Climate warming is a huge challenge that our society will also be affected from through losing freshwaters and their ecosystem services. What we have observed through our monitoring programme on Lakes Eymir & Mogan is that our freshwater lakes in Turkey are at great risk of becoming saline through climate change and it doesn’t take too long to happen; it is like within 3-5 years. Once the lakes become saline, they become more eutrophic with toxic cyanobacteria blooms (looks like green pea soup), thus ecosystem functions and services will be lost, as we cannot use the water for drinking or irrigation.

Water is always a political issue, as the availability of freshwater resources is very limited: it is less than 1% of the water on Earth and 7,5 billion have to share it. For a long while we used to think that we are in Turkey a water-rich country, but we are not. In fact we are a water-stressed country!

Meryem Beklioğlu

Q: Thank you very much for making this interview with us. Let me start with your academic career; why did you choose this field, this department?

Thank you for interviewing me. In high school I always wanted to study ecology, so I chose METU Biology Department thinking that it is the best place to learn ecology. I was inspired by a couple of my lecturers even though there was not that much research going on about ecology 20 years ago in Turkey. After completing my undergraduate study, my feelings about studying ecology were even stronger especially towards aquatic ecology, aquatic ecosystems; rivers and lakes in specific. So I decided to stay at METU and meanwhile I got the opportunity to pursue my Ph.D. abroad with a Higher Education Council scholarship. I went to a center famous for its research on shallow lakes ecology, so I was in the right place again and I was very lucky for having a great supervisor and the greatest research environment in England. So I did my Ph.D. with a great deal of enthusiasm and full of ideas. I came back to Turkey, specifically to METU. Actually I was very happy for that because my academic prospect by that time was to set aquatic ecology research based on modern understandings in Turkey and METU was the best place to realize this. Ecology has long been a neglected field in Turkey. There are sciences that can feed ecology like taxonomy, systematics and so on; but ecology; the science of interactions, interactions between living and non-living things are rather complex and interdisciplinary. 

Q: Could you tell us about your approach to the field and about your projects?

I started working with the lakes, one of which is in the campus, Lakes Eymir & Mogan. Biological systems and ecosystems react to changes in a rather unpredictable chaotic way and they perform abrupt changes. You may have an effect and the system may absorb it and tolerate it but while you think that everything is okay, when a certain threshold is surpassed, the ecosystem can shift to the other state. My approach to aquatic ecology is utilizing different approaches to be able to understand these complex interactions behind. These include long-term monitoring to produce temporal resolution using current limnological methods but with the inclusion of paleoecology to extend the temporal resolution to the past and for enhancing spatial resolution, I have employed snap-shot sampling of lakes from a wide geographical distribution. Long-term monitoring gives you time resolution; for that reason we in my laboratory have been monitoring Lake Eymir and Mogan for the last 13 years and they are the longest data-set in Turkey. We have tremendous amount of information from those systems and on how they work. It is known to everybody that last year was a very dry year and we had drinking water problem in Ankara, so the lakes lost half of their volume. And we had a chance to observe how biological systems react to hydrological and climatic events. Both my students and I have learned a lot from this long-term monitoring, which is generously supported by METU through logistics or funding for students’ projects. So I am thankful for their support.

But monitoring these two lakes does not bring you further to visualize the whole picture because ecology is rather complex in the sense of spatial differences resulting from climate, geology, landscape etc. Therefore, you need spatial resolution. This has been achieved by two TÜBİTAK projects and one of them has already been completed. The recent one has just started. We have been monitoring several lakes in Turkey from the north to the south following a latitudinal gradient, trying to understand how lakes respond to temperature and climatic changes on a spatial scale through using the space for time substitute approach and be able to produce predictions for the impact of climate change on shallow lakes in order to produce sound adaptation and mitigation measures.

We used here “space for time substitute” approach for snapshot sampling; meaning that we cannot take the time further but we have the space as a surrogate for time. With the latitudinal gradient, ecology of lakes in the south may set a model for understanding the ecology of lakes in the north for warmer temperatures. This approach has allowed me to develop strong international connections with European scientists as we are aiming to expand our latitudinal comparisons of lakes from Greenland to Turkey. This will further allow us to understand what will happen to the ecosystem structure and functions; as we go south to warmer conditions to be able to predict the effect of climate change. Lately as METU, Limnology Laboratory, we are part of an EU-FP7 Large Collaborative project called “REFRESH”, where we continue with a similar line of research but this time we are more focused on developing mitigation and adaptation measures to climate change to protect European freshwaters.

