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’Turkey’s obsession with development forces migration, reduces water’ 3 novembre 2014

Posted by Acturca in Academic / Académique, Energy / Energie, Turkey / Turquie.
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Today’s Zaman (Turkey) Monday, November 3, 2014, p. 6

Yonca Poyraz Doğan, Istanbul

With Turkey shaken once again by yet another mining disaster, this week’s guest for Monday Talk was not surprised. He says Turkey’s “obsession with development” is threatening both humans and the environment.

“Ancient forests, endemic-rich Mediterranean scrubland, grasslands, coastal areas, marshes and rivers are disappearing, while overgrazing and rampant erosion degrade steppes and rangelands. The current ‘obsession with development,’ particularly regarding water use, threatens to eliminate much of what remains, while forcing large-scale migration from rural areas to the cities,” said Çağan Şekercioğlu, a biologist, ecologist and environmental scientist.

Eighteen miners have been trapped since last Monday in a flooded coal mine outside the town of Ermenek in Karaman province, about 110 kilometers (70 miles) north of Turkey’s Mediterranean coastline.

A report by Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion, for Reforestation and the Protection of Natural Habitats (TEMA) had warned that the basin was not appropriate for mining activities and that continuing to mine at the site would eventually cause flooding and potential deaths.

On May 13, Turkey was shocked by the explosion and blaze at a Soma coal mine in Manisa province. A fire that started in the mine rapidly depleted oxygen in the shaft, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of miners due to carbon monoxide poisoning. The main cause of the Soma mine disaster, according to official reports, was negligence. There was no refuge chamber in the mine and the mine operator did not provide workers with functioning gas masks.

Turkey has enjoyed an average of 6 percent growth since 2008 and the main engine behind this is its rampant construction sector, which damages forest land and water resources.

Answering our questions on a range of issues. from Turkey’s endangered bird species to drying lakes and rivers, Şekercioğlu elaborated on the issues.

Congratulations on your award from the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK).

Thank you. It is an enormous honor to be the first biologist, ecologist and environmental scientist to receive the TÜBİTAK Special Award, which is Turkey’s most important scientific award, along with its equivalent, the Science Award. I am only the second person to receive this award in the field of natural sciences because most of Turkey’s scientists who work abroad are in the fields of engineering, health sciences, social sciences and the humanities. I hope this award inspires young students to study biology, ecology, zoology, ornithology, conservation biology and environmental sciences, which are especially important in this century of climate change and other environmental crises.

Your lab focuses on threatened biodiversity and ecosystems, the causes and consequences of bird extinctions. Since you started this work, how much change have you observed regarding threats to biodiversity and ecosystems?

Sadly, things keep getting worse. For example, with Professor Stuart Pimm and other colleagues, we published a paper in 2006 estimating that bird extinctions in the 20th century were 100 times higher than the natural background rate of extinction. However, a paper published by Professor Pimm and others this May estimates that current rates of extinction are 1,000 times higher than the natural background rate of extinction. I witness constant environmental destruction lately. In June 2012, deputy Sinan Oğan, who represents Iğdır’s Tuzluca district, asked Minister of Forestry and Water Affairs Veysel Eroğlu in Parliament to protect the Aras River Bird Paradise. In response, Minister Eroğlu publicly said “It is our moral obligation to save this bird paradise.” In 2005, I discovered the Aras River Bird Paradise on the Kars-Iğdır border. With my team and colleagues, we documented 252 species in eight years and 40 percent of Turkey’s 802 land vertebrate animals. This is eastern Turkey’s richest bird paradise, but is now threatened by a dam and hydropower plant. With our www.savearas.org campaign, we collected 18,000 signatures and the Ministry of Forestry and Environment officially wrote to me that the Aras River Bird Paradise deserves nature conservation area status. However, the same ministry is planning to destroy it with the Tuzluca Dam. If the same ministry, through the State Waterworks Authority (DSİ), destroys it with the Tuzluca Dam, not only will it be hypocritical, but they will contradict their own decision, break their own wetland law and Minister Eroğlu will break the public promise he made to the nation in Parliament.

‘Lake Kuyucuk finally dried up’

Is a similar type of study being done in Turkey?

