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Turkey, where lakes are transformed into deserts

Over the last fifty years, more than half of Turkey’s 300 natural lakes have dried up. A disaster for many animal species, especially migrating ones.


The progressive disappearance of the lakes

In less than a century, 60% of Turkey’s 300 natural lakes have vanished due to persistent droughts and the reduction of the discharges of the country’s rivers. Half of the wetlands, habitats essential for the living conditions sought by migrating birds originating from Africa, have also been lost over the last 70 years.

This year, it was the turn of Lake Akgol in eastern Turkey to dry up completely. The lake began to dry ten years ago but it vanished completely in 2021. The meagre winter snow did not supply enough meltwater in spring to supply the lake. The level of Lake Tuz, one of the largest saltwater lakes in the world and Turkey’s second largest lake, located in the province of Konya in central Anatolia, has receded by nearly 10 km according to the inhabitants.

Lake Van, in Eastern Turkey / DHA Photo

Normally, 20,000 birds nest there in spring, since its high salt content provides ideal breeding conditions for many species of migrating birds, including pink flamingos. Even Lake Van, the largest lake in the Middle East and Turkey, is affected, with its water height falling by more than 200 metres!

Certain dried up lakes, mostly supplied by rainwater, may never return to their previous levels. Although still called lakes, they have become genuine deserts where poorly adapted biodiversity stands little chance of surviving.


Dramatic consequences for biodiversity

Migrating birds are the species most affected by this phenomenon of drying. For example, pink flamingos: nearly 5,000 young birds died following the drying up of Lake Tuz. The water had retreated so much that many of them could not reach the banks. On the other lakes, birds of prey and seagulls are obliged to change their diets due to declining fish populations and turn to food dangerous for their survival, like waste and dead animals possibly infested with parasites.


Agriculture et inadaptation au changement climatique

The causes of the drying up and disappearance of these lakes are many and reinforce and mutually aggravate each other. Agriculture stands accused, since the farmers divert the channels that normally feed the lakes to irrigate their land and provide water for their cattle. In the region of Akgol, these unsustainable farming practises are responsible for up to 60% of water resource losses. Illegal pumping stations also play a major role (100,000 on the 1,665 km2 of Lake Tuz).

Lake Tuz in the Aksaray province, on Oct. 26th 2021. Credit: AP Photo/Emrah Gurel

Climate change is also contributing considerably to this disappearance, with lower rainfall combined with higher temperatures. However, on top of the effects of climate change, the lack of adaptive policies is to blame, notably regarding agriculture and water management. According to experts, Turkey must prepare for the effects of climate change, in particular by returning to traditional farming methods. In Anatolia, this means using irrigated terraces and planting indigenous crops like origan or lavender which need little water. At present, agriculture is focused on corn and sugar beet, which both require large quantities of water.

The ratification of the Paris Agreement by Turkey on 6 October 2021, imposed by a spate of disasters that have struck the country this year (drying lakes, deadly forest fires, floods), should allow it to obtain financial support and share technology. But it will not be enough for some of the lakes that are already condemned.

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