Lake Salda in 2018 (Credit: Google Maps/Hüseyin Köse) – Lake salda in 2020 (Credit: Salda Gölü Koruma Derneği)

Often dubbed Turkey’s Maldives because of its turquoise waters and white sand beaches, Lake Salda is at the centre of heated debate because of an ongoing construction project. The lake, a protected environmental area in southwestern Burdur province, is due to play host to a national park which scientists and some local residents warn is shrinking the level of the lake while discolouring its waters and beaches.

Salda, the deepest lake in Turkey at 184 metres, is oligotrophic, which means it is highly alkaline with low levels of salt. Designated a national park, the lake and its surrounding area are home to various species of fish, alongside foxes, rabbits, boars and 110 different types of birds.

Lake Salda now (Credit: Kadir Durmuş)

In a speech in Burdur in February 2019, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced plans to surround the lake with a 300,000 square metre park he called “the nation’s garden”. The announcement received widespread criticism, leading environment and urbanisation minister Murat Kurum to attempt to reassure the public. 

“Our project will protect Lake Salda by preventing any other construction to take place around it,” he told the Anadolu news agency in July 2019. “We’re only going through with this construction to make sure not a single nail is hammered into the area.” 

Since then, however, several buildings – including a kiosk, a restaurant, shops and a prayer room – have been constructed in the area surrounding the lake. More worryingly, since work began, the sand has become darker in places and the waters of the lake muddier, according to locals interviewed by Inside Turkey. 

A lifelong resident of Yeşilova district where Salda is located, Emine Kıyak has been tending to a booth at the park’s entrance for two years, selling lavender products alongside beach gear. She told Inside Turkey that visitor numbers had fallen since construction work changed the colour of the water and the sand. 

Emine Kıyak (Credit: Kadir Durmuş)

“It’s impossible for business to not be affected badly,” Kıyak said. “They ruined the natural beauty of the place. I guess we’ll see what the People’s Garden will look like but I don’t approve of this project.” 

Erol Kesici, a marine biologist and member of the Turkey Natural Protection Association, said that the lake had suffered from the government’s desire to promote tourism at the expense of environmental protection. 

“The use of the basin in a way that contradicts science has severely harmed the lake’s holistic ecological structure, alongside the water quality,” Kesici said. 

“Overuse of the lake and the landscaping work has increased pollution, which caused the turquoise color of the water to change, the white sand to darken and biomineralisation reactions to lapse,” Kesici said, adding that this had also caused its biodiversity to collapse. 

There has been research done on Lake Salda for over 30 years, Kesici said, adding that it was impossible to rehabilitate the local habitat given the current government’s approach.

“It’s pretty hard to restore delicate ecological environments. If the rules of science are adhered to, it’s always possible to rehabilitate the lake, even though it’ll take a long time. The protective regulations and legislation about the lake should be enforced, and the lake should be protected at international levels,” Kesici said. 

Münip Ermiş, a lawyer who is participating in a lawsuit intended to halt construction, said that these plans had not yet been formally approved when the project was put out to tender – a legal requirement.

The recipient of the tender then remained anonymous for 18 months and was not even disclosed to the court, the lawyer added, resulting in the court’s dismissal of the case for lack of an official tender document. 

Lawyers Mustafa Şahin (left) and Münip Ermiş (right) (Credit: Salda Gölü Koruma Derneği)

A second lawsuit pleading for the cancelation of the construction plans was dismissed without the court giving a reason. A petition to appeal the dismissal is still in process at a local court in Konya.

Gazi Osman Şakar, chair of the Lake Salda Protection Association, is among five local residents named as petitioners in the case. The association often references results of an inspection by the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects Chambers (TMMOB) which was published in June 2020.

“We presented this report to the Isparta Regional Court and many other offices, including the Burdur governor. It’s really strengthened our hand,” Şakar said. 

The tender for the construction was signed in July 2019 and construction on the People’s Garden started in March 2020, Şakar continued, alleging that the builders tried to turn pandemic restrictions into an opportunity. 

Lake Salda now (Credit: Salda Gölü Koruma Derneği)

“They took white sand from the White Islands [in Lake Salda] on  April 12 and 13 and carried it to the public beach where they spread it around,” he said. “We made a press statement about it on April 14 and shared video footage on social media, which really prompted public protest.”

The public’s reaction prompted a joint statement from the Environment and Urbanisation Ministry and Turkey’s Housing Development Administration (TOKI), the chairman noted. 

“They claimed that they didn’t know about any sand being moved around, and tried to blame it all on the contractor. The sand they moved with massive trucks was carried back in wheelbarrows,” Şakar said.

The Mayor of Yeşilova, Mümtaz Şenel (Credit: Kadir Durmuş)

The mayor of nearby Yeşilova, Mümtaz Şenel, a member of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), noted that Lake Salda had gained popularity in recent years, which is why the government, local government and the public should all work to preserve it.

“There were ponds dug out near Lake Salda that cut off its water supply,” he said. “Drills have damaged water on the lake floor. Corn farming and animal farming could be reduced if the public near Salda are encouraged to do tourism…This can’t be done with local government alone, it needs central authority.”

Cihat Çavuşoğlu, a Burdur city councilor for Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) is a supporter of the people’s garden project. 

“Salda wasn’t well cared for before. Anyone could go in the lake wherever they wanted and set out picnics wherever they wished,” he said. “The lake became famous after it was likened to the Maldives, so I find it perfectly suitable that the People’s Garden is built. It protects and controls the lake. Absolutely nothing can be built around it.”

The councilor denied all claims that the lake had changed despite the visual evidence, admitting that some sand had been moved, but saying that there was no change in the color of the blue lake. 

“That [the moving of the sand] was a mistake in my opinion and it was moved back. Our lake will be even better than before.”