Ankara lurches into another water crisis

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The hospitalisation of 10,000 people has renewed concerns over potable water quality in Turkey. An untimely revelation from Ankara’s mayor has not helped matters.

The proportion of the Turkish population with access to improved drinking water stands at more than 90%. According to figures announced in May 2008, 82% of the population can currently reach potable water after it has been treated in one of the 139 plants under the control of municipal authorities.

The recent outbreak of diarrhoea in the country’s major cities has, however, aroused nationwide concern about the quality of potable water supplies.

More than 10,000 people were hospitalised in May in Aksaray, Konya, Siirt and Ankara due to contaminated water provided through municipal distribution systems. The ministry of health announced that the viral outbreak was caused by dirty water, and that the contamination in Aksaray occurred during the replacement of old pipes.

“The diarrhoea cases were caused by deficient application of chlorine in Ankara,” according to a ministry statement.

During the days following the water crisis, Ankara’s controversial mayor Melih Gökçek held a press conference to declare that water brought from the Kızılırmak River had been used in the city for the past 21 days. The mayor claimed that the authorities had not previously informed the public about this because of fears over a backlash from NGOs and rival political groups in the light of the increase in cases of diarrhoea.

“I apologise to the public for having resorted to this approach of not informing them earlier. A mayor would be betraying the people if he allowed them to drink unsafe water,” Gökçek said.

The Kızılırmak project brings water to Ankara from the Kızılırmak river, and was originally planned to cost USD240 million. Even the most optimistic estimates now show that the municipality has spent USD700 million on the project, leading the Consumer Rights Association (THD) to sue Gökçek for the excessive amount of money used to construct the pipeline. THD also argues that scientific research proves the extent to which the water brought from the Kızılırmak is unhealthy, due to the high sulphate content. More sobering are the claims made in early June relating to alleged high levels of arsenic in the Kızılırmak water.

Observers claim that the Administrative Court can issue a warrant to stop the construction or the operation of the Kızılırmak project, which would be a blow for both Gökçek and Ankara. The water level in Ankara’s dams is currently around 2.2%.
* At least Istanbul has the right idea. ISKI, the Istanbul Water and Sewerage Authority, released its 2008-2012 strategic plan in the middle of the recent health crisis, in which it lists the production and delivery of clean water as one of its four main targets. The budget attached to the four-year plan anticipates spending USD1.3 billion (55% of the entire budget) in 2008 alone on new investments, including the construction of 610km of water and 917km of wastewater networks.