Wildfires and floods show Turkish officials must step up to climate challenges

People, institutions and states around the world are coming to accept that the accelerating changes to the global environmental system for humans do not merely amount to climate change, but a climate crisis. Events this month have shown that it is crucial for Turkey’s political and media spheres to come to the same understanding.

The news this month about the massive increase in wildfires blazing in the Amazon rainforest, which accounts for 20 percent of the world’s oxygen production and holds massive amounts of carbon in its vegetation, highlighted to the urgency of the situation even more strongly.

This column last week dealt with the spate of forest fires that struck coastal regions in Turkey. The fires were blamed on Kurdish militants and profiteers, but there was no mention in the media of climate change, despite a global increase in wildfires, including in Turkey’s neighbours.

The U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists explained the rise in simple terms last year: “moist, forested areas are the most likely to face greater threats from wildfires as conditions in those areas become drier and hotter”, and the hot, dry conditions increase the risk that fires will burn hotter and for longer “once they are started by lightning strikes or human error”.

A fire that blazed for days in the forests around Izmir this week, turning around 550 hectares (1360 acres) of the forest to ash before it was brought under control, illustrated just how dangerous these conditions are for Turkey.

There is no doubt that criminals commit arson to free up land for development, though whether or not this was the cause of the fire in Izmir is not known. But whatever sparks the blaze, the danger of it spreading to destroy the vast areas of woodland that have been put at risk by rising temperatures is very real.

This week’s column in Hürriyet newspaper by Gila Benmayor linking the blazes in Turkey to the global risks posed by the climate crisis was a welcome intervention into an issue that has been largely ignored by mainstream news sources.

There has also been positive news from the government: Turkey’s forest conservation organisation will be assigned 2,700 new personnel, in what could be a crucial step toward safeguarding the country’s woodlands. Even if, as Uğur Dündar said in his column for left-wing daily Sözcü on Wednesday, the intake was announced after the series of blazes in Turkey this summer.

To mitigate the risks of out-of-control wildfires, officials must take measures that reduce the risk of spread, including creating buffer zones between forests and human settlements and improving home and city fire safety standards, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

This is a task that should be attended to with all due haste by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. But it would be hard to fault Turks for doubting the ministry’s ability to address the issue, given Minister Bekir Pakdemirli’s response to the blazes in Izmir.

After being asked reasonable questions about why no planes had been dispatched to fight the fires, Pakdemirli told the press that the planes available were not in working order and that his personnel did not wish to fly them, but if anyone did wish to they could be his guest.

Secularist daily Cumhuriyet disputed the minister’s claim that the aircraft were not fit to fly, publishing a photograph of a licence it said proved they had passed safety inspections. Press sources have also suggested the planes were not used due to a tender dispute.

If the planes truly were not suitable to fly, the minister must ensure that they are brought up to standards immediately. There is compelling evidence that extreme weather conditions including heatwaves, and the risks these will bring, are set to increase as the global climate continues to heat.

This also raises that risk that flash floods, like those experienced in Istanbul last week, will become more frequent.

The flooding reached up to 190 centimetres in parts of Istanbul. Footage of the flood showed hilly sections of the city transformed into torrents and flat areas completely inundated.

Again, there were immediate reactions from some quarters seeking to lay blame, with Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu criticised for being on holiday when the flood struck – he ultimately cut his holiday short – and others taking the opportunity to point out that the city had been under the ruling Justice and Development Party’s control for decades until the opposition mayor took over in June.

Over that period, the city has become a paradise for developers who have been allowed to cover vast areas in concrete for new construction projects. At the same time, the ruling party has frequently made use of building amnesties for illegal construction as a vote-winner before elections.

Whoever is to blame for the city’s weaknesses, they have left Istanbul among the cities that will be hit hardest by changing weather conditions, according to a report published in June by the Chamber of Environmental Engineers of Istanbul.

Addressing this, and the greater risks the changing climate will hold for Turkey, will require political action that transcends interparty rivalries.