With my colleagues, last year we did the first study of this kind in Turkey and published in open access format. This is the first time in Turkey the effects of climate change on the future distribution of a group of animals has been modeled. We used citizen science data collected by Turkey’s birdwatchers and our article was covered by The New York Times. We showed that some bird species in Turkey will increase their distribution by more than 10 times, whereas others will decrease more than 90 percent. So there will be big changes. But because we had only birdwatcher data and there is no government support for bird monitoring projects, we could only estimate climate change effects on 29 of 474 bird species known in Turkey. If our government had such a project, we could predict which bird species and habitats will be especially vulnerable and take precautions accordingly. We could design protected areas so that we could also protect future locations where birds would move; and because there are excellent indicator species, by protecting birds, we would also protect their habitats and other biodiversity. However, there is no government project to do this in Turkey, even though the EU Bird Directive requires governments to keep track of their bird populations. In the US, the national Bird Banding Laboratory is a government-funded division of the Department of the Interior and 26 people work there. They send all bird bands for free. In Turkey, there is no such department and we even have to buy our own bird bands. These simple bands cannot be produced in Turkey and we have to get them from Poland. Sometimes we wait for more than a year and it hurts our research.

You were doing a study at Lake Kuyucuk. Lake near Kars in northeastern Turkey, where the lake is a globally designated important bird and biodiversity area. You were counting birds on the lake, especially during fall migration. How is your work going there? Has it been completed?

Well, we had many successes there, but in conservation, you can never declare victory, because there are always threats. We had the area protected as eastern Turkey’s first Ramsar [Convention] wetland, built Turkey’s first bird nesting island and had it chosen as eastern Turkey’s first European Destination for Excellence (EDEN). We wrote a proposal for a project to build a visitor’s center and guesthouse in Kuyucuk village. The government funded it with TL 460,000 and Kuyucuk now has two guesthouses and 16 beds for tourists. There have been various festivals, the government built a new sewage system this summer and will cover the muddy village road with cobblestones. However, villagers continued to use the lake’s water indirectly through wells and by using the main spring that feeds the lake. The lake level fell from 13 meters in 1997 to one meter this spring. We warned the officials and villagers for many years but nothing was done, so after a hot and dry summer, Lake Kuyucuk finally dried up last month. While people were campaigning to save Lake Burdur [from drying up] decades from now, Lake Kuyucuk had already dried up; I was walking on the dry lake bed of Kuyucuk the same week people were doing the “water fast” at Lake Burdur. I am devastated. Where I counted over 40,000 birds and 20,000 ruddy shelduck in September 2004 dried out this summer and there were only a few hundred birds and 17 ruddy shelduck in September 2014. Even with September rains, there were only five hectares of water instead of 216 hectares. We had an emergency meeting and are trying to find a way to save the lake.

‘Natural areas converted into cash to benefit only few’

You have some alarming reports, like ‘Turkey’s globally important biodiversity in crisis‘ and ‘Turkey’s rich natural heritage under assault.‘ Would you elaborate on your concerns regarding each issue?

The first is an article in the peer-reviewed journal Biological Conservation and the other is in the peer-reviewed journal Science. After these articles were published in 2011, Turkey was ranked 106 out of 131 countries in Yale University’s 2012 Environmental Performance Index, and was ranked 120 in Biodiversity and Habitat Conservation. The Science article is a summary focusing on all the environmental laws that have been changed in the last five years to make it easier to destroy natural areas through mining, construction and other building projects. Right now, there are no truly protected areas left in Turkey. If there is enough interest, one can begin construction in any protected area. If there is a law, it can be changed, and even in many cases where the courts decide to protect the environment, construction often goes ahead and nobody is able to stop it. Turkey’s nearly 80 million citizens are losing our nature and globally important biodiversity so that our natural areas can be converted into cash for the benefit of few people. Turkey is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world, especially in the temperate zone. Turkey is the only country in the world that is almost entirely covered by three global biodiversity hotspots — Caucasus, Irano-Anatolian and Mediterranean. However, Turkey’s biodiversity is facing severe and growing threats, especially from government and business interests. The greatest threats to biodiversity have occurred since 1950, particularly in the past decade. Old-growth forests, endemic-rich Mediterranean maquis, grasslands, coastal areas, wetlands and rivers are disappearing, while overgrazing and rampant erosion degrade steppes and rangelands. The current ‘obsession with development,’ particularly regarding water use, threatens to eliminate much of what remains, while forcing large-scale migration from rural areas to the cities. According to current plans, by 2023, Turkey’s rivers and streams will be dammed with almost 4000 dams, diversions and hydroelectric power plants for power, irrigation and drinking water. Unchecked urbanization, dam construction, draining of wetlands, poaching and excessive irrigation are the most widespread threats to biodiversity.

