“We are facing the risk of becoming a water poor country”

Lecturing the “Sustainability from Environmental and Social Perspectives” and “Social Aspects of Tourism” undergraduate courses in Boğaziçi University Tourism Administration Department, Dr. Akgün İlhan is a well-known scholar due to her studies on water. In addition to her radio programs “Su Hakkı (Water Right)” and “Sudan Gelen (From Water)” at Açık Radyo, Dr. İlhan writes about water crisis and climate change in various platforms and she is the author of ‘’Yeni Bir Su Politikasına Doğru: Türkiye’de Su Yönetimi, Alternatifler ve Öneriler” (Towards A New Water Policy: Water Management in Turkey, Alternatives and Suggestions). On April 22nd -The Earth Day, we discussed water with Dr. Akgün İlhan. As we spoke about a number of important subjects about Water; such as safe water, economical access to water, the cost of water, our water footprint; we also discussed the things that can be done on consumption basis.

Let’s start with asking how did you turn your interest towards the fields of environment, sustainability and especially water.

Akgün İlhan – In early 90’s, when I was working on my undergraduate thesis at Ankara University Landscape Architecture Department, I come to recognize the problematic relation we’ve established with water. In that such interdisciplinary department, I had the chance to study with expert lecturer almost 80 courses including; botanic, phytosociology, environmental problems, soil science, landscape ecology, urban and regional planning, geology, design, dendrology and project drawing. While only a few people were talking about the climate change then, our lecturers were talking about the negative affects of Southeastern Anatolia Project (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi “GAP”) on the ecosystem and how much these affects were going to become more intense with the climate change in near future. Years later, this same awareness became a determinant factor for me to go Lund University in Switzerland to do my masters in Environmental Science.  My interest in Water issue has started with the internship I’ve done in UNESCO’s Paris Headquarters’ Water Department. I took part in a project that was defending the civil participation in the almost 100 large river basin management around the world. Throughout this project, I came to understand that protecting the rivers is only possible with people, not with mere technology. My postgraduate and doctorate theses at Lund University - Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS) and Autonomous University of Barcelona - Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technology (IEST) were about rivers and their affects on people. Upon my return to Turkey in 2011, I’ve worked for almost six years with “Right to Water Campaign” (Su Hakkı Kampanyası), which carries on works about access to water in urban areas. I suppose, seeing water as myself and seeing the “water crisis” as “human crisis” was the most important factor on my orientation towards water and water crisis.

In one of your latest articles, you emphasize on how 2.1 billion people can’t access safe water services by 2017 according the data provided by World Health Organization (WHO). Can we begin with dwelling upon the concept of safe water services? In which countries this problem occurs the most and what is Turkey’s position amongst these countries regarding to access to safe water?

Water safety is a community’s capacity of securing enough drinking water to maintain its health, livelihood, welfare, social and economic development and the existence of all the ecosystems that these factors have a direct connection. An important portion of sub-Saharan countries, Asian countries like Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Middle Eastern Countries like Saudi Arabia and Yemen are the places where water scarcity is happening for some time now. Management issues are affecting this chart as much as the physical water scarcity.

Major problems in access to water are expected in 2025 

According to the data provided by United Nations (UN), 1.8 billion people will be living in the areas where absolute water scarcity is happening. Furthermore, two thirds of the human population is expected to have water issues by then. Then again, according the future scenarios of UN; by the year 2030, between 24 to 700 million people who live in arid and sub-arid areas will be forced to immigrate because of the climate change. So, the water safety issue is growing problem for the whole world. We wouldn’t be exaggerating if we say that major “access to water” problems are around the corner for Turkey. The amount of usable clear water for Turkey is 112 billion m3 per year. If you divide this number to our population, which is over 82 million now, the amount of clear water per person is 1365 m3 per year. According to Falkenmark index, if that number is between 1000 and 1700 m3, that means the country is experiencing “water stress”.  So, even though Turkey is a country with “water stress” for now, that number will go under 1000 m3 due to population growth, climate change and inconsistent water policies.  Then, Turkey will become a Water Poor country.

The cost of water shouldn’t exceed 2 percent of the total household expenses

In the same article, you also talk about economical accessibility of water. According to your assessment, when city water and the bottled water are consumed at the same time, 8 percent of the monthly expenses of a family of 4 that live on minimum wage are being spent only for water. In these circumstances, can we consider Turkey to be one of the countries where consumption of water is the most expensive? And are there any possibilities to reduce this expense to a normal point?