Our findings are critical not only for Turkey but also for other countries that have semi-dry Mediterranean climate, like neighboring countries in the Mediterranean. Therefore, the findings may allow us to set a model to understand how freshwater lakes function and how to mitigate them against the impact of global climate change. Thus, it has strong international implications. 

Q: Do you find interdisciplinary research useful in your field?

Actually, interdisciplinary research is more than useful; it is the right nature of ecological studies. In order to benefit from interdisciplinary vision, we have got a recent project funded. This is a seed project that can lead to greater projects—TEAM (CENTRE for FRESHWATER ECOSYSTEM RESEARCH). I like the idea of combining my research with other disciplines to see the even bigger picture of the implementation of an ecological perspective with sociology, socio-economy etc.

Producing contemporary data within the spatial-temporal resolution (many lakes or same lake several years) may allow us to resolve only part of the puzzle, because of the unpredictability and chaotic response of the ecosystems. Last 5-6 years I have been carrying out paleoecological research. Lake bottom mud, called sediment, is like an archive, layer upon layer accumulated over the years of sediment, which is the residue of the physical and chemical conditions, and biological fossils: you can understand the past climate change, and past human activities in the catchment of the lake. I have been intensively collaborating with 2 European universities on paleoecology: UCL-University College London and Aarhus University from Denmark. Having a historical perspective provides you a better understanding of changes in climate and human activities and allows you to develop better management tools. In the newly started EU research project, with these universities that I just mentioned, we will investigate a longer history of some of the Turkish lakes to have a better understanding of recent climate and land use change; of how it will affect the ecosystem and what would be the best cost-effective management to protect the ecosystem.

Q: You have so far talked about long-term monitoring, snapshot sampling, and paleoecology as research fields. Are there other methods you use in your research?

I also use laboratory experiments. Let me talk about another TUBİTAK project, which ended couple of years ago. In this project we have worked on how salinity change/increase as a result of climate change will affect the key-stone organism Daphnia’s response within the ecosystem. We also performed field experiments that we call mesocosm: we set up some isolated experimental mesocosms within the lake so that we can control the factors we want to and test the ones we prefer; like how temperature change affects the system, how more phosphorus or more nutrients or adding some fish affect the system. We have done the first mesocosm experiments in Turkey in a lake in İğneada and in Lake Eymir.

Q: Will your research have any political impact? Will the data you provide lead to strategies for adaptation to climate change?

Water is always a political issue, as the availability of freshwater resources is very limited: it is less than 1% of the water on Earth and 7,5 billion have to share it. For a long while we used to think that we are in Turkey a water-rich country, but we are not. In fact we are a water-stressed country.

This era is called anthropocen; because the ecological footprints of human beings are so big and even devastating for many ecosystems, including freshwater. Such as Aral Sea, Russia. The lake has dried up already. It was the world’s eighth biggest lake, but two of the inflows of the lake have been diverted for the cotton field and this led it to gradually dry up and now almost disappear. It happened at the expense of losing the social integrity and social networks. The society suffered from several problems: socio-economic to health, to social integrity etc. As a result, many people had to be dislocated from the area. This should be a strong case for the world but I think that we do not learn our lessons. The problem is similar in the Konya Closed Basin: the water resource is greatly used for irrigating water thirsty crops. If you look at the climatic conditions of the area, it is almost a semi-desert; very dry. But they still are insisting on irrigated crop farming of water thirsty crops e.g beetroot, sunflowers. Many lakes and wetlands in the Konya closed basin have already dried up. Every year the water gets more saline as well as the soil, and the crop yield decreases and this shows that we need a strong approach to the problem. We know the disaster we can end up with by using water in this way and the solution lies in making a great deal of changing agricultural practices. That’s something that requires an adamant action to make socio-economic changes (e.g. create alternative jobs, alternative way of living, and alternative vision to the world).

Currently, my research has focused on Lake Beyşehir through 2 projects - the METU-BAP-DPT and EU-FP7 projects - as Lake Beyşehir is the upstream of Konya Closed Basin and the water from Lake Beyşehir feeds the agriculture in the downstream of the basin. It is important to understand the critical water level for Lake Beyşehir to maintain the ecosystem structure and ecosystem services. What is the critical level, what would happen if we go below this level? We want to answer these questions through several approaches including monitoring, modeling, paleoecology through these projects and our ultimate aim is to come up with long term adaptation and mitigation strategies for now and for the warmer conditions of the future, anticipated from the models on global climate change.

