Turkey has long been gearing up for accession to the EU, and Brussels has urged the country to improve its environmental record. Some progress has been made, but many say it's not enough.
The Atatürk dam in the Euphrates basin is one of the world's largest
According to the European Commission, the most pressing environmental concerns in Turkey include water quality and radiation protection. But in the area of nature conservation too, change has been slow to come. Moreover, recent amendments to mining laws as well as new rules regarding visas designed to boost tourism are seen as potentially highly damaging to the environment.
Air and water pollution are serious problems in Istanbul
Guelcan Nitsch, the founder of Yeşil Çember, the Turkish branch of Friends of the Earth says she's worried. In November 2010, she accompanied the organization's German delegation to Istanbul to talk to representatives from various Turkish environmental groups.
"In Turkey, environmental protection is still in its infancy," she said. "The work we're doing there is a bit like development aid."
Organizations such as TEMA, Bugay and Greenpeace Turkey have much to contend with. For now, the government is reluctant to cooperate with them, explains Nitsch, and environmental protection appears to exist only on paper. Even though she concedes that legislation exists, she stresses that its actual implementation is not sufficiently supervised.
"You even see construction companies granted permission to build in conservation areas," she despairs.
Anger over Akkuyu
Ankara has other priorities, it seems. It recently signed a contract with Russia to build a nuclear power plant in Akkuyu on the Mediterranean coast. Scheduled for completion in 2017, the project is expected to cost an estimated $20 billion (15.8 billion euros), and will consist of four nuclear reactors with a total capacity of 4,800-megawatts.
Environmental activists are up in arms, not least because Akkuyu is located in an earthquake -prone region. Locals have also launched protests, and many are planning to move away.
The environment is not yet a mainstream issue in Turkey
They aren't the only environmental refugees in Turkey, says Nitsch. Other major development ventures which have resulted in population displacement include the Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP), which foresees 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants built in the basins of the Euphrates and Tigris. The centerpiece of the project is the Atatürk Dam, which was completed in 1990 and is still one of the world's largest dams.
The goal of GAP is to improve irrigation, hydraulic energy production, agriculture and urban and rural infrastructure. The project is billed as a multi-sector integrated regional development initiative, based on the concept of sustainable development for the nine million people who live in the region.
But elsewhere in the country, there's little trace of sustainable development. Valuable carbon sinks, peat bogs and lakes in Anatolia are being degraded.This not only threatens the habitat of numerous species of flora and fauna, but has far-reaching economic and social consequences for the local population.
At least the problem has been recognized: At Lake Yenicaga and Lake Akgol, experts have begun studying the condition of the wetlands and are using their findings to introduce schemes that show locals how to manage the wetlands in a way that conserves their ecological functions and partially rehabilitates them.
Guelcan Nitsch from Friends of the Earth believes that the population in Turkey is beginning to grasp the importance of environmental protection, and hopes that it won't be long before it tops political agendas.
Before that happens, the issues needs to go mainstream. "We want environmental groups to have more of a voice," she says. "But this will take some time."
The EU's role
If wetlands dry up, large amounts of carbon dioxide are released into the air
She says that the support of European politicians is crucial to this process. They need to ramp up pressure on the Turkish government and demand greater commitment to the environmental cause.
"Europe has not been sufficiently confrontational," agrees Rebecca Harms, co-leader of the Green/European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament.
Turkey is currently undergoing rapid growth, and seeing a lot of investment. "This makes it an ideal moment to address environmental issues," says Harms. "But instead, they're doing everything wrong. Ankara refuses to listen to criticism, and not only is the environment at stake when it comes to ambitious construction projects, cultural heritage is also at risk."
When Turkey first began negotiating EU membership, the government was far more open to criticism. But with the accession process continuing at a relatively slow pace, Ankara doesn't appear to be feeling any heat.
"For as long as the EU remains a distant prospect, the issue is on the backburner," says Harms.
But she herself is undeterred, and is pinning her hopes on local environmental activists. She plans to visit Turkey in 2011 to meet them. In another hopeful sign, she'll also be talking to Egemen Bagis, Turkish minister for EU Affairs.
"He's agreed to meet us," she says.
Author: Po Keung Cheung (jp)
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar