Central Turkey’s Lake Tuz has been a breeding ground for generations of colorful flamingoes who migrate there each year to feed on the shallow lake’s algae. However, a rapidly changing climate and unsustainable agricultural practices have led to a drought that killed thousands of flamingoes this summer.
Lake Tuz, which translates from Turkish to “Salt Lake,” is Turkey’s second-largest lake at 643 square miles. According to experts, the lake entirely dried up this year due to the ever-warming climate and years of extensive water use for agriculture.
Fahri Tunc, a wildlife photographer and leader of a local branch of Doga Dernegi, a Turkish environmental group, discovered a gruesome scene that was decades in the making. He found the corpses of flamingoes littering the dried bed of Lake Tuz.
“There were about 5,000 young flamingos. They all perished because there was no water,” said Tunc. “It was an incredibly bad scene. It’s not something I can erase from my life. I hope I do not come across such a scene again.”
Lake Tuz is not alone. Turkey’s largest lake, Lake Van, lost so much water that fishing boats were unable to dock last week, reported HaberTurk television. Climate scientists say that these two examples reflect an unsettling reality for many other bodies of water in Turkey and across the Mediterranean basin: they are struggling with drought and a land degradation process known as desertification, in which normally productive land becomes a desert.
“(We have) rising temperatures and decreasing rain, and on the other side, the water needs for irrigation in agriculture,” said Levent Kurnaz, a climate scientist at Bogazici University. “It’s a bad situation all over Turkey at the moment.”
Turkey’s Anadolu Agency has reported that satellite imagery from Ege University in Turkey shows that Lake Tuz’s water levels began dropping in the year 2000. The study also found that the water loss was caused by higher temperatures and the resulting increase in evaporation as well as a lack of rain. At the same time, the area’s groundwater stores declined because of the overuse of unlicensed wells.
Environmental advocacy groups cite poor agricultural policies from the government as one of the main reasons that farmers have used so much water in recent years. The Konya basin — where Lake Tuz is located — used to be famous for its food production. According to Fahri Tunc, the photographer who reported on the flamingo die-off, lucrative but water-intensive crops like corn, beets, and alfalfa have drained the area of life-giving water. His statement aligns with claims from scientists.
“If you don’t pay them enough money, the farmers, they will plant whatever is water intensive and will make money for them. And if you just tell them it’s not allowed, then they won’t vote for you in the next election,” acknowledges Kurnaz, recognizing the economic pressure that farmers face.
Kurnaz elaborated on agricultural practices and policies in the region. “They keep telling people that they shouldn’t use groundwater for this agriculture and people are not listening. There are about 120,000 unlicensed wells in the region, and everybody is pumping out water as if that water will last forever,” Kurnaz noted. “But if you are on a flat place, it can rain as much as you want and it won’t replenish the groundwater in a short time. It takes maybe thousands of years in central Anatolia to replenish the underground water table.”
In addition to impacts on wildlife and agriculture, overreliance on groundwater has created issues with sinkholes. The Karapinar district of Konya has seen dozens of these formations.
Similarly, the warming climate is credited by scientists as a driving force behind many recent disasters in Turkey. Over the last year, fires and floods in the country have killed nearly 100 people and forced thousands to flee their homes.