Climate warming is a huge challenge that our society will also be affected from through losing freshwaters and their ecosystem services. Through long term monitoring of Lakes Eymir and Mogan; it can be said that consecutive years of drought led to salinization in these 2 small lakes of Anatolia; as a result of limited precipitation and high demand on the ground water in the catchment, water level of the lakes dropped so deep that hydraulic residence time became prolonged, thus water left the lakes only through high evaporation and in turn the salt concentrated. This happens so very fast, like within 3-5 years. What we have observed through our monitoring programme on Lakes Eymir & Mogan is that our freshwater lakes in Turkey are at great risk of becoming saline through climate change and it doesn’t take too long to happen. Once the lakes become saline, they become more eutrophic with toxic cyanobacteria blooms (looks like green pea soup), thus ecosystem functions and services will be lost, as we cannot use the water for drinking or irrigation.

Salinization is a huge problem with immense economical cost. Thus, we now are engaged in a cross-continental outdoor mesocosm experiment from Sweden to Turkey funded through EU-FP7 to be able to understand how salinization takes place and how it affects ecosystem structure and processes from nutrients to tiny plankton and to higher trophic levels. This experiment will start next year in May and will last 8 months. We will install our outdoor experimental mesocosms to the METU DSİ Gölet.

Additionally, long term monitoring data from these two lakes has shown that drier years make lakes not only saline but also eutrophic. Furthermore, as mentioned above saline lakes are more eutrophic with toxic cyanobacteria blooms for the given nutrient availability as that of freshwater lakes. As a management option, we can decrease the intensity of eutrophic conditions through decreasing the negative feedback mechanisms of the food web structure, such as fish: Especially bottom-feeder fish, such as carp and tench, which disturb the ecosystem and thus enhance eutrophic conditions. Those are the fish that feed from the bottom mud of lakes, and then they stir up the sediment and make more nutrients come into the water and in turn increase turbid conditions. Removing such fish, called biomanipulation, can enhance water clarity and quality; we have done biomanipulation twice in Lake Eymir, in 1990s and in 2006, and have produced reasonably good results showing that biomanipulation can be a good adaptation strategy.

Our latitudinal gradient study with a high temporal resolution also shows that for the same amount of nutrients there are more toxic cyanobacteria blooms in the south of Turkey. This shows that the temperature plays a major role. If Turkey becomes warmer through global climate change, which is the anticipation at least for the western part of Turkey, even without a major increase in nutrients from outside, lake ecosystems are bound to have more toxic algal blooms in the warmer conditions. Paleoecological results from several lakes show that eutrophication all started in lakes back in 1970s in Turkey. These years coincide with the building of the dams for irrigated crop farming. Lakes’ water sources were diverted into the irrigation dams and left little water so that the water levels in the lakes went down and as a result of this lakes got eutrophicated and salinized. We did a limited survey on the driving forces for the agriculture in the region. Back in 1960s and 70s, society was mainly animal herders (e.g. sheep, buffaloes), they had agriculture in limited areas. On the wet meadows of wetlands and lakes, which were once the largest of the western Palearctic region, the animals grazed and drank water. But in the 70s, through the Green Revolution move, the world economy shifted to a different level to produce more agricultural crops, through irrigated crop farming, using artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Turkey also became part of this agricultural move. Animal herder society has shifted to irrigated crop farming society at the expense of drying large wetlands and lakes to provide irrigation water. But, unfortunately the central part of Turkey, climatologically and ecologically, is not the right place to do so.

Q: Is it irreversible?

It can be if we can restore the natural hydrological condition. What happened this year might be a good example, we had a wet hydrological year following prolonged drought for the last 6 years and it is the first time that the outflow of Lakes Eymir and Mogan flowed out and so it had discharge outside, as a result the salinity level slightly decreased.

Q: You said that the Central Anatolian basin is not appropriate for irrigated agriculture, what will happen if they insist?