What I’ve done there was a rough calculation of water budget for a family of four that is trying to live with minimum wage. As there are more crowded families who try to live on minimum wage, there are also some that earn less than the minimum wage. Which means that the number of families that spend more than 8 percent of their income on water may be much more than we anticipated. I don’t know of any research about the average budget that is spent on water around the world. Also, I’m not sure how much sense it would make to calculate the average of such distinct environments. However, for a fact; according to United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), the water cost shouldn’t exceed 2 percent of the total household expenses. 

How does the water cost increase?

Once again, according to United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and United Kingdom – Department of Environment, Transportation and the Regions (DETR) this number should not exceed 3 percent.  In relation to that, OECD suggests that the water cost should be between 3 to 5 percent of the household budget. Therefore, the proportional “8 percent” budget for water cost that I calculated for a family that lives in Istanbul shows that our water is highly expensive comparing the international standards.  

So, what would the way to decrease the price of water?

To provide an answer to your question, we have to understand first; why it’s that expensive. With their increasing populations and settlement areas, metropolitan cities are creating growing pressures on water supplies. Instead of protecting, the water basins are being opened for settlement and being exposed to immediate contamination. In these cities where the water basins are turned into settlement areas, the water is being transported from hundreds of kilometers away in order to meet the water demand of their increasing populations. While Istanbul is draining a big number of rivers from the north of Marmara Region and even receiving water support from West Karadeniz (Blacksea) Region, Ankara is being supplied with the water from Kırşehir and Bolu; İzmir and Manisa are being supplied with the surface and underground water. The expense of the water that is being transported with such great projects is inevitably increasing. And, since the expenses of these great projects are being reimbursed from the consumers by law, this situation is affecting the water bills. Whereas, if the cities would protect their own water supplies and save water to be able to meet their demands with local supplies, the price of water wouldn’t increase this much.

During a study that was conducted by the United Kingdom – Environmental Agency (EA) last year, it was discovered that the daily consumption of water per person in England was around 140 liters and yet, the same amount of water was being wasted due to leakages and percolations.  While it is estimated that the 40 percent of world’s population is suffering from water scarcity, are developed countries acknowledging their responsibilities about the wastage of natural water sources?

Actually, with its physical water loss rate in city water that is ranging between 20% and 23%, England is very close to the European average.  However, the seepage loss rate in Europe is varying from one country to another. For instance; while this rate is around 36% in Portugal and Italy, the seepage rate in countries like Netherlands and Denmark are ranging between 3 to 7 percent. So, it means that with the necessary investments, it is possible to decrease that number to 1-digit rates.  In North American countries, seepage loss rate is ranging slightly above 23 percent. These rates cannot be underestimated.  This data shows that even some developed countries are not taking the subjects of water saving and water efficiency seriously enough. Similar to most of the developing countries, it is proven that also in these countries the local governments that are elected for a certain period of time are tending towards ostentatious investments like giant dams and water transportation projects, instead of investments that would produce outcomes in long run like repairing or improving the mains water systems. In fact, improving the mains water system is a much cheaper, more sustainable and ecological solution. In our world where the access to water is getting harder and more expensive by the year, the primary solution for providing water lies in preventing the seepage loss in mains water system. Undeniably, the developed countries have pioneer roles in this matter. 3 liters of water is being used for 1 liter of bottled water. A recent research by Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition (BCFN), indicates that if the vegetable based eating habits are preferred, individuals may decrease their water footprint by the half. In the “Water Footprint” pyramid, meat products are placed at the top and the seasonal vegetables are placed at the bottom. And this shows that in order to prevent any restriction on our access to water, we have to change many of our consuming habits; starting with our eating habits.

What other precautions should be taken in this context? For instance, how can we be conscious water consumers in our homes, schools and work places? What are your suggestions?

We have to act with water footprint on our minds anytime we buy a product or service now. I mean; how much is this product or service going to cause water to be used and consumed until it reaches us and even though after we use it? We have to ask this question on every step we take. For example; let’s examine the production process of a 1-liter plastic bottled water. Let’s think about the underground water that is being contaminated during the drilling for oil, which is the plastic’s raw material. Let’s think about the amount of water being used during the production of plastic granules and the bottle, during filling of the water to these bottles, during transportation to the supermarkets where we buy these products. So, this is the “water-cost” or “water footprint” of one, single bottled water. If we are to talk in numbers; water footprint for a 1-liter bottled water is 3 liters. However, only the half of this amount would be spent for mains water system. It clearly shows us that the water footprint of mains water system being smaller is alone a reason for preferring it. Thus, nowadays we are mostly considering only the economical aspect of a product while we decide if we are going to prefer it or not. The only way to protect water is to use it efficiently. Where in fact, taking water and carbon footprints; or all together the ecological footprints into consideration while judging any product or service is becoming an obligation for the ecological crisis age we are living in. Therefore, it is time or maybe even too late for conscious citizens to become the protectors –not the consumers of water.  The only way to protect the water lies within minimizing our usage of water. Thus, using the water efficiently. In order to achieve that, we have to stay away from the bottled waters, which costs two times water than mains water system and creates plastic accumulation in nature. In addition to that; reusing the water with low contamination, the gray water in flush tanks, watering the garden or house cleaning by processing through a basic purifier system after taking a shower, washing our hands and face, washing the dishes and clothes is a water saving attitude.  The water demand of a household may decrease to half with this method. Another method is collecting the already clean rainwater in similar activities before it hits the sewer system. In short, performing the same activities with using and contaminating less water would help us to decrease the consumption pressure on our water supplies and to protect them in a more efficient way.

