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Drain on the Mediterranean: rising water usage

In a dramatic illustration of a broader regional crisis, a Turkish lake three times the size of Washington, D.C., has dried up in the past 15 years.

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Freshwater has always been a scarce commodity in the semi-arid Mediterranean. It has 7 percent of the world's population, but only 3 percent of its freshwater resources. And the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report predicts that global warming may lead to less rainfall and more evaporation in the region, further reducing the supply of water.

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Half the world's "water poor" – that is, people whose access to freshwater is deemed inadequate – live in the Mediterranean region, mostly on the sea's eastern and southern shores. By 2025, the Blue Plan predicts that due to population growth and expanding agriculture, the number of water poor in the region could be as high as 165 million in 2025, up from 108 million in 2000.

But human demand for this vital resource is booming. During the second half of the 20th century, water usage in the Mediterranean doubled. While a handful of countries, like Israel and Cyprus, have reduced or stabilized their water use, in most countries the demand for water is expected to continue to rise in coming decades.

"We started talking about it more than 30 years ago," says Michael Scoullos, chairman of the Global Water Partnership – Mediterranean, a network of organizations working on water issues in the region. "The pioneers are always considered Cassandras – this is the problem. But now clearly we've reached the crisis point.... We've done just enough to break and slow down the destruction, but not to reverse the situation."

Irrigation competing with lakes for water

In general, the countries with the fastest-growing water demands are those on the Mediterranean's southern and eastern shores, where the population is set to increase by 92 million in less than two decades. Irrigation is also set to expand dramatically by 2030, rising 38 percent in the south and 58 percent to the east.

In Konya, as elsewhere in the Mediterranean, agriculture is the biggest user of water. Around the city, vast fields of wheat, barley, corn, and beets are grown, much of it irrigated with groundwater from the same hydrologic system used by the disappearing lakes. An estimated 70 percent of the water consumption in the area is used for agriculture, much of it drawn from illegally drilled wells, says Dr. Gocmez.

The government is beginning to try to shut down the illegal wells, but it's a slow and difficult process. If nothing is done, she warns, "Konya will turn into a desert."

Digging 184 feet deeper to get water

About 50 miles from Taskupru, Farmer Omer Karayer is well aware that there is a problem. Ten years ago, his well was 16 feet deep. This year, he had to dig nearly 200 feet to reach water.

"It's obvious that the water is going," he says with a shrug. "My children won't be able to farm here."

Although he knows water is scarce, Mr. Karayer still grows sugar beets, the most water-intensive crop cultivated in the area. Gocmez tries to convince him to switch to a less wasteful irrigation method that the government is promoting, but he thinks it is too expensive. Even with a government grant covering 50 percent of the cost, Gocmez admits it would take the farmer an estimated two years to make back his capital investment.

But for Taskupru, it may be too late. "There are only old people left in each house," says the village's elected leader Cemal Somuncular, who still owns the decaying nets he once used to catch lobster and fish. "The village will disappear unless the lake comes back."