In front of the pasture by Lake Van in eastern Turkey, Ibrahim Koç remembers his youth: the expanse where his cattle graze, once green, has become dry.
Shrubs have grown on what were the shores of the country’s largest lake, which locals still call, in reference to its former grandeur, “the Sea of Van”.
The waters of the lake have receded over the years due to drought and global warming.
“Animals are thirsty,” regrets Mr Koç, 65. “There is no more water,” he adds, referring to the water reserves that are disappearing in many corners of the country.
The heat wave that affected almost all parts of Turkey this summer has aggravated the situation.
The retreat of the waters has cleared strips of land, causing salty dust which pollutes the air and which is set to increase over the years.
Van is an endorheic lake, that is to say, which retains its waters in a closed basin, resulting in a concentration of salts and other minerals in the water.
“The worst is yet to come. The lake level will continue to drop,” warns Faruk Alaeddinoglu, professor of geography at Yuzuncu Yil University in Van.
With an area of 3,700 km2, the lake has shrunk by nearly 1.5% in recent years, according to a study conducted by the researcher in 2022.
According to Alaeddinoglu, the size of the lake has shrunk in the past due to fractures of tectonic plates which make Turkey one of the most seismically active areas in the world.
But he blames the current drop on rising temperatures leading to “less precipitation and excessive evaporation”.
Nearly three times as much water evaporates from the lake as it comes down as rain, he said.
In the Celebibagi district on the northern shore of the lake, the waters receded nearly 4 kilometers.
The dry shores are now covered with the bones of birds, thorny bushes and land where sodium and other minerals outcrop.
“We are walking on an area that was once covered by the waters of the lake,” says local environmental activist Ali Kalcik. “Today is a dry land without life”.
Flamingos dancing above the mountains indicate where the lake finally begins.
– Ruined efforts –
In 2019, the construction of a palace for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ahlat, located on the northern shores of the lake, was strongly criticized by environmental activists saying it endangered an already fragile ecosystem. .
As water-intensive luxury residences are erected, the authorities have recently urged farmers to opt for crops that require little water.
Kinyas Gezer, a 56-year-old farmer, will therefore no longer be able to grow beets which require a lot of watering.
“All my efforts are ruined,” he laments, also pointing to withered apricots on the trees in his garden.
“If it continues like this, we will have to abandon agriculture,” he predicts.
Lake Van also suffers from anthropogenic pollution that the drying out makes “more visible”, according to Orhan Deniz, professor of geography at Yuzuncu Yil University, referring to “large patches of nauseating mud”.
“In the 1990s, we went swimming during our lunch break. Impossible today,” he laments, looking at the lake from his office.
– “A massacre” –
The lake is still popular with tourists and some locals bathe anyway.
Van Governor Ozan Balci says 80 million Turkish liras (nearly $3 million) have been spent to clean up the lake.
“We do our best to protect the lake because it is part of the cultural heritage,” he explains.
In the coastal village of Adir, residents bathe and picnic under the trees.
But not far away, corpses of seagulls betray the ecological disaster.
Experts say pearl mullets — endemic fish that form the mainstay of the seagulls’ diet — migrated earlier this year due to drought and the seagulls starved to death.
“The birds that are still alive are in danger. Without food, they will also die,” said Necmettin Nebioglu, a 64-year-old villager.
“In the past, seagulls followed us as we swam in the lake. Look, it’s a massacre,” he laments.
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