Increasing Droughts in Turkey are likely to put Pressure on its Hydropower Sector

3 July 2019 Phoebe Sleet, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme


Despite heavy rain in some parts of the country earlier this month, Turkey is at risk of water shortages and drought in the near future, according to environmental scientists. While the country experienced drought every 25 years, on average, during the first half of the twentieth century, since 1980 there have been droughts every four to five years, on average. Two of Turkey’s three hottest summers have occurred since 2010 and while heavy rains in recent weeks have eased conditions, climate change, urbanisation and an increasing population will continue to test Turkey’s ability to manage its water supplies.


Turkey’s Mediterranean climate means that its rainfall varies significantly from year to year. As a result, drought is common and is one of the main natural challenges for the country. The central and eastern regions, where agriculture is the main economic sector, are particularly vulnerable to higher temperatures and drought. Despite those vulnerabilities, Turkey generally has a water surplus and is a major exporter of “virtual water”, in the form of agricultural products, to the region.

Agriculture is the most water intensive sector in the country, making up around 72 per cent of all water withdrawals. Despite its strong regional role as an agricultural exporter, Turkey’s agricultural sector is highly vulnerable to changes in rainfall, largely due to its inefficient irrigation system. Water efficient systems, such as drip irrigation and sprinklers, only account for six per cent of Turkey’s irrigation. The rest of Turkey’s irrigated fields are watered with potentially inefficient irrigation methods. In the past, this has led to significant agricultural losses during major drought years.

Drought not only threatens Turkey’s agricultural sector, but also its hydropower plants and associated reservoirs. Forecasts suggest that temperatures in the region are likely to increase by 2-3⁰C and autumn rainfall will decrease by 20 per cent by 2100. Snow may also turn to rain, which will decrease year-round water flows. That poses a problem for Turkey, which has significant hydropower ambitions, as dams are built around projections for future flows and rainfall.

A reduction in water flows could significantly reduce the viability of its hydroelectric projects. It is a pattern that has been seen around the world: in California, which is in the middle of a major drought, hydropower output fell by about half at one point. Similar situations have occurred in Brazil, New Zealand and Russia (among others), where low water levels have put strain on hydropower projects.

Turkey is no stranger to precariously low water levels in its dams and reservoirs. Last year, a number of dams reached critical levels, after a period of low rainfall. Hydropower problems would cast another shadow on the highly controversial Ilisu Dam, which was to start filling in June this year. The dam will have a capacity of 1,200 megawatts, but it is unlikely that it will reach its full potential. Its location in the south-east of the country puts it in one of the areas most vulnerable to drought.

Hydropower projects are notoriously vulnerable to weather shocks, but it is unlikely that Turkey will scale down its hydropower operations in favour of other sustainable energy sources in the foreseeable future. In a period of economic turmoil, Turkey’s energy sector is struggling and a number of energy suppliers are now bankrupt. As a result, fewer solar and wind projects are being financed and, consequently, Turkey is in no easy position to move away from hydropower and non-renewable sources of energy.

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