By Arab News
Forest fires of unprecedented scale have caused more damage in Turkey than in previous years. As a result, the ensuing debates were more lively and critical of the government’s handling of the crisis. Fires in more than 80 locations have burned hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, farms, houses, cattle, and domestic and wild animals.
Such fires take place everywhere in the world, but the most important aspect of the criticism in Turkey is focused on the management of the crisis.
The Turkish Aeronautical Association (TAA) used to make its planes available for extinguishing forest fires. The government is now being harshly criticized for trying to reduce the effectiveness of this institution, because it wants to eliminate as many institutions as possible created by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey.
The ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) is slowly privatizing the business of extinguishing forest fires. New regulations require firefighting planes to have a minimum capacity of 5,000 liters of water. The TAA’s planes can carry only 4,900 liters, so they have been excluded for the sake of of 100 liters. Spain and Croatia, upon Turkey’s request for help from the EU, have sent exactly the same type of planes, with a 4,900 liter capacity. In other words, the TAA planes could have been included if there were goodwill.
The chairman of the High Council for Radio and TV has sent an unsigned letter to the news agencies threatening them with fines if they broadcast news inconsistent with government policy. It appears that the government has decided to fight the propagation of news about its inefficiency rather than fight the fires.
Another contention of the opposition parties in Turkey is that the TAA pilots were experts in the topography of their country, atmospheric conditions, sudden changes in wind direction and the closest reservoirs to collect water. Despite these advantages, three Russian planes have been rented for $23 million for a period of 153 days. An important part of this money goes naturally to the middleman.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has claimed that the TAA planes were not in usable condition and needed substantial repairs, but civil aviation experts say they could be upgraded at little cost and kept ready for future use, so there would be no need to incur costs for the future fires.
The elected chairman of the TAA was dismissed by the government because of mismanagement, and replaced by an appointed bureaucrat. The AKP government resorts frequently to this practice. To make the things more unpleasant in public eyes, when the TAA’s new president was asked where he was during the early hours of the first big fires, he said he was attending the wedding of a close friend.
The government is also accused of failing to mobilize all possible resources, for example by equipping military and air force helicopters with storage tanks. Critics on social media have observed that the government easily finds water cannon to disperse anti-government public gatherings, but not to extinguish fires.
The Azerbaijani defense ministry has sent 100 soldiers to fight forest fires in Turkey but the Turkish government did not use its own army for this role. The only exception was a Turkish navy vessel that evacuated civilians cornered by fire in Marmaris.
A law enacted on July 28, the day the first fires broke out, transferred ownership of the forest areas from the Ministry of Forestry to the Ministry of Tourism for the construction of tourist facilities. The date was a coincidence because the law had been debated several weeks ago in the Turkish parliament. Nonetheless, 13 years ago, the AKP government categorically denied rumors that a hotel would be built in an area that had been devastated by fire at that time. The five-star Titanic Hotel now stands in exactly that spot.
The most relevant criticism that could be directed at the Turkish government is the mismanagement of the entire process.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar