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Vol. 10 No. 3 - July 2004

Land Degradation Problems

In the Euphrates Basin, Turkey

By: M. Ozturk1, H. Ozcelik2, S. Sakcali3, A.Guvensen1

The Euphrates-Tigris basin is a historically important watershed area in the world and plays an extremely important role in the water availability of Middle East. The river is the longest of all the rivers in SW Asia, formed by the confluence of the Karasu and the Murat rivers, which start in the highlands of eastern Turkey. It is 2740 km. long with nearly 2000 km. lying in Turkey. The actual annual volume of water is 35.9 billion cubic meters, 98% of which is contributed by Turkey. The river flows generally South through Turkey into Syria, then southeast through Iraq joining Tigris to form the Shatt al Arab. In its upper course, the Euphrates flows rapidly through deep canyons and narrow gorges. The middle Euphrates traverses a wide floodplain in Syria, where it is used extensively for irrigation. In Syria and Iraq, it loses velocity and becomes a slow running stream. The modern waterworks along the Euphrates do not equal in scope those of ancient times when Babylon and other civilisations flourished on the banks of Euphrates. Mesopotamia, birthplace of many great civilisations, gave life to millions of inhabitants who depended on the waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris for survival. Irrigation and agriculture played an important role in the area. However, as the maintenance of irrigation and drainage networks was neglected, the siltation of canals and the salinization of fields eventually made the land unsuitable for agriculture. The same situation is expected to arise in the Euphrates and Tigris basins in Turkey in near future if steps are not taken. Since nearly 2000 km. of the Euphrates lie within the borders of Turkey, this paper enlightens the land degradation situation in the Turkish side in particular upper parts of the Euphrates basin and its environs, which covers most of the East Anatolian geographical region. Harsh climatic conditions in the region result in higher mechanical weathering of parent material than chemical one, as such soils are pebbly in nature. Main soil types met within the area are; alluvial, colluvial, chestnut, brown, regosols, basaltic, organic, and arid soils. The area investigated during the present survey exists at a place where different types of climates inter-cross and mix up, but in general climate is characterised by long and harsh cold winters. From north to south and east to west temperatures increase gradually. Summer rains are excessive than winter ones particularly in the northeast around the states of Erzurum and Kars. Hottest month here is August with a mean maximum temperature of 24-28 oC and in the coolest month mean minimum varies between -16 to -17 oC. Highest rainfall is observed in Tunceli (1003.8 mm) and lowest in Erzincan (359.6 mm). Extremely cold temperatures of - 45.6 oC have been recorded around Agri, whereas around Malatya and Elazig summer temperatures reach 42 oC

Demographic Developments: Human activities are the determining factor at all stages of degradation. The causes, mechanisms of deterioration, and the impacts, underlying this phenomenon originate from demographic developments.The population problem in Turkey started after first world war and national war of liberation. The demographic developments followed an increasing trend all through Turkey between 1927 (13.65 million) and 2000 (70 million). The population density in the Upper Euphrates and environs also went above the average,with highest growth observed in Erzurum.

Land Use: The region is rough topographically, plateaus being very high in particular around Erzurum, Agri, Van and Hakkari, where high altitude mountains are gathered together. Grasslands cover large areas around these states due to the topography. They have an area of 8.900.000 ha, which is 41% of the total grasslands of Turkey. Agricultural land is found mostly around the state of Malatya, Agri and Erzurum. Cattle raising in particular sheep is thus very important in this region. Most of the grasslands are moved for winter fodder. Others are used for grazing in summer. Agricultural products sown are mainly cereals, namely; wheat, barley, rye, lentils and chickpea. Eastern parts mainly sow fodder crops and legumes. Industrial plant cultivation is also common in the area together with tuberous plants. Out of fruit trees we commonly get apples, pear, plum, walnut and prune. Plum is one of the major exported products from Turkey and its centre lies in Malatya. Tobacco cultivation is dominant in Malatya, Elazig, Bitlis, parts of Van and sunflower in Mus.

Land Degradation: Industrialisation and demographic explosion have been important driving forces in the heavy urbanisation. Study area experienced greatest constructional activities during the last decade loosing 16.000 ha. of prime quality land. The soil surface including the top layer of the soil at the interface between earth and atmosphere is the place where atmospheric attack is maximum. The processes of soil degradation are accelerated when the vegetation is destroyed by human activities. The first recorded civilisation of the Sumerians was thriving in the southern Tigris-Euphrates Valley by the 4th millennium B.C. Over the course of years, Sumerian irrigation practices destroyed the pedosphere in such a way that this civilisation collapsed. However even today vast areas of Iraq look like snow covered fields. Latest trend in our study area has been use of best quality arable lands for urbanisation districts, highway construction, touristic establishments, sports complexes, universities, air-ports and other activities. Uptill now 60 percent of land has been used for this purpose and it belongs to the most productive class in the soil grouping system of Turkey. In all 129.709 ha have been used for urbanisation and have got lost in this way and millions of hectares of land are awaiting planning due to wrong use or over use. An increase in the land for construction on monetary basis results in decrease in the productive value of cultivated area. The brick and tile factories also are using large areas of the productive land. In the upper parts of the Euphrates nearly 188.000 ha have enough drainage, 91.000 ha suffer from bad and 3.400 ha high drainage. In all 2.1 million ha. area is facing very strong, 5.2 million ha. strong and 3.7 million ha. medium erosion. More than 108 million tons of soil is transported by the Euphrates annually. Biological degradation is the reduction in the quantity of organic matter and living organisms in particular plant cover decomposition, whereas chemical degradation includes salinity, alkalinity, or acidity. A high concentration of salts in the soil gives rise to saline or alkaline soils. This is often the result of irrigation without adequate drainage. Soil and salinity problems are more widespread and acute in arid than in temperate areas. About 900 million ha.of land are presently affected by excessive salts in the world, one of these being Nile valley where 1.2 million ha. of land has got exposed to salinization and water logging. Salt-affected soils are especially common in irrigated regions of Asia, Australia, and Western USA. The accumulation of the soluble salts of Na ions (salinization) produces soil degradation over the entire profile, resulting in such harmful effects as: changes in compactness, porosity and permeability, organic matter content, soil pH, plant cover characteristics, soil-plant-water balance. The man-made share of these salinity problems arises principally from rasing of the water table through continuous passage of large amounts of H2O through unsuitable canals, thus converting large productive areas from a renewable resource to a non-renewable one. According to recent estimates, over 220 mill. ha. of land are irrigated worldwide. Approximately 25 to 40% of that land is affected by salinization. In the fertile crescent Tigris-Euphrates rivers salted up 5-2 millennia ago and resulting in the collapse of the civilisation. Even today flooding and over irrigation have started creating serious problems of soil salinization in Syria and Iraq. A similar situation is observed in this area in Turkey as well. The Euphrates, Tigris and Van basins are presenting an alarming situation with over 75.000 ha facing salinity-alkalinity problems.

Plant Diversity: Forest vegetation in the Euphrates Basin and its environs has been very dense but with time has become very poor due to years of degradation activities. Human impact has resulted in a decline in the habitat as well as plant diversity. Nearly 50 percent of the forests have been heavily destroyed. On an average every year timber in Turkey is harvested at a rate of around 7 million m3 and upper Euphrates basin and its environs have a major contribution in it. The firewood production lies around 35 million m3 in Turkey, most of which is used in the area under question. Forests are present at the edge of plains in tectonic depression. Dry forests are found at high elevation,being sparse and poor due to aridity as well as heavy biotic pressures. Tree line occurs at 2700 m. Quercus forests extend from the natural steppe to the subalpine belt. The South-eastern Taurus mountains are characterised by oak forests, mainly Q. infectoria ssp. boissieri, Q. ithaburensis  ssp. macrolepis, Q. brantii, Q. libani, Q. robur ssp. pedunculiflora, and Q. petraea. P. sylvestris forests are found in pure stands in the vicinity of Sarikamis in the NE of Anatolia. Over exploitation has resulted in a decrease in the genetic diversity existing previously in these forest ecosystems. The situation of plant diversity in general is threatening. Nearly 50 species have been recorded to be under a threat of extinction. These include: Aconitum cochleare Woroschin, Allium microspathum Ekberg, Astragalus altanii Hub.-Mor., Brassica tournefortii Gouan, Coccinia macranthera  (Banks&Sol.) Brand var. macranthera, Corydalis rutifolia ( Sibth. & Sm.) DC. ssp. kurdica Cullen & Davis, Crepis hakkarica Lamond, Cymbocarpum erythraeum (DC) Boiss., Delphinium carduchorum, Dianthus muschianus Kotschy & Boiss., Gypsophila bitlisensis Bark., G. paniculate L. var. araratica Hub.-Mor., G. tuberculosa Hub.-Mor., Hypericum formosissimum Takht., Inula heleniumL., Iris paradoxa Steven, Plantago anatolica Tutel & Mill., P. euphratica Decne. ex Barnéoud, Potentilla discipulorum Davis, Ranunculus crateris Davis, Rheum ribes L., Rumex amanus Rech., Sedum inconspicuum Hand.-Mazz., Verbascum nudicaule (wydler) Takht., Zizyphus jujuba Miller. In particular endemics are facing a greater threat. This area shows an endemic ratio of 20-25%.

Status of some species on the basis of IUCN categories. (Ex: Extinct. R: Rare. V: Vulnerable. K: Insufficiently known). Astragalus altanii Hub.-Mor.-K (Endemic), A. macrouroides Hub.-Mor. - K (Endemic), Brassica tournefortii Gouan–K, Convallaria majalis L. var. transcaucasica (Utkin ex Grossh) Knorr.-KCorydalis rutifolia Sibth. & Sm. DC. ssp. kurdica Cullen & Davis-K (Endemic), Crepis hakkarica Lamond-R (Endemic), Delphinium carduchorum Chowdhuri & Davis-K (Endemic), Gypsophila bicolour (Freyn & Sint.) Grossh.–R, G. bitlisensis Bark.-R (Endemic), G. paniculata L. var. araratica Hub.-Mor.-R (Endemic), G. tuberculosa Hub.-Mor.-R (Endemic), Inula helenium L ssp. orgyalis (Boiss) Grierson - R (Endemic), Iris paradoxa Steven- R, Plantago anatolica Tutel & Mill.-R (Endemic), P. euphratica Decne. Ex Barnéoud-R (Endemic), Ranunculus crateris Davis - R (Endemic).

Turkey is regarded as one of the eight major gene centres on earth, due to the presence of wild relatives of many domesticated plants in the country. For example, wild progenitors of such cultivated plants as lentil, chickpea, wheat, peach, almond, and pistachio are native to Turkey. The Euphrates basin in particular is home for many of these species. As such soil degradation will lead to not only the loss of plant but also genetic diversity.

Conclusions: The spread of technology and culture together with a rapid growth of human population has spread the desertification process to every continent. Degradation is a problem with ancient roots. Cutting of forests, overgrazing, and salt accumulation in irrigated lands led to desertification in Mesopotamia, and the lands bordering the Mediterranean more than 2000 years ago. Archaeologists have clearly shown that more than climate change we the humans have changed once rich and populous areas to desolation and poverty. Many ancient civilisations once enjoying a golden age crumbled in ruins and lie buried in debris, because of destructive treatment of the lands on which they were dependent for their living. The occupation of man has been so devastating that with a few exceptions, a desert condition is often associated with his long habitation of a region. In the first place, semi-arid to semi-humid regions proved the most favourable sites for the early development of human culture followed by their degradation through processes of soil erosion, accelerated by the exposure of soil surfaces protected by a dense plant cover. If we are to escape similar fate of induced impoverishment and the desiccation of land, it would be more plausible to start taking measures now through well organised ecological land use planning. The degradation cannot be arrested by physical or technical means alone. There is a large body of evidence available regarding the fact that these types of short time treatments have accentuated the problem quite seriously. In the valleys of Khorezm and Zeravshan there was formerly a flourishing strip of oasis which is now a desert, the reason being social and political dynamics of degradation. Following measures will prove more helpful in the long run: creating environmental awareness through environmental education at all levels, women should be given a pivotal role in decreasing population growth rate, socio-economic status of rural areas should be upgraded, land tenure systems and size of land holdings need be well planned, species with high potential for food, fibre and energy should be grown using ecological farming systems and marginal land for cultivation and grazing, cultural and religious hinderances should be evaluated together with prevailing political trends as these can interfere with the implementation of a programme.

 1 M. Ozturk and A.Guvensen, Ege University, Centre for Environmental Studies, Bornova-Izmir, Turkey

2 H. Ozcelik Suleyman Demirel University, Biology Department, Isparta, Turkey     

3 S. Sakcali  Marmara University, Biology Department,Goztepe-Istanbul, Turkey

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.


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