has no legal obligations, but it’s on the right track,” she said. “Even putting 10% of it into practice would make a great change.”