Istanbul water usage leaps during virus lockdown, threatening shortages

Istanbul’s population of 16 million people has taken the invisible threat of the coronavirus seriously, and as millions scrupulously clean their homes and workplaces to stop the infection getting in, the increased water usage has taken its toll on the city’s reservoirs.

The waters sources supplying the city have dropped to around 70 percent of capacity. On a normal year, that would remain at 90 percent, and with the hot and dry summer months ahead, capacity could fall even further. Experts fear that without decisive action, the city could face water shortages.

The Istanbul Water and Sewerage Administration (İSKİ)’s data places the water reserves at 70.35 percent, the lowest since 2014, when a drought brought the reserve level to 35.5 percent of capacity. Every other year in the past decade, water reserves have remained near to or above 90 percent.

But this year, an İSKİ worker who asked to remain anonymous said the reserves had taken a hit. While the current supply level is not a danger, it could turn into one if a hot summer further depletes reservoirs. The pandemic has played a role in this, the İSKİ worker said, as millions of people now meticulously wash their hands much more frequently than normal, wash every item of clothing after wearing it out of the house once, and take all kinds of other hygiene precautions.

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu has assured the public that the city is not facing the risk of a drought, but, largely thanks to this plummeting stock of drinking water, specialists disagree. And this risk, they say, has not come about solely because of the coronavirus. While the virus has certainly led to increased usage, experts told Ahval that the government’s faulty water policies had exacerbated the risk.

Eyüp Muhcu, the head of the Chamber of Architects in the country’s leading union of architects and engineers, said there was no policy to speak of for managing water to the public’s benefit. State and local administrations have long turned a blind eye as settlements sprang up over important water sources, he said, and this has led to contamination of much of the city’s water supply. 

Decades of rampant development in Turkey’s largest city has also played its part in the dwindling reserves, as the replacement of forests with densely packed concrete neighbourhoods has had a significant negative effect on the land’s ability to absorb rainwater.

“Istanbul is facing a severe water crisis,” said Muhcu. “There are some serious problems afoot regarding water usage. There have been water conservation plans made in the past, but neither the central government, nor municipalities have put these into effect.”

This has led to the current risk of shortages, he said, but the incessant rate of new construction is also putting the quality of the water supply at risk.

“The Ömerli dam, which supplies some 40 percent of our drinking water, is near areas where permission has been granted for new settlements that will house more than 1 million people,” he said. “If this carries on, the water supply is only going to keep decreasing.”

Those water supplies are already in danger of running low by the end of the year, said Istanbul Technical University meteorological engineer Deniz Demirhan.

“There’s no issue now, but we don’t know what’ll happen in the coming period,” said Demirhan. “The rainfall in March fell to about 30 percent below its normal levels, and we aren’t expecting much rain to come. The first three months of the year, rainfall has been lower than usual. If we go through a drought and there’s no rain, then we’ll have problems, so we need to take precautions.”

“We’ll have to try and make do with the water that’s left until September, but if there’s no rain when the temperature rises then a lot will evaporate,” he said. “If there’s rain, then the water that’s there now will last us seven months.”

Regardless of the level of rainfall, Demirhan said that Istanbul could immediately take two simple measures to make its water supply more sustainable: Planting more trees and quickly implementing water recycling.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.