‘Building dams won’t solve our energy problem’

Local communities in various parts of Turkey have been protesting against building of small dams on their rivers, and some of them have won their cases in courts. How do you evaluate this type of resistance against construction of dams? And how do you see the government’s plans to build, small and big, hundreds of dams on Turkey’s rivers?

It is very important that local people understand the critical value of water for their future and livelihoods. Many of these communities are rural, farming communities. Water is life. Once you lose your water and a corporation owns your water, you are finished, especially if you live in a rural area where your life depends on agriculture and livestock. Companies often trick people by promising them big sums of money, but people end up getting much less than they expect, losing their homes and living in poverty in cities. When we talked to people in Kars who had lost their villages to dams, most of them regretted their decision. When farmers who know how to live off the land lose their lands and homes, they use up the compensation money in a few years. After that, they have nothing left and many of them live in the slums of big cities. Officials try to justify dams by saying Turkey needs them for energy independence, but that’s not true. Not only can we not have energy independence even if we built dams on all waters, but the government must emphasize solar power if it sincerely wants energy independence. Currently, about 24 percent of Turkey’s energy comes from hydropower, but solar panels on only 12.5 percent of Urfa’s non-agricultural land could produce 25 percent of Turkey’s energy. According to a scientific paper by Professor Kamil Kaygusuz, the percentage of our energy coming from hydropower will drop to 20 percent by 2020, despite all these dams, because our energy consumption is growing too rapidly.

So are you saying we will destroy all our rivers and streams and it won’t make a difference for our energy independence?

Building dams won’t solve our energy problem. If Turkey truly wants energy independence, we need to focus on solar, wind, geothermal and other sustainable energy resources. Germany right now is obtaining about 30 percent of its energy from these sources and it has changed the entire [field of] energy economics. China is making a massive push toward solar and wind. The US built the world’s biggest solar power plant in Ivanpah, California, last year; it can produce 396 megawatts of energy. For example, even if Aras River Bird Paradise is destroyed by Tuzluca Dam, this dam will only produce 20 megawatts of energy. However, Iğdır receives a lot of solar energy and has large, empty plains, where Turkey should be building large solar power plants. Urfa has started such an initiative. Turkey’s solar energy economic potential is 2.5 times higher than hydropower, but currently solar panels produce less than 1 percent of the energy that comes from hydropower in Turkey. I do not understand why Turkey is wasting its solar and wind energy potential while destroying its rivers with dams and destroying the atmosphere with fossil fuels. I think the reason why is narrow-minded financial interests and the influence of a small minority.

‘Thanks to Gezi, I’ve seen some examples of local protests to save public green areas’

Regarding the Gezi Park protests in Turkey — that began peacefully in May of last year to stand against a government plan to replace a park in central Taksim Square with a replica of an Ottoman-era military barracks — some observers said it was a conservationist and environmentalist movement, while some others said it was political. What is your evaluation of the Gezi Park protests?

Some of the people who were initially in Gezi Park, before the police burnt their tents, were my friends. They had been to many environmental protests, but the public and the media did not pay much attention before. Before Gezi, environmental protests usually did not attract more than a few hundred people. What angered millions of people was the police violence and over-reaction to a peaceful protest. Even though it started as a conservationist and environmentalist movement, it turned into a reaction against police violence. More violence and the government’s inability to calm the public led to more angry reactions from the public, so it was no longer about the environment. Unfortunately, the initial environmentalist spirit of Gezi has not led to a long-lasting environmentalist movement in Turkey. Millions of people participated in Gezi, but environmentalist causes in Turkey do not get millions of supporters. Still, thanks to Gezi, I see some examples of local protests to save public green areas, and sometimes they are successful. The Gezi protests made people realize that by standing up for a green area, they can save it. That’s very important. More people need to stand up for the environment, because people cannot have mental and physical health if they are surrounded by concrete. For example, more than 40 percent of Singapore or Hong Kong, modern, wealthy cities, is public green space, but in İstanbul, this is only 1.5 percent. This is a scandal, and it explains why so many people in İstanbul are angry and unhappy.

