Turkey’s wildfires tell a devastating story of neglect and failure

Swimming in the pristine waters of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast a few weeks ago, I thought, “No wonder this is the setting for so much of mythology.” The ice-cold turquoise water was surrounded by rich pine forests and replenished by underground streams from the mountaintops. With only a few swimmers on the forest’s edge, nature’s dance from green to blue was breathtaking.

But that may no longer be the case. A stone’s throw away from where I was swimming, fires are ravaging local communities and seaside resorts. With a heat wave bringing record temperaturesdozens of wildfires have devastated scenic forests on the Turkish Riviera and threatened the seaside towns of Antalya, Bodrum and Marmaris. As tourists and local residents flee, at times carrying their livestock, fertile farmland is also destroyed.

Nothing is more heartbreaking than watching an ancient forest burn. Already facing an economic downturn and a massive refugee influx, Turkey is experiencing an unbearably demoralizing chapter in its history.

But it’s equally an infuriating chapter — of neglect and the misallocation of resources. It turns out that, while constantly boasting of its military prowess and regional ambitions, the Turkish government had been entirely unprepared for a natural disaster. A country of 85 million didn’t own a single operational firefighting plane (it had been renting three from Russia). Compare that to the 39 firefighting planes in Greece’s inventory.

While citizens and firefighters heroically fought the blaze, the government seemed ineffective. Opposition politicians pointed out that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s own fleet has 13 planes. Amid mounting criticism from the public and the opposition, Erdogan admitted Turkey had no functional firefighting planes and had to accept offers of help from Ukraine and Russia, as well as the European Union.

Thus, as wildfires raged for the seventh straight day, it was thanks to external support that flames were partially brought under control.

To be fair, Turkey is not solely responsible for the inferno that has been unleashed across the Mediterranean with rising temperature levels. Climate change is humanity’s collective responsibility and can only be reversed though collective international action. But the discrepancy between the Turkish government’s talk of imperial grandeur and its real capability to deliver basic emergency services to its citizens was glaring. Having long misdirected resources to foreign military adventures and mega infrastructure projects, the government failed to deliver in a time of need.

Ultimately, local mayors in effected areas turned to social media to plead for help. As #HelpTurkey became a trending topic on Twitter, government officials complained of a global conspiracy to make Turkey look weak. “Our Turkey is strong. Our state is standing tall,” tweeted Erdogan’s spokesman Fahrettin Altun. Never missing a beat for censorship, Turkey’s broadcasting authority ordered television networks to restrain coverage of wildfires and also report on fires that had been extinguished, threatening fines.

But censorship and finger-pointing cannot change this story. These fires are the worst in Turkey’s living memory. Turkey lies in an earthquake zone and is directly impacted by the extreme temperatures that are now an undeniable part of our lives. It is time for Ankara to get serious on climate action and disaster relief.

There is a lot to do before wildfires hit again next summer. Turkey has been one of six signatories — including Iran, Eritrea and Libya — that have not ratified the Paris Climate Agreement. Instead of committing to a reduction of carbon emissions, it increased its global share up until 2018. The government continues to encourage coal mining and has been recklessly promoting construction in coastal areas, often at the expense of forest land and natural ecosystems. Recently, the government changed the long-standing law that prohibits construction and development in forest land to allow building in some parts.

All this needs to change. Turkey cannot alone prevent wildfires, but it can join the group of nations that are committed to climate action. The parliament should immediately ratify the Paris agreement as a first step. Curbing reckless construction and development that is already hurting Turkey’s forestland is a must, as is decommissioning coal mines in coastal areas. Given that Europe is its top trading partner, Ankara should take early action to synchronize its trade policies in line with the newly-emerging legislation on the European Green Deal, as Susi Dennison, director of the European Power program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and I have recently argued. Pain now means economic benefits down the road.

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