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Turkey: Environmental disasters a new test for struggling Erdogan

Sea snot, drought, dead flamingos and burning plastic waste: rising concerns about environmental problems are shaking the president's government
Pedalos on the Sea of Marmara negotiate spreading sea snot in the Darica district of Kocaeli, Turkey, on June 12 2021 (AFP)
By in
Izmir, Turkey

When a group of Turkish environmental campaigners submitted the paperwork to establish a political party last September, they didn't expect any problems.

The law was clear, and setting up a new party had always been an easy job: you present the documents to the interior ministry, and in no time you've got yourself an official political party. 

But fast forward 10 months and Koray Dogan, co-spokesperson for Turkey's Green Party, says they still haven’t been able to legally establish their party.

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“More than a dozen political parties have been established while we are waiting. They just wouldn’t allow us to do it,” he told Middle East Eye (MEE). 

“They had a bunch of excuses, from the Covid-19 pandemic to bureaucratic obstacles. But they never told us the actual reason."

Dogan suspects that the government has an ulterior motive. “They would like to design the politics to their benefit,” he said.

In recent months, environmental disasters and climate change concerns have risen up Turkey’s political agenda.

Earlier this year, a severe drought threatened water resources in cities such as Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir.

Experts warn drought is now a reality for Turkish citizens as 60 percent of Turkey doesn't receive enough rainfall. “A serious water crisis is rapidly approaching within the next decade if the government doesn’t change its policies,” Murat Turkes, a climate science professor, told a local news outlet.

Last week, a regular observer of Lake Tuz revealed that thousands of newly born flamingos were lying dead in the dried-up part of the basin, due to severe drought.

The plight of the flamingos horrified the nation. Mehmet Emin Öztürk, a nature photographer, told local media that Lake Tuz had been “a paradise for flamingos, but now [it has] turned into a nightmare”.

Last month, the country was shocked as vast amounts of smelly sea snot - a slimy organic matter also known as marine mucilage - appeared in the Sea of Marmara.

The outbreak, which was believed to be the largest on record worldwide, triggered a massive public outcry and reached as far as the Dardanelles.

The root cause of the spongy crust that threatens marine life is climate change and pollution, as increasing water temperatures combined with wastewater runoff to produce the sea snot explosion in the inland sea, which has only two waterways that reach out to the Black Sea and the Aegean.

The issue was quickly politicised. Pro-government media blamed Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu of the opposition CHP party for not continuing plans to build an advanced wastewater system near the Golden Horn. The opposition blamed the government for not taking steps to ensure that all the cities surrounding the Sea of Marmara have undertaken the necessary measures to stop wastewater pollution.

Growing concern

Can Selcuki, the general manager of polling company Istanbul Economy Research, told MEE that polls indicate that voters’ interest in climate change and environmental problems is increasing considerably.

A poll the company conducted last month showed 76 percent of people were worried about the Sea of Marmara.

“More than 85 percent of the respondents in our poll knew about the sea snot. It is an incredible number,” he said. “The youth especially are more troubled by it.”

Nearly six million young people will be able to vote in the next election in 2023 for the first time.

Another poll, conducted by the German Marshall Fund in March and April, revealed that 83 percent of Turkish respondents would like their country to take a more active role in combating climate change.

Ankara is yet to ratify the Paris climate deal due to economic reasons; Turkey wants exemptions in carbon emissions as it is a developing nation.

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Meanwhile, hundreds of protesters in Ikizdere, Rize - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hometown and his stronghold - have been demonstrating since March against a mining project sanctioned by a presidential decree that is destroying a luscious valley called Iskencedere.

The contractor, Cengiz Construction, has deep ties to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Erdogan himself. The 16 million tonnes of rock that would be dug out is slated to be used in the construction of a new port in Rize.

Dogan, the Greens spokesperson, believes the government is concerned that the environment is becoming increasingly important to the public and it is failing to address their concerns.

Meanwhile, the opposition is using this situation to their advantage.

For example, nationalist IYI Party leader Meral Aksener seized on the Ikizdere protests and invited one of the older female protesters to speak about the issue to the party’s parliamentary group, an event that received widespread media coverage.

With Turkey’s new presidential system, even the smallest parties could play a role in the next presidential elections, scheduled for 2023. Several polls indicate support for Erdogan is at a historic low, and any strong opposition candidate would have an excellent chance of defeating him.

“We obviously don’t have a giant presence but people naturally think about our party because our expertise and agenda are all about the environment and climate change,” Dogan said. “We could contribute a lot to any political coalition with what we represent.”

Poor record

Meanwhile, Erdogan continues to push for his mammoth Kanal Istanbul project, which aims to dig a new waterway in parallel with the Bosphorus. Apart from the extra population it would bring to already-congested Istanbul, and the destruction of the farms and green spaces in the area, the project would also harm the delicate maritime balance in the Sea of Marmara.

A poll by Istanbul Economy Research conducted last month across 12 cities revealed that opposition to the project has increased 8 percent in a year, amounting to 60 percent of respondents.

“The government doesn’t have a very good scorecard when it comes to the environment,” Selcuki said.

“Our research indicates 52 percent of the population oppose public investments if they harm the environment. And the government doesn’t want this group to have a platform and talk about these issues.”

Just last week, Erdogan's government had another setback: Ankara repealed a ban it imposed eight days prior on plastic waste imports, following lobbying by the local plastic industry.

A Greenpeace report in May revealed that Turkey received almost 40 percent of the UK’s plastic waste exports (209,642 tonnes) in 2020, nearly half of which was mixed plastic that is mostly non-recyclable.

'The government doesn’t have a very good scorecard when it comes to the environment'

- Can Selcuki, Istanbul Economy Research

The report found that European Union member states also exported 20 times more plastic waste to Turkey in 2020 than in 2016 - about 447,000 tonnes - making it the largest export country for plastic waste from the EU.

Dogan believes the government’s track record on environmental pollution is mixed.

On the one hand, Erdogan's wife Emine has been promoting a "zero waste” project all over the country that aims to separate recyclable waste from non-recyclable waste in public buildings, and Ankara also regularly promotes tree-planting campaigns.

“But when it comes to plastic waste, we cannot even recycle our own [at home] because we can't separate it from general waste,” Dogan said.

“We produce 3.5 million tonnes of plastic waste in a year. Only 400 tonnes of the waste is processed. The rest is basically dumped into nature through burning or other means. That's why, for example, importing waste from the Netherlands is cheaper.”

Dogan believes that the economy is the only priority for the government and it ignores other issues, such as the environment. 

"You cannot create a forest, an ecosystem of its own, by just planting trees all around and creating a landscape."