Istanbul’s water supplies are being contaminated

Lastly, how do you see Istanbul within the aspect of accessing water sources in coming 20 – 30 years? Starting with water scarcity, what are the major risks we are facing?  What kind of solutions should be performed specific to Istanbul?

Access to water is already problem for Istanbul, let alone coming 20 – 30 years.  Istanbul doesn’t have the water supplies in its own territory to meet the demands of such population. Also, Istanbul is a city where access to water is problematic because of its rugged topography. Hence, this limitation has been an element of pressure for Istanbul’s population throughout the history. Only when technological developments have allowed water to be transported from long distances to high altitudes, this repressive attribution of water died out.  Together with the crisis in water services that took place in 1990’s, Istanbul began taking action towards benefiting from the surrounding water supplies. Today, from Kırklareli to Düzce, the water from many rivers in the northern Marmara Region is being drained to Istanbul. Once you leave Marmara Region and enter Karadeniz (Blacksea) Region in Düzce, you may see the office of Istanbul Water Supply and Sanitation Department (ISKI) and at dam over Melen Brook, you may see a sign put by ISKI that says “swimming in the lake may be dangerous”.  And if you are to ask; how an institution that carries the name of Istanbul can claim this right over Düzce’s water supplies, the local people from Düzce would reply with talking about the Great Melen Project which transports water to Istanbul through 185 km long pipes. You see, let me explain using only this example. Designed to transport water to Istanbul through 3 different pipelines, the first two conduits of this project were completed in 2007 and 2014. The water that travels through these completed pipelines is now providing the 35 percent of Istanbul’s water demand. The construction of 3rd conduit will be completed in June, 2019. This project hasn’t only negatively effected the local people in Düzce, who do their farming with the water from Melen Brook, who keep a livelihood with the eco-tourism activities that are enriched with the rafting, hiking, etc. activities in the basin. In order to prevent access for water transporting pipeline, massive green area that includes Şile Forest, has been shaved throughout the pipeline’s route in 50 meter wide. Not only through the Great Melen Project, also through 3rd Airport, 3rd Bridge and Northern Marmara Highway projects, Istanbul’s green areas have been shredded and it’s disappearing. On top of that, crazy projects like Channel Istanbul, which would endanger Sazlıdere, and Terkos dams that are providing the 23% of Istanbul’s own water supply, are under way. So, we are facing a water management mentality that is destroying the water holding eco-systems, the forest, with transportation and settlement projects, which will attract even more population, and not taking precautions to prevent 23% seepage loss in mains water systems while transporting water from 3 cities away. Istanbul’s own water supplies are being contaminated and becoming unusable while its population is growing. In order to get out of this vicious cycle, we have to use water more ecologically and efficiently, we have to protect the water holding ecosystems with a more integrative approach and we have to carry out the policies that will decrease the effects of climate change.


About Dr. Akgün İlhan:  Akgün Ilhan holds a BSc degree in Landscape Architecture from Ankara University (1996). She completed her MA in Curriculum & Instruction (2002) in Hacettepe University and MSc in International Environmental Science in Lund University (2005) in Sweden with the Swedish Institute Scholarship. Akgün Ilhan completed her PhD in the field of Political Ecology at the Institute of Science and Technology (ICTA) in Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona with the FI scholarship from the Catalan Government. Meanwhile she also worked as a research associate in the European Union funded project called “Methods and Tools for Integrated Sustainability Assessment” (MATISSE). After completing her studies she came back to Turkey and worked for the Right to Water Campaign (Istanbul/Turkey) in the period of 2012-2018. She also gives lectures (“Environment and Tourism” and “Sustainability from Environmental and Social Perspectives”) in Boğaziçi University Tourism Administration Department since 2017. Akgün Ilhan is the author of various chapters and articles in books, newspapers and magazines about various dimensions of the water crisis and climate change.

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