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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.

By Nicole ItanoCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 15, 2008

Dried up: Fifteen years ago, a lake three times the size of Washington, D.C., covered this Turkish plain.

Melanie Stetson Freeman – Staff

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Taskupru, Turkey

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.

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"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.

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

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