While you go about your day, think about all the times you use water: as you sip your morning coffee or tea; while you belt out another song in the shower; each time you flush the toilet; as you let the kitchen sink run to warm up the water for dishes; while drinking another bottle or glass of it to stave off the intense summer heat. Now imagine trying to get through your day without water. Imagine reaching for that faucet or toilet handle and getting nothing in return. Now try to think how well you would cope with 5 days without running water.
This has been the situation for the nearly 5 million citizens of Ankara, Turkey's capital city, since Monday when a major water main broke following the first days of water rationing due to a severe and ongoing drought, a 76% annual rainfall deficit as of December 2006, and exacerbated by possibly negligent leadership on the part of municipal officials.
City officials imposed water rationing on August 1 as the city's water reserves shrank to just 4% of capacity, or about 6 billion cubic feet of water. One cubic foot of water contains 7.5 gallons, about 28 liters, so that's 45 billion gallons, or 171 billion liters. Most news reports claim Ankara's reserves are only enough to last the city two months.
A human being needs anywhere from 1 to 5 gallons, or 4 - 19 liters, of water per day just to survive. That does not take into account our many other uses of water in an average day, which for those of us in the U.S., the US Geological Survey estimates to total between 80-100 gallons, or 300-380 liters, each day. Most of that, literally, goes straight down the toilet.
Ankara's water rationing plan, which cut the city in two in order to alternate two-day waterless periods, would be difficult enough this time of year, with temperatures reaching 100/40 degrees. The first water main ruptured while the city was attempting to restore water to one part of the city. According to news reports, three mains have now ruptured. Monday's main burst must have seemed like a bad dream to those in the directly effected neighborhoods, suddenly flooded with the water they had been without for two days, only to see it lost to the sewers.
Water was restored to the city on Thursday evening, and officials are saying rationing will not resume for 10 days, but not before the effects were felt profoundly across the city, with residents trying to cope any way they were able. Hospitals have been in dire shape, forced to discharge patients and cancel even some non-elective surgeries because the tanker trucks supplying their water have only provided about an hour's worth of water, leading to hygiene concerns.
Much of the criticism surrounding the situation this week focused on Ankara's mayor, Melih Gökçek, accused by national water officials of ignoring warnings of an impending crisis as far back as 2004 while focusing municipal funds on more visible projects, such as highway improvements. Gökçek's response to this week's crisis was to call for residents to take holidays outside the city. Really. He didn't mention how long they should stay away, but it's hardly effective management of the situation. Perhaps, if he resigns, as some some are now calling for, he could find a second career here in the U.S. with our Federal Emergency Management Agency, where I suspect he might fit right in. The city is only recently began construction on a 230 mile/375 kilometer pipeline to divert water from the Kizilirmak River, the country's longest, which runs east of the city. Unfortunately, the project is not due to be completed, and water not supplied to the city from the river, until November or December and diversion projects are not without their own concerns.
Unfortunately, Ankara is not the only part of Turkey facing a water crisis, it is only the most dramatic example. A report from the WWF in Turkey details a dry future for the country. İstanbul, while faring better than Ankara at the moment, has only enough water in reserves for the next 4 months. The city is working on a project to divert water from Melen that is scheduled to be completed in October and desalinization, but 120 days of water on hand is hardly a comforting thought for a city of 10 million people. According to a report by the Turkish Union of Agricultural Chambers, the drought cost the country about 3.9 billion dollars (5 billion YTL) in 2006 alone and is forcing the government and agriculture sector to reevaluate just about everything at the risk losing thirsty crops, such as tea. The drought could also affect the country's power grid, with reduced productivity at hydroelectric plants.
Amazingly, despite reports of a increasingly hot and drought-plagued future for the Eastern Mediterranean and despite Ataturk's capital running out of water, Prime Minister Erdoğan seemed to downplay this critical issue. When asked, following his swearing in on Saturday, if his family was effected by the shortages he stated, "We have no water problem in our house at the moment. We have a water tanker. I think the problem is being considerably exaggerated." Tell that to the man in Ankara who, after 6 days, resorted to bathing with the water from his aquarium; or to the farmers in Thrace or Konya watching their crops wither; or to shoppers in the markets facing rising food prices; or those in Ankara being charged extortionist prices for plastic water jugs and bottled water.
While Erdoğan and other officials, even Gökçek, are right to blame the drought on global climate change, they cannot lay the blame for inadequate response at the feet of Mother Nature, nor should these effects of climatic changes have come as a surprise. It is true Erdoğan's recently re-elected AK Party didn't cause the drought, but they are responsible for dealing with the situations resulting from these all-too apparent changes.
One would think the capital city of a large country running out of water for a week would make the evening news in the U.S. It seems dramatic enough to fit the "if it bleeds, it leads," criteria for broadcast journalism. Yet, little of the wildfires, soaring temperatures, withering crops, or parched cities have been able to break into the news cycle in the U.S., parts of which are facing the same problems. Driving down the street today, with temperatures in drought-stricken Atlanta topping 100 degrees, I was stunned to see a university and several private homes watering their lawns with sprinklers despite restrictions in place. I have heard people in Florida mutter about restrictions because they cannot wash their cars, which borders on obscene to me. I would dare such people to complain about that one to the people of Ankara.
More people around the world seem to be accepting the phrase "climate change", but not the realities related to it. You may not think the problems of the people of Ankara are your problem, but they may be providing a clue as to what is to come in their own backyard. "Drought and desertification threaten the livelihood of over 1 billion people in over 110 countries around the world," according to former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. For years, experts in many fields have warned that we are entering a era where water will supplant oil as the commodity of conflict. We must understand the issues in our own watersheds, in the face of inadequate leadership (I'm looking at you, Bush administration), take steps we are able to on our own, and demand more of our leaders and policy makers. There are steps that can and must be taken now, not all are simple, such as changing in zoning and building codes, and many must be made in partnerships with other countries, such as access rights and protection of major river systems, but we can no longer wait, or else we all risk reaching for a glass of water one day and coming up dry.
Water, Use It Wisely
Water Conservation Tips
U.N. Water For Life - Decade for Action 2005-2015
International Forum on Drought 2007
World Water Council
Black Sea NGO Network