Climate change and pollution trigger a gigantic plague of algae in the eastern Mediterranean. And President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policies could exacerbate the situation. Experts warn of an environmental disaster.
Tomas Avenarius from Istanbul
At first glance it arouses disgust, at the second anger, at the third fear of the future: slimy, grayish-white goo covers the water near the coast, in the harbors and at the jetties the ships and boats rock in the dirty silt. Blue water can no longer be seen for long stretches. The slime clogs the nets of the Marmara fishermen, anyway there is hardly any fish left. The sea is even polluted around the famous Prince Islands: the four larger islands are among the excursion paradises of Istanbul.
The Marmara Sea is the scene of an environmental catastrophe, which comes under the rather bizarre name of “Meeresrotze”, but which could mean the ecological end of the small inland sea between the Black and the Mediterranean. “This is a disaster,” says the Turkish marine biologist Cemal Saydam. “Ideally, the sea will recover in a few years. If any.”
Saydam, who previously taught at Hacettepe University in Ankara, has been warning the Turkish central government and the city administrations on the Marmara Sea since the 1980s about environmental pollution and the phenomenon of the red of the sea, which is now also affecting a troubled ecosystem: untreated sewage and the effects of the Climate change literally robs life in the Marmara Sea of the air to breathe. “What we see is only the surface of the water,” says Saydam. The slime on the surface of the sea could perhaps still be sucked off. “But the situation will be similar on the seabed.”
The sea is collapsing
The Seerotz is the result of an algae plague. The slime is formed by the excretion of the microalgae phytoplankton, which is spreading rapidly due to the changing environmental conditions: Its growth is favored by rising temperatures, falling oxygen supply and wastewater discharges from industry and megacities such as Istanbul. The excretion of algae deprives the fish of oxygen and freedom of movement, and strangles corals and mussels. The marine fauna is migrating, dying. The sea is collapsing.
The catastrophe hardly comes as a surprise: The Marmara Sea has been suffering from environmental pollution for decades. The small inland sea is one of Turkey’s economic lifelines. It connects the Black Sea with the Mediterranean Sea, and the passage runs over the strategically important straits of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. Thousands of tankers, warships and cargo ships use this route every year. They drain their sewage into the Sea of Marmara, dumping waste. In addition, some of the pollution from the heavily trafficked Black Sea gets down into the Marmara Sea due to the current conditions.
Then there is the sewage from the 16 million-inhabitant metropolis of Istanbul and the dirt of other large cities along the Marmara Sea. And factories pollute the waters: more than a third of Turkish industry is in the Marmara region.
“We will protect our seas, especially from the Seerotz problem.”
Recep Tayyip Erdogan
The sea is accordingly bad. Of the once more than 150 species of fish, there are now only 25 left in the Sea of Marmara. Bayram Öztürk, a biologist at the Turkish Foundation for Marine Research and professor at the University of Istanbul, is quoted as saying that the water has been under high stress for a long time. Öztürk warns that the peak has “not yet been reached”. He and marine experts like Cemal Saydam are calling for swift action. “Industrial wastewater has to be cooled down and filtered effectively,” says Saydam. Even in the ideal case, the condition of the seabed will stabilize within seven years at the earliest.
Effective action in the face of the foreseeable catastrophe – this is exactly what the Turkish Environment Minister Murat Kurum and the head of state have Recep Tayyip Erdogan now promised: “We will protect our seas, especially from the Seerotz problem,” said Erdogan. The question is how is he going to do that. He wants to forego the help of the city administration of Istanbul as one of the biggest polluters on the Marmara Sea: The opposition rules there, domestic policy comes before environmental protection even in the disaster. Instead, the president wants to work with universities. A research ship is to be dispatched and the slime is being sucked off on behalf of the central government on some of the banks of Istanbul.
The slime catastrophe is another burden for Erdogan. The one who has been in power for almost 20 years is under pressure anyway. On the one hand, the mafia boss Sedat Peker, who has fled abroad, publishes incriminating material about the president’s political elite and family environment: the leadership is portrayed as criminal and corrupt. Beijing’s YouTube appearances deal with drug trafficking, the smuggling of arms against Islamists close to al-Qaida in Syria, and oil smuggling.
On the other hand, the economic situation remains tense, despite a surprising increase in economic growth: prices are rising, in March the Currency depreciation over the year at 17 percent. This can be felt with staple foods such as onions, potatoes and tomatoes. More and more Turks are living on the poverty line. If elected, Erdogan’s party alliance would currently not find a majority.
He needs something that keeps his people in suspense, that promises the future. The way it looks, he has found it: construction is due to start on the “Istanbul Canal” at the end of June. The artificial waterway should run parallel to the Bosporus and relieve the strait. Erdogan hopes that this will create thousands of new jobs and the nimbus of the maker and father of the nation. However, the channel is not used.
But the environmental impact would be catastrophic. Not only would huge green spaces in northwest Istanbul be concreted over for the construction. Environmentalists and experts warn that the natural exchange of water between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, which has previously run across the Bosphorus, would finally collapse.
So does the marine biologist Cemal Saydam. In the event of construction, he predicts an environmental disaster that would far exceed the Seerotz and mean the death of the Marmara Sea: “The sea can no longer cope with a single disturbance.”