Yes, it is not proper for irrigated crop farming. It is very dry. And also the way that people used to live there shows that the area is proper for animal farming. And the wetlands over there are internationally important because they are on the way of bird migration stop over and are biodiversity hotspots for plants, birds, fish and so on. Now these huge wetland systems have been deteriorated. For example take Lake Akşehir within the basin dry area, it just completely dried out. It is over 350km2; given that Lake Eymir is only 1 km2 lake, imagine that it is a 350 times bigger lake! Two of the spot endemic fish species, which were evolved over there over thousands of years and they were only found in that lake, were also gone. It is also an ethical problem. We don’t have the right to exploit the system to the end. Let me give you an example; the Lake Akgöl in Ereğli, in the Konya closed basin, completely dried out. The reason is the water that feeds the Akgöl and Ereğli reed-beds were diverted into a dam. And the lake and the wet land were dried out, and now the dam is also drying out. It is like a boomerang, because the spring water that feeds them is also dried out. The area is so dry now and the soil quality is so degraded that the famous cherry, once a very important cash-crop for the society, is now disappeared.

 Eutrophicated Küçük Akgöl with toxic cyanobacteria bloom 

 Turkey in terms of biodiversity is an internationally very important place. Turkey, along with China and South Africa, is one of the three countries in the world that have three major biodiversity hotspots out of 25 in the world. We need a vision and better understanding of societal needs and ecosystem functions and services, because we cannot maintain our lives without ecosystem services, such as crop, fish, water, genetic resources, regulations etc.

Q: In such an occasion, what would be your advice to a policy-maker? Simple ones like: “If you do that then the fresh water resources will become….” or “If you continue to do that the result will be…”

Yes, actually the biggest drain for lakes and rivers is agriculture and that is why we need a very rational agriculture planning. The stakeholder is not only the farmer, but also the ecosystem. So what is important here is to take the ecosystem as a stakeholder on the table to maintain the ecosystem services and functions, as well as the agricultural activities. That is sustainable. Otherwise the water level goes down and the lakes dry out and people become even poorer. Sustainability, as a word, is too much exploited; however it is in fact while responding to the needs of today’s society that we have to maintain the biodiversity and the ecosystems, for future generations as well. Thus, the critical factors are economy, society and ecosystem, the triple that has tremendous interactions with each other. Sustainability is where three of them co-exist together for the future generations. For the policy-makers, my strong advice would be to have the ecosystems achieve the goals of sustainability, which has never been done so far in Turkey.

Q: Are there any European standards or regulations on the use of fresh water? In the case of EU membership, for example, will Turkey be faced with such rules?

There is one actually. It is a kind of Bible for water: the Water Framework Directive accepted in 2000 in Europe (WFD, EU-2000) and the entire member countries implement several different phases of it. Now, we are at the face of accession, we are not obliged to implement fully but we are adapting to its implementation. The EU Water Framework Directive is an important piece of the EU environmental legislation, which aims at improving our water environment. It requires governments to take a new holistic approach to manage their waters. It applies to rivers, lakes, groundwater, estuaries and coastal waters. WFD considers River Basin Catchment as a unit for freshwaters. It is the best model, for a single system of water management is management by river basin - the natural geographical and hydrological unit - instead of according to administrative or political boundaries. There are a number of objectives, in respect of which the quality of water is protected. The key ones at European level are general protection of the aquatic ecology, specific protection of unique and valuable habitats, protection of drinking water resources, and protection of bathing water. All these objectives must be integrated for each river basin. A general requirement for ecological protection, and a general minimum chemical standard, was introduced to cover all surface waters. These are the two elements: "good ecological status" and "good chemical status". Member states must aim to achieve good status in all waters by 2015 and must ensure that status does not deteriorate in any of the waters.

Q: Could you please tell us more about the initiative?

At METU, under the Renewable Energy Ecosystem and Sustainability platform, we want to settle a Freshwater Ecosystem Research Unit (TEAM) with a multidisciplinary approach. We have also started to cooperate with different universities. METU has already provided seed-funding to the TEAM project to give us a start and now we are at the level of searching for a bigger funding to get up a full head of steam.

Q: So, can we say that METU is supporting this initiative to create consciousness?

Yes, exactly. This is an opportunity for METU to lead the society once more. It is the era of problems; it is named as “antropocen era”. Achieving the goals of sustainability is the main innovation of this century and for this you have to invest on ecosystem science with interdisciplinary earth system approach. That’s why now we have the Earth System Sciences Graduate Program at METU. The TEAM as a project has its roots in Earth System Science approaches.

Q: Thank you very much for this interview, for having responded all these questions, do you have anything else to add?

I would like to thank the METU administration at all levels, for their support.