WHEN an Istanbul rubbish dump erupted like a volcano last April, the consequences were tragic rather than comic. Twenty-seven people were killed and dozens of homes flattened by the force of the methane gas explosion. Cruelly, the tragedy brought home the desperate strains that now burden Turkey’s congested cities.

Such is the pace of migration to the towns and the rate of population growth that public services can barely cope. On this occasion, they simply gave way.

Turkey’s population growth is running at about 2.1 per cent annually countrywide. The last census, in 1990, put the population at 56.7 million. It is now estimated at about 58 million, and is projected to rise to about 61 million by mid-decade. The main cities are bearing the brunt of the expansion with growth rates of up to 5 per cent and more annually. Istanbul, the largest, is expected to double in size to 16 million people by 2010.

Istanbul became an urgent priority for the State Hydraulics Agency (DSI), which is responsible for national water supply projects nationally, after a drought in 1989 which saw emergency water tankers moored in the Bosporus. With meagre winter rainfall, more shortages can be expected this year.

The DSI’s main, long-term solution is the massive Greater Melen river project, a vast undertaking costed at about $1,400 million overall. Due for completion in 2000, the scheme involves building a dam and water regulator near the mouth of the river on the Black Sea to the east of Istanbul. A 174-kilometre pipeline, pumping stations, reservoirs and a water treatment plant with a daily capacity of about 700,000 cubic metres will complete the system.

The project will be mostly financed by a credit worth about $1,050 million from Japan’s Overseas Economic Co-operation Fund (OECF), agreed as part of the external compensation for Turkey’s economic losses during the Kuwait crisis. The first $495 million tranche was signed in November; the other two tranches will be released in 1995 and 1997. The DSI is now inviting consultancy bids, and construction awards are expected in 1995.

Invitations to tender are expected soon as well for the $270 million Yesilcay project, 65 per cent financed by the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development. This includes the construction of two regulators or weirs on separate rivers, and a 60-kilometre transmission pipeline, and a water treatment plant with a capacity of 500,000 cubic metres daily.

Istanbul will also be supplied from a $750 million scheme for Izmit, currently being negotiated on a build-operate-transfer (BOT) basis by a consortium headed up by the UK’s PWT Worldwide. Preliminary agreement was reached in the summer during a visit by UK trade and industry minister Richard Needham, but the complex details inherent in BOT deals remain to be negotiated.

The water supply situation is less critical in Ankara and Izmir, but large projects are under way nevertheless. In Izmir, construction work started in 1993 on a $200 million scheme funded by the World Bank to build a 32-kilometre pipeline from a dam on the Tahtali river to a large treatment plant. When completed in 1997, the project should take care of the city’s needs for a decade.

For the time being, facilities are adequate for Ankara’s population of about 3.5 million, but the DSI is considering two proposals for the future. One is to get water from a dam on the Risikli river about 60 kilometres west of Ankara; the other is to use a dam on the Kizilirmak river, Turkey’s longest, about 80 kilometres to the east of the city. Japan’s Electric Power Development Company (EPDC) is conducting feasibility studies on both, for completion in 1996. At about $300 million, Risikli would be the cheaper option, compared with roughly $500 million-plus for the Kizilirmak scheme.

Sewage treatment programmes have also gained from substantial funding from the World Bank and other external sources. Plans have been implemented over the past decade in the main cities, notably the Greater Istanbul project which is now well into its second phase. However, this fell foul of a corruption scandal last summer and the Istanbul Water & Sewerage Administration. In the ensuing turmoil, ISKI decided to wait before proceeding with the next stage, the $600 million Riva waste water treatment plant.

The scandal is expected to be a key issue in March local elections, when former mayor Bedrettin Dalan, known as the ‘Bulldozer’ for his ambitious public works programme, will seek re-election. He has renewed a pledge to clean up the Golden Horn which is little more than an open cesspool at present.

Such political controversy does not surround the ‘Great Channel’ sewage disposal schemes in Ankara and Izmir. Tendering is expected to continue in 1994 for the remaining five sewerage contracts which are valued at about $15 million each. Last year saw a steady series of awards for the Ankara programme, which boasts the $180 million Temelli waste water treatment plant as its centrepiece. Izmir’s programme reached a peak at the end of 1993 when bids were invited for the construction of a waste water treatment plant.

The promise of improved sanitation is a highly effective vote catcher in local elections, and, not surprisingly, a flurry of waste water and sewerage projects have come out to tender recently in smaller municipalities across the country. These include six waste water treatment plants in Izmit, conservatively valued at a total of $100 million, another $85 million plant in Adana, and one of similar size in Kayseri. But contracting sources say the fortunes of most of these projects hang on treasury approval in Ankara for external credit financing – and therefore on the traditional division of spoils after a major electoral contest in Turkey.