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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Dried up: Fifteen years ago, a lake three times the size of Washington, D.C., covered this Turkish plain.
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Arif Karaoglu recalls the days when Lake Aksehir lapped at the foot of the village mosque and residents had to build high walls to protect their homes from flooding. Now, when he looks out across the landscape, he sees only a vast, sandy plateau. Until recently, a body of water three times the size of Washington, D.C., filled the plain.

"Dust," laments Mr. Karaoglu, who moved to the village in 1942. "There's nothing but dust."

Dubbed the country's grain warehouse, central Turkey's Konya plain has long been known for its beautiful lakes and vast fields, which produce 10 percent of Turkey's agricultural yield. But both are now threatened by a severe water shortage that dramatically illustrates a broader regional crisis.

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Across the Mediter-ranean, water is being pumped out of the earth at an unsustainable pace. In Italy's Milan region, groundwater levels have fallen by more than 80 feet over the past 80 years. So much water has been pumped from the Jeffara aquifer in Libya that even if all withdrawals stopped, it would take 75 years for the aquifer to return to its original level, estimates a 2005 report by the Blue Plan – a United Nations program on development and the environment in the Mediterranean.

As a result of this profligate water use, at least 50 percent of the region's wetlands are at risk, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). In addition, more than 100,000 square miles of coastal regions – roughly the same area as the United Kingdom –“ are under threat of desertification.

Near Konya, water pumped from underground to feed the thirsty crops above is part of the same closed system as the lakes. The cultivation of new land, along with a transition to more thirsty crops like sugar beet, has increased water use beyond what is naturally replaced, causing groundwater levels to fall and the lakes to dry up. More than a decade of drought and rising summer temperatures – which causes increased evaporation – have exacerbated the situation and laid bare the magnitude of the problem.

"These lakes are 5 million years old," says Guler Gocmez, a geologist at Selçuk University in Konya, who has been studying the region's lakes for the past 25 years. "There's always been water here, but that might not be true much longer."

The Turkish government has a plan to divert water from the Goksu River to the Konya Basin for agricultural use and to fill the depleted lakes and wetlands. To date, the focus of most countries confronting water shortages has been to increase supply, often through massive infrastructure projects like dams, says Gael Thivet of the Blue Plan. More emphasis, experts say, needs to be placed on saving or reusing water, as well as on reducing demand.

Doubled water usage

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.

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."

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