Smoke coming out of a geothermal power plant (Credit: Hakan Bintepe)

Ayşe Çetin and her family have tilled the soil in Aydın, a picturesque town on Turkey’s Aegean coast, for decades.

But the idyllic beauty of this holiday destination, known for its olive groves and fig harvests, is under threat, with residents warning that local geothermal power plants built with failing technology are doing irreversible damage to the environment. 

“They say that olive oil flows from Aydın’s mountains and honey from its plains, but right now, poison is the only thing flowing from its mountains or plains,” Çetin said. 

“Cancer is on the rise. Three people in my family alone have cancer. Our 15-year-old is battling cancer and had to quit school because of it,” she continued, adding, “The younger generation is a sick one.”

Ayşe Çetin examines a fig tree (Credit: Hakan Bintepe)

Geothermal power is a form of renewable energy generated by excavating hot water supplies two to three kilometres underground and then processing them in turbines. Though touted as a source for clean energy, old and inefficient power plants can release damaging pollutants into the environment.

Aydın residents say that by-products such as steam and sulphur dioxide are contributing to rising rates of respiratory illnesses and cancer as well as devastating local wildlife and crops.

Locals were initially excited about the economic benefits when geothermal resources were first discovered in the Aydın region in the 1970s. One town in the area, Burhaniye, was even renamed Buharkent (Steamtown) in 1987 in honour of the power plants’ steam stacks.

But the damage allegedly done to local ecosystems has spurred numerous lawsuits by frustrated residents against the power companies operating the plants. There are 48 active powerplants around Aydın today. 

“They promised us only good things,” said Mehmet Vergili, the director of the Aydın Environment Platform (AYÇEP), an anti-geothermal power plant organisation. “They said the nearby residences would get heat, they would create huge industrial compounds and provide jobs, and we would make something for the whole world. They said the price of electricity would be cut in half in areas where it’s being produced.” 

“We fell for it all because they were saying everyone would profit from this wealth,” he continued. “But none of those promises came true.” 

Mehmet Güngör, the secretary-general of the Aydın Environment and Nature Association, agreed that the power plants had done more harm than good to local communities. 

“We don’t have cheap electricity, we suffer from its poison, we watch our soil be destroyed, we watch our air and water get polluted,” he said. 

Locals who sold land to the power firms now say they regret the decision.

Bekir Helvacı claims that the gases and liquids that the geothermal power plants have badly affected animals and fields. (Credit: Hakan Bintepe)

“When they first found the hot water, as the people of Aydın, we were all very happy,” said landowner Bekir Helvacı.  “People who wanted to make money sold their lots. I too sold one of my lots at the beginning. But the gases and liquids that these plants release badly affected our animals and our fields.” 

Vergili said that one of the key problems was that the outdated power plants did not re-inject the extracted water back underground. Instead, the waste water was disposed of at a shallower depth, causing both underground sources to dry out and polluting the local supply with heavy metals.

There is little that residents can do to penalise the companies, and even lawsuits have had limited effect.

“The liquids that the plants release got mixed in with the water well on my property,” Helvacı explained. “Even when we report it, some get fined but sometimes there are no repercussions. The companies are powerful and rich so they can afford to tell the people to go ahead and report them [to the authorities]. And if you report and win the lawsuit, they just pay the fine and keep going. The municipality and other institutions are getting monetary aid from these companies, so they keep quiet.”

Water from this well is now polluted (Credit: Hakan Biltepe)

The Çetins family is in the midst of a legal battle over an attempt by some of the companies to expropriate their land as part of their developments. 

The family’s eldest daughter, Şermin, called on expert witnesses in court to show that watering holes near the power plants were poisoning local wildlife, urging the government’s hydraulic works department to prevent the companies from laying pipes next to wells in the area. 

She said that for the last two years the young fruits from their olive trees had shrivelled and fallen off before they could be harvested. 

In addition to olives, the town is known for its figs, a top export to the European Union. But locals say the quality of this crop has also suffered amid allegations that the level of sulphur in them has increased over the years. The Aydın department of environment and urbanisation has denied this, but Helvacı said that many local producers were facing the risk of bankruptcy due to the high volume of returned fruits. 

Gas emissions from the local power plants are so severe that the entire town often smells of rotten eggs, the tell-tale odour of sulphur. The smell got so bad at one point that the local mayor’s office issued a notice for residents to stay indoors, warning, “Dear fellow townsmen, for your health, do not breathe in the poisonous air that has spread to our entire district. Do not leave your houses, and keep your windows and doors closed. No to geothermal!”

Ayşe and Şermin Çetin in their garden near the sealed geothermal well (Credit: Hakan Bintepe)

Neither the Aydın Metropolitan municipality nor the Geothermal Power Plant Investors Association (JESDER) responded to requests for comment.

JESDER head Ali Kındap previously told the portal that while “every economic activity has some effects on the environment. The important thing is to make these activities sustainable by minimising harm… new regulations and precautions have been applied. Investors try to act without harming local people, their economic activity and agriculture. The decrease in power plants’ activity and precautions lowered those negative effects.”

The environment ministry has also said that the local level of pollutants was within the legal limit.

Pipes around houses in the town of Aydin (Credit: Hakan Bintepe)

However Metin Aydın, the director of the Aydın Chamber of Medicine, rejected such claims.

“The levels of hydrogen sulphide and sulphur dioxide that are considered detrimental to human health in Turkey are not the same as the levels accepted internationally,” he said. “They do this to make air pollution seem better than it is, and the worst part is that Aydın is still considered polluted even according to those rigged numbers.” 

He insisted that the geothermal power plants had directly contributed to rising rates of cancer and diseases linked to environmental factors in the city. 

“Out of the drinking and watering water sources in Aydın, 80 per cent are from underground,” he said. “The geothermal work pollutes these sources too. This was established in studies both in academia and by the ministry of agriculture and forestry.” 

Aydın said that gas emissions in his hometown, including sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide, ethane and methane, were present in concentrations between ten and 20 times the global average. 

Aydin residents show young fruits from their olive trees that have shrivelled and fallen off before they could be harvested.  (Credit: Hakan Bintepe)

“Per capita deaths, deaths from respiratory or circulatory diseases, from cancer, baby deaths, deaths of children under the age of five, deaths of mothers and suicides are all higher in Aydın than the national average,” he said. “The only thing in common? Pollution, and geothermal work is part of that.”

Locals like Ayşe Çetin, whose family continues to struggle to farm the land, have vowed to keep on fighting for their hometown. 

“This is prime agricultural soil,” she said. “All throughout the year we have wheat, barley, corn, cotton, vegetables and fruits here. Thank Allah for this blessing, but they are kicking away the blessing. There are no city men without the villagers, and no villagers without the city men.” 

“But this is no way to live,” she added. “Not by killing each other. Not by leaving behind a sick country, sick soil or a sick generation.”