Dawn is barely breaking, and already a dozen trucks are rushing into the gaping entrance to the Tefenni mine, in southwestern Turkey. In the opposite direction, dumpsters loaded with sparkling stones follow one another before disappearing under the pine forest. The air is gray, saturated with dust that submerges everything, even the tops of the pines rooted on the mountainside.
On the hill opposite, Ece Aynur Onur, a 40-year-old anthropologist, holds a pair of binoculars to his sleepy eyes. Every inch of his face twitches: “It’s as if they were digging holes in my house. I no longer recognize my valley. Since Turkish company Zontas Tasimacilik began mining chrome on the Eseler Plateau in 2012, the lynx and wolf tracks have disappeared. The Iridaceae, fritillaries and other plants endemic to the region have lost their luster. Above all, the water of Lake Salda, known to all Turks for its azure blue, is running out. Seen from above, some of its shores no longer look like plateaus cracked by drought and swept by a scorching wind.
This 184 meter deep lake could even disappear soon. In December, Zontas Tasimacilik submitted an extension project providing for the drilling of the valley with dynamite. The construction site risks displacing groundwater. Salda has been classified as a protected natural site since 1989. Its minerals are studied by NASA for their similarities with those of a crater on the planet Mars, and its water irrigates six neighboring villages.
The banks recede
Gazi Osman Sakar, president of the association for the conservation of Lake Salda, regrets that no major study has yet been conducted on the extinction of the lake. This 68-year-old former accountant grew up here, like his father and grandfather before him. Cap screwed on the skull, he has always surveyed the shores to document the transformations. He noted: “Some banks have receded by at least a hundred meters over the past three years. “ This reflux, couples from all over the country to enjoy their honeymoon in these “Turkish Maldives”, probably have no idea. “Salda is beautiful, Salda is pure, Salda is eternal! » proclaims the owner of a restaurant, who is also involved in the wedding photography business. Neither he nor the other traders in the area want to believe that the vein could dry up one day. Everyone avoids talking about the dead fish flowing back from the waves, the black spots of pollution that have appeared…
Salda’s case is not unique in Türkiye. In fifty years, 60% of the approximately 300 lakes in the country, nicknamed the “water tower” of the Middle East, have dried up. Blame it on severe episodes of drought, urban expansion, but also on bad choices in terms of agricultural policy. Ankara has bet on the cultivation of corn and wheat, very water-intensive, in territories that were not suitable. In Salda, where a large majority of the population is hired in the fields, three dams have been built to irrigate the land, contributing to the drying up of the lake.
In the valley, we repeat that water has always been a “warrior’s business”. The elders say that two villages clashed in the 1960s, weapons in hand, on the Eseler plateau to take control of these springs. Last June, inspired by their elders, the young people went up to the mine, their arms loaded with barrels of oil, threatening to burn everything down if the company did not abandon its project.
Protect the Valley
From now on, it is “in a united front that the inhabitants are fighting”, assures Osman Kasap. In January, the forest engineer lodged a complaint against the decision of the province of Burdur to authorize the extension of the mine without a prior environmental impact study. He was joined by biologists, but also farmers and a hunter, who are now awaiting the decision of the administrative court of Isparta.
With their eyes on the herd, Yasar and Ali Gürey, a couple of nomads, savor the mineral silence. Here, you only hear the bells of the goats and the breath of the wind. On the set, the drought has already claimed its first victims: three animals, found on their backs, dead during the night. To protect the valley, grandparents, children, grandchildren have chosen to watch, sitting under a tarpaulin stretched between four trunks. “If the owners of the mine come here, we will be able to chase them away,” says Yasar, a scarf tied around his white hair. Because the day the lake dries up, our lives, our culture and the legacy of our ancestors will disappear with it. »