Dwindling farm water threatens Turkish disaster

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The Independent Online

An environmental catastrophe is threatening central Turkey, once the country's breadbasket, where farmers are depleting the water table after the hottest summer in living memory.

A shepherd since his childhood, 60-year-old Kamil Gurel reckoned he knew the terrain on the southern edge of Turkey's vast Konya plain as well as anyone. Until one moonless night recently, when walking his flocks back home, he fell at least 40 metres down a sink-hole that hadn't been there the week before.

Luckily, he survived. But like the dozens of other sink-holes to have formed in recent decades, the chasm Mr Gurel fell into is "a warning sign of an impending catastrophe", according to Tahir Nalbantcilar, the head of the Chamber of Geological Engineers in the regional capital of Konya.

On the Konya plain – an area more than twice the size of Wales that stretches south from Ankara almost all the way to the Mediterranean – water is the region's biggest problem.

Mr Nalbantcilar described it as a matter of simple arithmetic. Devoid of rivers, hemmed in by mountains on all sides, the plain has no source of water other than groundwater. For the past 40 years, farmers have sucked it up faster than rain can replenish it. The result is a water table that is sinking fast.

"We used to pull water by hand out of wells five metres deep," said Tahsin Ata, a farmer in the small village of Cirali, up the road from Mr Gurel's sink-hole. "Now you have to go 80 metres down."

The drop in water table levels – averaging 27 metres across the plateau in the last 25 years – has had disastrous effects. Dozens of lakes have disappeared, taking their wildfowl with them. Others, including the 1,500sq km salt lake that lies in the centre of the plain, are shrinking fast.

"If things go on as they are now," Mr Nalbantcilar said, "the whole plain will be a desert within 30 years."

Climate change is part of the problem. Always low, rainfall over the plateau now appears to be decreasing.

A recent UN report described the region as acutely sensitive to global warming. But the real source of the depletion is to be found the length of the road connecting Konya to Mr Gurel's home district of Karapinar: field after field of sugar beet and maize, glistening with water under a burning sun.

This area used to be known as Turkey's granary. But with subsidies on wheat whittled down to nothing, local farmers have increasingly turned to thirstier crops to earn a living. Beet – state-subsidised as it is in Europe and the US – needs five times more water than wheat, and its spread has sparked well-digging across the plateau.

Many farmers are aware that what they are doing isn't sustainable, but believe they have no choice.

For Cagri Deniz Eryilmaz, an expert with WWF in Ankara, an organisation formerly known as the World Wildlife Fund, the solution lies in an integrated water and agricultural policy covering the entire plain. For two years, WWF has been negotiating with government agencies and farmers for more sustainable agricultural practices.

Mr Nalbantcilar, meanwhile, identified unwieldy bureaucracy as the main problem. "There are 15 different agencies dealing with water, all of them jealous of their prerogatives", he said.

Both Mr Eryilmaz and Mr Nalbantcilar, however, were optimistic the coming desert could be held back.

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