Turkey joined the world on Wednesday to mark World Wetlands Day, an occasion to raise awareness to the environmental impact and benefits of those bodies of water.
The country, which stepped up preservation efforts in the past two decades for wetlands, still runs the risk of losing more to drought aggravated by a climate crisis and encroachment of human-made development on wetlands, as well as excessive drainage of the ecosystems for agricultural purposes.
Turkey is a party to the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands, which entered into force in Turkey in 1994. It maintains 14 sites designated as Ramsar Sites that are under preservation. Their total size is more than 1.6 million hectares and cover different wetlands, from salt marshes to bird sanctuaries.
Yet, alarm bells are ringing for some wetlands like the Turkish Lakes Region, which stretches across the Mediterranean, Central Anatolian and Aegean regions. Dr. Erol Kesici, an adviser for the Nature Protection Society of Turkey, said the cluster of wetlands in the area covering Burdur, Isparta, Antalya, Denizli, Afyon and Konya has considerably shrunk in the past five decades. Kesici told Demirören News Agency (DHA) on Wednesday that the region, home to wetlands with a total size of about 17,000 square kilometers (6,563 square miles), has dropped to less than 5,000 square kilometers especially during the summer.
"Excess use of water for agriculture and pollution eradicated more than 10,000 square kilometers of wetlands area," he highlighted. "This region had the highest number of wetlands once but now we are considering to commemorate them rather than celebrate their existence on this day."
Wetlands have long been neglected and once drained due to danger of malaria and other diseases, but Kesici said they are actually a natural wealth and important for sustainability of the ecological balance. "They are the source of water, they feed underground water resources," he said.
Kesici said some wetlands had completely dried by 2021, while others were in the throes of a drought and in danger from pollution. They also lose their biodiversity, he added. He claims the climate crisis is not the primary cause of wetland losses. "Basic issues are excessive water use and the creation of ponds that block the water flow," he said.
Not all wetlands are in danger and some have even seen a rise in the number of their "residents." The Meriç Delta in the northwestern province of Edirne is among them. It currently hosts about 40,000 birds and is a habitat for 216 avian species. Located between the districts of Ipsala and Enez, the wetland is a primary choice of residence for swans, flamingos and pelicans. Mustafa Kaya, an academic from the Department of Biology at Edirne’s Trakya University, said the delta is an important stopover for migratory birds. "Birds fly here when the wetlands freeze in the northern regions and Lake Gala here provides them the best environment," he told Anadolu Agency (AA) on Wednesday. Kaya said although Turkey managed to slow down the losses of wetlands and biodiversity through measures the country has put in, the danger has still prevailed.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) made a call to the international community on the occasion, appealing to countries to invest financial, human and political capital to save the world’s wetlands from disappearing and to restore those that have been degraded. According to U.N. figures, wetlands make up 6% of Earth’s land surface but they also serve as a breeding ground and habitat for 40% of all plant and animal species. More than 1 billion people also depend on wetlands to earn a living.
UNEP said in a statement that ecosystems are "unsung heroes of the climate crisis" and they store more carbon than any other ecosystem. Leticia Carvalho, principal coordinator for marine and freshwater at UNEP, said in a statement on Wednesday that wetlands – which absorb excess water, prevent floods and drought – were critical to help people adapt to changing climate and "punch above their weight in terms of benefits."
Nevertheless, wetlands are disappearing three times faster than forests and are Earth’s most threatened ecosystem according to a U.N. statement that says since 1970, 35% of the world’s wetlands have evaporated.