Waterworld: Three Days That Saved the World

Like many others, when I first visited the Kızılırmak Delta wetland conservation area, I felt as if I had personally just discovered it. It was the summer of 2012…

Like many others, when I first visited the Kızılırmak Delta wetland conservation area, I felt as if I had personally just discovered it. It was the summer of 2012. A few kilometres past an official sign marking the conservation boundary, the swamp forests opened onto meadows spangled with wild flowers. I saw herds of water buffaloes grazing, seemingly unattended, and flocks of sheep. On the coast I observed the shifting sands change colour, close to a settlement that has since been demolished. On shallow lakes fishermen cast their nets as, from the shore, birds I could not name dived for food.

Speaking with ornithologists hard at work at a seasonal research station, I nodded sympathetically as they talked about the challenges and the promise of delta conservation. But it would be some time before I came fully to understand the deeper and more subtle history of environmental advocacy in the Kızılırmak, through the stories and perspectives of resident farmers, environmental scientists, nature photographers and other advocates for the delta’s protection.

In 2014 I took part in two sessions at the “wetlands school” for university students hosted annually on the delta – the first (and only) immersive wetland education camp in the country. The project was funded by Turkey’s Scientific and Technological Research Council (Tübitak) and the Ondokuz Mayıs University. Over the course of two weeks, students from all over Turkey learnt about the Kızılırmak Delta’s valuable – and threatened – ecological and cultural environments. Experts and educators from different fields, and often with very different visions, came together in a collective effort to “teach” the Kızılırmak Delta. Their approach was holistic, encompassing ornithology and theatre, water quality and reedweaving, local development and insect habitats. The activities were as hands-on as possible, conducted in the open air and in collaboration with farmers, local officials, residents and researchers.

One of the programme’s many goals was to bridge the supposed divide between humans and environments. For many of us a key lesson was that successful environmental conservation emerges through collaborative efforts between different social groups, even in the face of competing interests and points of view. As part of my rounded delta education, I watched ornithologists identify and monitor populations of birds. I saw photographers such as Emin Yoğurtcuoğlu take the most beautiful shots of birds and other animals in their environments. And I milked buffaloes.

A year after wetlands school, I was standing at a farmhouse bedroom window, watching the sun rise over a field bright with green shoots of corn. Beyond the field, out of sight, were more farmhouses, fields of peppers, then the coastal wetlands and dunes on the shores of the Black Sea. Looking down, I saw Aladdin Yılmaz, my host, trundling a wheelbarrow laden with silage. His wife, Cemile, was already in the barn, shovelling manure through a small opening onto the compost pile outside. Their daughter, Gülay, was pottering about in the kitchen.

Later she would light the wood stove outside and bring a cauldron of buffalo milk to a gentle boil, before she and Cemile turned the milk into creamy yoghurt, delicate cheese and silky butter. I tugged on a pair of woollen slacks and a shirt, paused at the doorstep to thrust my feet into muddy boots, and ran out to help. Aladdin and I mixed hay, silage and animal feed and forked the lot into sacks, which Cemile lugged into the barn on her back. When I followed her in, the heads of 15 wary water buffaloes swung in my direction.

On another day, Cemile would try to teach me to milk them. If I wore items of her clothing and her headscarf, the animals would smell her on me and let me get close to their dark, warm, furry bodies. In the garage, next to a brand-new tractor and a car, was an electric milk pump, but it was dusty and unused. The buffaloes, Cemile told me, hadn’t got used to it. So she had continued milking by hand, twice a day, every day. Other farmers, with larger farms, had more automated systems and hired labourers to help, but most, like Aladdin and Cemile, did all the relentless hard work themselves.

In the course of that summer, the buffaloes grew used to my smell too, and I grew used to handling the fork and shovel. Newborn buffaloes grew into curious and playful calves, and a couple of young bulls were sent to the butcher. Those we tended to in the barn were only a small part of the family herd. Others grazed freely miles away, in the delta’s conservation wetlands, like those I had seen on my first visit. Aladdin checked on them daily in their pastures, riding a scooter on the gravel road. There, in the delta’s vast expanses of shallow water and wet meadows, the buffaloes help to nourish the soil, to keep reeds and aquatic plants at bay, and, by grazing in the meadows and stomping in the mud, to create multispecies habitats for birds, fish, plants and amphibians. Like many of their farmer neighbours, Aladdin and Cemile had been drawn to the delta half a century before, attracted by agricultural developments and land available in the lowlands.

The new neighbourhood in which they settled was named Çorak (wasteland), yet none of the farmers sees the lower delta as an area devoid of life. Rather, the term reflects the ungovernable nature of mud and water that damped their efforts as they tried to cultivate in the marshes and swamp forests of their adopted home. For thousands of years people had come to the lower delta to hunt, to fish, to harvest plants and to graze animals. The Pontic geographer Strabo described it as a “fertile country, wholly consisting of plains, which produces every kind of fruit. It also affords pasture for flocks of sheep, which are covered with skins, and produce a soft wool.”

But the delta then was a very different place, a far cry from the one I was working in alongside Aladdin and Cemile. Today’s landscape was created over the centuries by sediment carried by the Kızılırmak – at a rate of about ten metres a year – until construction of the large dams upstream blocked the flows. Aladdin himself had worked on the construction of the dams. Like many other men from the delta’s rural villages and towns, he had toiled on building sites in other parts of Turkey and abroad. Cemile had worked in the fields, their own and others’, while raising their children.

Over the years they had acquired a larger field and built a new farmhouse near the main road. As their children had grown, married and moved out, the ageing couple had made plans for retirement. A few years before I met them, Aladdin had enrolled in a three-day hospitality course organised as part of a regional tourism initiative. The couple had seen carloads of birders arrive at dawn for a day of observations. Like other farmers, they greeted weekenders cycling through the delta’s coastal road, observed cars driving to the visitors’ centre, and talked to groups of students who came to study the special environment. They noticed that the delta had become more than a promising site of agricultural development: it was an increasingly popular destination for ecotourism and research. If delta residents opened their houses as home stays, Aladdin and Cemile reasoned, researchers and amateur birders could more easily access habitats at daybreak and sunset. And since they, the farmers, knew the delta like the backs of their hands, they could help the visitors learn to observe this landscape of meadows, fields, marshes, forests, dunes, canals and farms. In our conversations Aladdin referred to the delta’s conservation as a kuş cenneti, a bird paradise.

This is how residents in Bafra and Samsun, and nature lovers all over Turkey, describe the lower delta. There are those, however, who say the term is limiting. Researchers and conservation officials are teaching visitors to think about the delta as more than an avian heaven. After all, it is a thriving ecosystem with multiple habitats and countless species of plants and animals – and only through complex ecological relations in a biodiverse environment are birds’ lives made possible.

The expression “bird paradise” was used throughout the 20th century to designate bird sanctuaries worldwide. In the early 1900s it largely reflected a spiritual notion of environmental conservation as enabling a return to a world that no longer existed – a lost Eden. The term probably came into use in Turkey through the work of the German zoologists Curt and Leonore Kosswig on Lake Manyas, close to the Sea of Marmara. Designated a “bird paradise” in 1938, the lake in 1959 became one of the first National Parks in Turkey. Efforts to conserve the lower Kızılırmak Delta have long been under way, with a cumulative effect resulting in today’s success.

The first plotting for the creation of a nature park in the delta began in the 1970s and 1980s – a period that coincided with new plans for irrigation and drainage in the lower delta and the construction of dams upstream on the river. Environmental advocates today recall the sometimes antagonistic responses they had from farmers worried they would lose access to agricultural and pasture land, and from developers eyeing up the coast for prime building land.

But by no means all farmers are hostile to conservation. Aladdin and Cemile well understood that use of the agricultural chemicals that fuel the delta’s economy were contributing to the sickness of the soil, plants and animals, and their own crops, their bread and butter, ekmek parası. Many, given the means of support for delta-wide transition, would shift to sustainable organic production. As for the developers, one particular settlement at the edge of the swamp forest and just within the conservation boundary stood as a visible, tangible symbol of divergent interests and visions for the delta’s future. Today, there is vegetation growing on the rubble of the houses. Anode in the international migration of hundreds of thousands of birds, the delta is situated within networks of environmental research and protection. In 1994, Turkey formally joined the Ramsar Convention for the Protection of Wetlands, a treaty that since 1971 has been devoted to their conservation and sustainable use. It added four sites to a list of wetlands of “international importance” protected by the treaty: Lake Seyfe, the Sultan Marshes, the Göksu Delta and Lake Burdur. The Kızılırmak Delta became a SİT Alanı, a status that protects natural or cultural areas, and a comprehensive conservation and land-use plan was developed.

In 1998 the coastal areas of the delta became Turkey’s eighth Ramsar site, together with the Akyatan Lagoon near Adana, Lake Uluabat, west of Bursa, and the Gediz Delta in the Gulf of Izmir. Today, Turkey lists 14 sites protected by the Ramsar Convention, and numerous other wetland areas with national protection status. The delta’s conservation history testifies to a lesser known history of Turkey’s involvement in the international efforts of wetland and environmental conservation.

In early February 1972 a delegation from the National Parks Department travelled to the Iranian town of Ramsar, on the Caspian Sea, to attend a conference on the conservation of wetlands. They joined representatives from 17 other countries, the intergovernmental agencies FAO and Unesco, and several NGOs devoted to environmental and waterbird conservation. Over the course of three days, delegates debated current approaches to wetland management and conservation, and discussed ways to balance technological development with environmental conservation.

At the conference, Turkey’s delegate described the country as a “key point” for migratory birds in the Palaearctic Region, and estimated the presence of about one million hectares. The drainage of wetland lakes is not a solution to the loss of agricultural land to erosion, he declared. He expressed hopes for more thorough hunting legislation, for the establishment of breeding reserves for waterbirds, and for raising public awareness. During the final session, Turkey’s delegate declared that the conference would “stand as a landmark in the history of conservation”, and promised the country would soon join other governments in signing the Convention on the Conservation of Wetlands. The word “wetland” was then becoming a widespread and popular term for areas of shallow water such as coastal marshes, swamps, peat bogs and mangrove swamps. These places of water saturation and seasonal fluctuation between wet and dry were rapidly being drained and transformed into agricultural, industrial and urban land.

Despite a long history of deeming marshes and swamps “wastelands”, however, countless human civilisations had risen on those saturated lands. The 20th century witnessed both the rapid destruction of such areas and a renewed appreciation for their importance. In a 1965 publication entitled Liquid Assets, the International Union for the Conservation of Birds explained the unforeseen dangers of wetland drainage projects: erosion and flooding, loss of humus, dust storms, reduced fertility of the soil, and loss of habitat for many species of plants and animals. Globally, wetlands were disappearing faster than any other ecological systems. Turkish state officials and scientists, as well as members of civil society, were part of an international conversation about possible solutions to the worldwide loss of wetland habitats. Decades later, through the enlisting of the Kızılırmak Delta as a Unesco Heritage site, local environmental advocates continue to contribute to an international conversation about the very meaning of environmental conservation.

One day in the spring of 2015, standing at the very edge of the Kızılırmak, where the river flows into the sea, I realised that the delta has no real boundary. This discovery was not mine, of course: 60 years before (1955), from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, the American marine biologist Rachel Carson, in her book The Edge of the Sea, described an “enchanted place on the threshold of the sea”. In this liminal area, land and water alternate, and teeming life forms are in constant transformation as they adapt to changing environments.

Watching the intermingling of river and sea, and gazing at the delta landscapes behind, I wondered what the 21st century was adding to this older vision. Carson made the Atlantic shore into a universal site for pondering the force of life. What will the story of the Kızılırmak Delta – with its animals, plants, waters, soils, microbes, and people – tell of our world? It is a story that, through their work and care for the delta, many are already writing.

For more images of the Kızılırmak Delta click here

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