A few weeks ago, in a cornfield on the outskirts of Cafer Ata’s house, the earth opened up. A round, sharp-edged sinkhole, about 10 feet deep, is now lying on the ground as if cutting a knife.
Even a shepherd shakes his head in disbelief. Although sinkholes have appeared randomly in the agricultural basket of central Turkey in the past, they have begun to appear with alarming frequency.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said in Turkish. “It’s bad. God have mercy.”
Sewage is a global geological phenomenon with many causes, but the recent increase in the central region of Konya in Turkey is largely attributed to the rapid loss of groundwater, as farmers touch deep underground wells to irrigate fields in the midst of a drought of nearly three years.
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Researchers have cataloged more than 2,200 dolines in the area, more than 700 of which are more than 3 feet deep. The largest are hundreds of meters deep.
Back at Cafer Ata’s house, his wife Atiye Ata serves cups of strong, sweet tea.
Cafer Ata said he knows of at least one neighbor who fell into a sinkhole. It took him two days to get it out. Shepherds now have to keep a mental map of each dolina, so that their animals do not fall while grazing in open fields.
Atiye Ata said the past three years have been so dry that it is difficult to find green pastures.
“We continue to buy hay in the market,” Atiye Ata said.
Every year they sell part of their flock to buy fodder, reducing their profits. It is not a long-term solution.
“We can go hungry, but we will not let our animals go hungry,” Cafer Ata said.
The winter landscape surrounding the house of the Atas is a mixture of dry, dry browns and bands of deep emerald green, framed by distant mountains.
Right next to the road in front of the village, a closed dolina is about 3 feet deep.
Historically, the area cultivated much of Turkey’s wheat, but later farmers switched to more water-intensive crops such as sugar beet and corn.
Those who can afford it install groundwater pumps to irrigate their fields, but the groundwater in the area is limited. Every year, especially in times of drought, they are drilling more to reach the water. In doing so, they prepare the ground floor for an impending collapse.
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“In the Konya Basin, there are 35,000 registered and legal pumps that draw groundwater for irrigation. There are three times as many illegal and unregistered pumps.”
“In the Konya Basin, there are 35,000 registered and legal pumps that draw groundwater for irrigation. There are three times as many illegal and unregistered pumps,” said Fetullah Arık, a geologist and director of the Konya Basin Research Center. ‘Sinkhole Applications from Konya Technical University.
The annual change in the water table was once between 3 feet and 7 feet a year. Last year, Arık saw a 65-foot drop in the northern part of the basin.
“That means groundwater is practically running out,” Arık said.
In an open field surrounded by industrial parks, Arık pointed out various types of sinkholes across the ground. The smallest could easily be confused with the lair of an animal. Others are modest and rounded, from the size of a watermelon to one that could fit in a large tub. Some sinkholes appear suddenly; others start small and grow slowly.
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Learn to predict sinkholes
Arık and his team are developing ways to predict where sinkholes will appear, using ground penetration radar and soil samples. Some sinkholes grow along underground faults that can be measured and studied.
“We can also say in residential areas: if there are small cracks in the door frames or garden stairs, it can be an indicator of changes in the holes. That way, we can predict especially where they will appear,” Arık said. .
By drawing up risk maps and cataloging their findings, Arık tries to argue with business owners and government officials that sinkholes are not just a threat to farmers.
A field, for example, is an old swamp, drained to make way for factories. Each could have structural problems if a sinkhole appeared underneath. No sinkhole-related fatalities have yet been reported, but property damage is a problem.
“Even if there is a small sinkhole in a field, it is very difficult to find someone to work with, or to find agricultural machinery to work with. “They’re afraid something might happen,” Arık said. “It’s a big financial loss.”
Longer droughts, higher temperatures
The problem seems to be getting worse.
Climate change forecasts for central Turkey include longer droughts and higher temperatures. Last year, wheat production in Turkey fell by 14%, according to the Turkish Institute of Statistics. Even red lentils had to be imported, after a 30% loss.
However, farmers in the Konya area insist on pumping water from soil wells.
In a village on the outskirts of the city of Karapinar, an area with one of the highest concentrations of sinkholes, farmer Mustafa Baldanoğlu said that during his childhood, the city would rain a lot.
But today, after almost three years of drought, they depend on the wells to grow fodder.
“We used to draw water from 20 meters below. Now, it’s 55 [meters] 60 meters below, “Baldanoğlu said.
Sewers appear in the village relatively frequently, but neighbors say most are small enough to be repaired.
Baldanoğlu assumed that water could be channeled from neighboring cities, but it should also come from groundwater.
“There is no alternative,” Baldanoğlu said.