‘Don’t forget to write a letter to Minister Eroğlu’

If people want to make a difference about the environment, they need to start by writing their concerns to decision-makers and politicians. A physical letter is still very important. Write to the president, the prime minister, the minister of forestry and water affairs or the minister of environment. If you send a physical letter, the government has to respond to it. If dozens, hundreds or thousands of people write a letter about the same issue, it creates a lot of pressure. So start by writing to Minister Veysel Eroğlu to save the Aras River Bird Paradise. You can find the details on www.savearas.org. Sign our online petition, but don’t forget to write a letter to Minister Eroğlu.

‘Climate change will hurt the poor and less-developed most’

I recently read an article explaining that climate change could put hundreds of bird species at risk, and the National Audubon Society in the United States has a big new report looking at how 588 different bird species across North America will see their habitats shift because of global warming. Can birds adapt to this shift? What consequences do you expect as a result? Do birds face more risks? And what does that mean for other animals and humans?

In my 2008 global analysis of the world’s approximately 8,600 land bird species, I estimated that 400-550 bird species will be extinct by the year 2100 in the mid-level climate change scenarios and more than 2,500 species will be extinct in the worst-case scenario, due to habitat shifts. Most birds cannot adapt, because firstly, most birds are not migratory. I showed this in a 2007 paper. Only 18 percent of bird species are long-distance migrants, and two-thirds of the world’s 10,000 plus bird species are very sedentary. Second, there is often no place they can shift to. Many birds live in tropical mountains where there is nowhere for high elevation forests to go. So they will disappear along with their birds. In big, flat areas like the Congo and Amazon basins, there are no higher and cooler places for habitats to shift to. It will simply get too hot, and forests will turn to savanna. Forest fires will destroy large areas, and forest species will go extinct. In many places, there are people, cities and fields in the way, so people won’t allow nature to move to those places. Biodiversity is stuck between climate change and people’s land use. In other places, there will be lakes, seas and rivers in the way, or the soil won’t be suitable. There are many obstacles in the way. Third, forests and other vegetation cannot move quickly. My former student Scott Loarie estimated that in some places vegetation has to move 10 kilometers a year or more to keep up with warming. Can you imagine forests moving 10 kilometers or even 1 kilometer per year, especially with people in the way? Fourth, even if everything moves, there will be new combinations of species and new interactions. Many of these interactions will be bad for some species. For example, in Costa Rica, keel-billed toucans have moved higher into forests where rare resplendent quetzals live. The toucans eat the chicks and eggs of quetzals and chase quetzals from the tree holes where the quetzals nest.

It is actually better for birds, because for most other groups, it is worse. Birds can fly, so they can move more than other groups such as plants, fish, amphibians, mammals, etc. So birds are among the least-threatened groups. We’ll see a higher percentage of extinctions for other animals. People will also be affected greatly, especially billions of poor people in the developing world who depend on the land for their survival. Agriculture will suffer, there will be more famines and starvation. Extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods, droughts, etc., will continue to kill millions of people with increasing frequency. Climate change will hurt the poor and less-developed people most.



Dr. Çağan Hakkı Şekercioğlu

A biologist, ecologist and environmental scientist, he is currently a biology professor at the University of Utah’s Department of Biology. He graduated from Robert College with highest honors and went on to receive biology and anthropology degrees from Harvard University, before obtaining his PhD on a full scholarship from Stanford University in biological sciences. His doctoral research focused on the causes and consequences of bird extinctions around the world. He is the recipient of various awards and honors, including the silver medal in the fourth International Biology Olympics in 1993 and Junior Chamber International (JCI) Turkey’s outstanding young environmental and moral leader of the year in 2003. In 2008, he received the Whitley Award, donated by the William Brake Charitable Trust, and the United Kingdom’s most prestigious environmental award, the Whitley Gold Award, for his work at Kuyucuk Lake, in Kars province of northeastern Turkey. In 2013, he became the first person to receive the Whitley Gold Award for the second time, for « putting Turkey on the conservation map. » He was chosen as a National Geographic explorer in 2011, and was featured in the May, 2013 issue of National Geographic as the only Turkish « risk taker. » This year he received the TÜBİTAK special award for his highly cited scientific research and his long-term conservation work in eastern Turkey. He is one of the most-cited 1 percent of scientists over the past decade, and his scientific publications have received over 3,200 citations.


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