Thirty-four places in the world have been identified as biodiversity hotspots -- places where the diversity of life is unusually rich and under threat from humans -- and Turkey is the only country covered almost in its entirety by three of these regions because of its unique position among three continents and three seas.
Most of Turkey's land area is covered by one of three biodiversity hotspots -- Caucasus, Irano-Anatolian and Mediterranean Basin.
However, Turkey's biodiversity faces severe and growing threats, and all of Turkey's species are at risk. In 2012 the Yale Environmental Performance Index ranked Turkey in the bottom 8 percent with regard to its biodiversity and habitat conservation efforts, putting Turkey in the same category as some of the world's most troubled and impoverished countries, such as Haiti, Libya, Eritrea and Iraq.
Environmental experts say with more than 1 million hectares of wetlands lost since 1950, half of the country's forest area has been degraded, and populations of fish, birds and large mammals are on the decline; thus, Turkey is facing a conservation crisis. And the worst part may be that no one really even knows just how bad the situation is.
In speaking with Sunday's Zaman, Turkish environmental organizations such as the Nature Association (Doğa Derneği), the KuzeyDoğa Society, the Turkish Foundation for Reforestation, Protection of Natural Habitats and Combating Soil Erosion (TEMA) and the Turkish branch of Greenpeace identified Turkey's environmental issues. The environmental experts said that Turkey's biodiversity is threatened mostly by irrigation, drying wetlands, water reservoirs and hydroelectric power plants. For this reason, the government should take urgent steps to stop the decrease in Turkey's biodiversity.
According to Ali Nihat Gökyiğit, chairman of the Tekfen board of directors and honorary and founding president of TEMA, Turkey's rich biodiversity can help improve relations between Turkey and the EU. He recently published a book titled "Türkiye'nin Biyolojik Zenginliği ve Korunması" (Protection of Turkey's Rich Biodiversity). Gökyiğit stated that Turkey's rich biodiversity is unique and globally important and that despite much destruction, biodiversity in Turkey is still very rich. He noted that every 10 days a new plant species is discovered; that the entire continent of Europe has 13,000 plant species, while Turkey alone has 10,000 plant species; and that Turkey is the richest country in Europe in terms of the variety of birds species, as a total of 471 of species have been identified. For these reasons, he said, “We need to draw attention to this rich biodiversity in Turkey at the national and international level, adding that he hopes this book serves this purpose.
Some of Turkey's most important ecosystems are in the remote northeast of Anatolia, the unique nature of which is rapidly disappearing, and locals are also encountering environmental problems, according to Dr. Çağan Şekercioğlu, founder of the Kars-based ecological research and conservation NGO the KuzeyDoğa Society.
Şekerçioğlu also added that according to current plans, Turkey's rivers and streams would be dammed with almost 4,000 dams, diversions and hydroelectric power plants for power generation, irrigation and drinking water by 2023. Unchecked urbanization, dam construction, draining of wetlands, poaching and excessive irrigation are the most widespread threats to biodiversity he said.
Şekerçioğlu also noted that major waves of urbanization and dam construction, as well as poaching, overgrazing and overfishing, pollution and excessive irrigation threaten to destroy species and ecosystems that have survived 10,000 years of human land use. Better protecting Turkey's biodiversity is important for the country's human inhabitants as well, with nearly 20 million rural people benefiting from it culturally and commercially, particularly through fishing, honey production and the use of plants for medicine and dyes.
Turkey's important natural areas are under threat of destruction, and many species endemic to the country are under threat of extinction due in large part to erroneous water policies, according to the head of the Ankara-based Nature Association. Nature Association Secretary-General Sedat Ural said climate change, water pollution and urbanization are the top three environmental problems that Turkey must deal with.
Ural also said that Turkey's greenhouse gas emissions have increased 124 percent since 1990, according to the 2012 Greenhouse Gas Inventory. Ural also added that as a member of the Kyoto Protocol, which sets binding obligations on industrialized countries to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, Turkey should assume its responsibility and side with climate-friendly policies in climate negotiations.
Greenpeace Turkish Brand representatives Emine Sarıgül has announced that "as an environmental organization we try to protect, and in the first place we can say that nuclear plants remain very important environmental problems because nuclear plants are a threat to human life.”
Sarıgül also stressed that due to Turkey's geological past and location between three continents, it is one of the wealthiest nations on earth in terms of biodiversity. Whereas in all of Europe 12,000 plant species have been identified, Turkey has 9,000 and counting, Sarıgül noted, adding that one-third of Turkey's plant species are indigenous to the region. However, a large part of this wealth is under threat of extinction, she added. Turkey is a rapidly developing country with inadequate conservation efforts and weak enforcement of environmental laws; for this reason, the laws in Turkey should protect rather than destroy the environment, experts stressed.
The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government has been criticized by environmentalists, and recently Parliament was expected to discuss a bill approved by a sub-commission in 2012 that would have allowed construction in national parks, but it has suspended talks for now because of the ongoing protests at Taksim's Gezi Park, which is currently a hot topic in the country. The protest originally started as a simple sit-in on May 27 in Gezi Park to protest the government's Taksim pedestrianization project, with a plan to build a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks on the site of Gezi Park but turned into mass demonstrations against the policies of the government and the excessive use of force by the police against demonstrators. The draft, if passed, puts at risk many natural sites including İstanbul's Belgrade Forest, Lake Manyas Bird Heaven and other natural sites such as the Yedigöller lakes area.
The proposed Law on Nature and Biological Diversity Conservation was sent to Parliament in 2010.Two years ago, the Environment Commission adopted it, and it has been waiting to be presented to Parliament. It allows opening natural parks and conservation sites up to construction. One hundred thirteen civil society organizations came together to fight the proposed law and have criticized it fiercely. The European Union referred to it as “meriting concern.”