Apathy and Progress Are Killing Turkey's Famous Flamingo Lake
Photo: Stephen Starr


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Apathy and Progress Are Killing Turkey's Famous Flamingo Lake

Lake Tuz is remarkable for its natural salt and flamingo colony. But it may not be around much longer.

I'm on the shores of Lake Tuz, the second-largest lake in Turkey, and no one wants to talk about salt.

It took 10 minutes of pleading with a security guard, even though he'd been told that a journalist would be visiting, to gain entry to the Kaldirim Salt Enterprise's huge facility on the eastern shore of Europe's biggest salt lake.

"You can drive through and come back out again, but don't get out of the car," he warned.


Inside the yard, mountains of the blindingly bright salt are piled three stories high by a conveyer belt being fed by a convoy of trucks. Except for three men sitting around a table in the shade at the yard's edge, there are few signs of anyone willing to brave the August heat. A fourth man runs out of a beat-down building and with his arms appears to signal "get out, now."

Every spring, mineral-rich snow melt and rain flow south through Turkey's Anatolia and into Lake Tuz, adding a half-meter of water. The water evaporates by summer, leaving behind a three-inch layer of salt granules ready for harvest. The salt forms because the lake is endorheic, meaning it has no outflow.

Flamingos are seen at Tuz Lake on July 16, 2015. Dunaliella salinas, a type of halophile micro-algae especially found in sea/lake salt fields, colorize a part of the lake every summer. Photo: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

For locals, the lake is an important source of cash. Every summer farmers and large-scale producers go to work on the ethereal landscape that produces 60 per cent of all salt harvested in Turkey every year.

Lake Tuz also provides life to the largest flamingo colony in the Middle East and North Africa combined—22,000 breeding pairs in 2013—and is a crucial resting stop and sanctuary for dozens of other species migrating between Africa and central Europe.

What's more, it's a UNESCO special environmental protection area and a spectacular sight that turns red every July as a Dunaliella algae bloom explodes under the heat of the summer sun.

But Lake Tuz is disappearing.

Locals say submerging one's feet in the naturally-occurring salt takes away aches. Photo: Stephen Starr

Since the 2013 Gezi Park protests, when people took to the streets to demonstrate against the ruling AKP party's plans to destroy a popular park in central Istanbul, environmentalists and government officials have been fighting a battle of preservation versus progress.


The massive dams, highways, and bridges built around Turkey over the past decade have provided jobs for thousands of working class Turks, and helped to keep the AKP in power.

Environmentalists say the nationwide building boom is the passion project of a single man: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is pushing for Turkey to become one of the top 10 global economies by the time its centenary comes around in 2023.

The push for industrialization is evident here at Lake Tuz. A combination of falling precipitation; the inflow of wastewater from Konya, a city of 700,000 people; and upstream well drilling for crop irrigation is killing an already limited supply of fresh water.

Once Turkey's second largest lake, some conservationists estimate Lake Tuz has reportedly shrunk by half in the last 40 years—though Ozlem Aksoy, a biologist at Turkey's ministry for environment and urbanisation, says a lack of up-to-date data means little consensus has been reached on the precise amount of decline, or which activity is most damaging.

Turkish officials claim the drought is temporary or cyclical at worst, and that efforts to pump treated water into the lake are underway. The government has also pointed to its efforts in garnering Lake Tuz special UNESCO status as an example of its seriousness about protecting local habitats, including that of the flamingos.

Yet according to government biologist Aksoy, no part of an action plan involving four ministries to transfer water to stop the lake drying up has been implemented yet.


"So far these actions are not satisfactory," said Vakur Sumer, a water politics expert and international relations lecturer at Selcuk University in Konya. "The situation… is worsening."

Streams such as this, that feed into Lake Tuz, are vanishing. Photo: Stephen Starr

Three miles away on the eastern shore of the lake, there is little sense of concern. From afar, the groups of people walking across the lake's bleached white surface appear like slow-moving, tiny alien beings. Despite the wind driving salt into their hair, burning their eyes and creeping down their throats, tourists come in the hundreds to sample the homeopathic healing power the large salt granules are said to offer.

Unsurprisingly, the local developers see an opportunity: Next to a parking lot clogged by coaches are two construction sites where hotel resorts are being built.

Closer to the lake's shore, signs advertising the salt's benefits have been crudely hammered into the now-dry lakebed. Nearby, a putrid stream of water leaks slowly into the lake from behind a fast food joint. There are no flamingos to be seen anywhere.

Several flamingo colonies on the lake have already vanished, said Dicle Tuba Kilic of the Turkish conservation organization Doga Dernegi, which translates to "Nature Association."

Photo: Stephen Starr

"There is a final flamingo colony in the middle of the lake," she said. "This colony depends on Tuz Lake completely."

Water that once drained into the lake can no longer do so, she said, because of damming and crop irrigation.

Long-term research further suggests the government's efforts might not be enough. A 30-year study published in 2012 found that temperatures in the karst central Anatolian region that includes Lake Tuz have risen 0.4 degrees Celsius (0.72 Fahrenheit) during that time, suggesting climate change is affecting precipitation, which is contributing to the reduced amount of water available to the lake. The global increase over the entire past century has been 0.6 degrees Celsius (1.08 Fahrenheit).

With demands from farmers and factories increasing and the lake's nascent recreational value thought to be $5 million and counting, the share left for flamingos and other species is shrinking, just like the lake itself.