Why Turkey Should Make Environmental Reform a Priority

Ozan Safak/Unsplash

Turkish President Erdogan has won another five-year term, consolidating his authoritative hold and exacerbating fears that human rights in Turkey will continue to decline.

These fears may be warranted: In May, Turkey sentenced more than 100 individuals suspected of plotting a coup to life in prison. Since the attempted coup in 2016, some 50,000 people were arrested and over 100,000 have lost their jobs. And the future looks just as bleak for human rights activists, as the upcoming five-year term may well be an opportunity for Erdogan to fulfill his wish of reinstating the death penalty. Such events have reignited the conversation over Turkey’s human rights abuses and declining rule of law, bringing the country’s once-hopeful E.U. membership negotiations to a bitter standstill.

But as pressing political concerns continue to take center stage, the country seems to be overlooking another important path to political prestige and prosperity: environmental reform.

Environmental Neglect

Environmental degradation in Turkey bears a striking resemblance to that of many other developing countries, especially in the Near and Middle East. The country benefited from an economic boom in the mid-1990s thanks to prosperous industrial production and rising international trade. What followed was rapid urbanization and intense population growth that put increasing pressure on Turkey’s resources. Water scarcity, nature degradation, and air pollution are just a few of the major issues the country is struggling with.

In addition to economic concerns, Turkey’s environmental neglect is also a sign that the government has—albeit with less than satisfactory results—prioritized economic growth at the expense of its environment. This has had serious socio-political ramifications, such as the unrest that broke out in 2013 when Erdogan tried to turn one of the few parks in central Istanbul into a commercial complex.

8425241916_4d42c66e35_kIstanbul – Grzegorz Jereczek/Flickr

The fact that environmental issues come second to socio-political crisis and economic growth in developing countries is old news. Countries such as India and China have a long history of prioritizing manufacturing and industrialization to boost their economy no matter the environmental cost. And in recent years, Turkey’s political challenges have been particularly trying: The Syrian war has transformed the country into Europe’s refugee waiting room, and the Kurdish separatist movement is seen as a growing threat to the government’s rule. So it comes as no surprise that recycling schemes for central Istanbul do not make it onto the President’s agenda. 

Breathing New Life into E.U. Negotiations?

But leading the march towards sustainable development in the Near East is precisely the opportunity that could help renew Turkey’s political standing and prosperity for several reasons.

Firstly, a push in sustainable development may be the necessary spark to reignite faltering E.U. negotiations. One chapter of the E.U.’s conditions for membership lays out the necessary legislative changes and institutional infrastructure projects needed to reach European standards, including waste management schemes and water quality.

In short, national environmental protection is one of the rare, non-controversial areas in which Turkey could quickly make progress, especially when it comes to developing practical solutions for waste management and overfishing. Such policies would be sure to gain unanimous E.U. member support. They might even deflect attention away from more sensitive issues like the Greek-Cyprus border, press censorship, and ongoing Kurdish repression.

Striving for Regional Integration

Although environmental reform could get the conversation started, it’s still very unlikely these changes will result in Turkey gaining E.U. membership. After all, the E.U. is now facing its own struggles with growing nationalism and populism and still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis. Brussels is still not ready to take in a Muslim-majority state whose economy isn’t up to par and whose human rights abuse are hard to ignore.

In that respect, Turkey is better off working towards a different set of international political goals beyond E.U. membership. And this, too, is possible with a focus on sustainability. The country should look towards its eastern neighbors and work towards their shared development goals. After all, building a more resource-efficient and sustainable economy is a priority for many states in the Middle East. Turkey could work closely with Jordan, Iraq, and other regional powers facing similar obstacles to development and help bolster the region’s power on the international political stage.

The election results are a bitter pill to swallow for the anti-government groups who had high hopes for a brighter future in Turkey. But as Erdogan continues to put pressing economic issues at the top of the national agenda, he should realize that effective and long-term sustainable development policies may provide some relief.

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