Eyüp Yüksel was relaxing in Ankara on a warm autumn day in 2000, drinking tea from a traditional glass cup, when he heard the news that Tuz Gölü — Lake Tuz or Salt Lake — had been declared a protected area. As one of the staff of the Turkish Environmental Protection Agency for Special Areas (EPASA) he had been waiting and hoping for this decision but he was still excited to hear the announcement and concerned enough to wonder 'How can we manage such a big area?'
The challenge for Eyüp, his colleagues in EPASA, the many people we met on our journey, and everybody living in the area is how to maintain the area's economy and environment, both of which are inter-dependent. Most of the 150 000 people living in the area depend largely on agriculture. Given the high salt levels in the soil, a unique ecosystem has evolved around the lake, and there are limits to which crops can be grown there.
The major crops grown in the region are sugar-beet (6.4 % of the total production in Turkey in 2008) and maize. But growing these crops is water intensive, and the water table has sunk from 4 metres below the surface to more than 50 metres below the surface in recent years. This has added to the costs of local farmers, and in some cases has forced them to abandon their fields. After years of uncontrolled use of groundwater for irrigation, wells now need to be registered for use. Climate change and increasing temperatures are expected to exacerbate water scarcity even further, affecting not only the economy but also the life in this unique ecosystem.
The day after the announcement, Eyüp was busy with his colleagues organising a trip to the area. Firstly, there were the formalities of visiting the Governor of Konya, the biggest city in the region, as well as the mayors and governors of the many towns and villages around the lake in the surrounding provinces of Ankara, Konya and Aksaray.