They won a pioneering climate change lawsuit earlier this year – but few fishermen in the Turkish village of Tekelioglu feel hopeful that an ongoing battle in the courts can revive the dried-out lake where they have worked for generations.

“I don’t feel anything anymore,” retired fisherman Suleyman Pekkara, who worked on Lake Marmara in western Turkey for 50 years, said as he watched trucks driving past to pick up hay from the state farm that now occupies part of the lake bed. Lake Marmara completely dried out in 2022, and is now the focus of several lawsuits that blame government policies such as dam construction and the promotion of water-intensive farming for the loss of lakes and other wetlands across the country.

Turkey ranks among the 30 countries that will be most water stressed by 2040, according to the World Resources Institute, a U.S.-based think-tank, with demand rising at the same time that climate change leads to hotter, drier weather. Turkish nature association Doga Dernegi – which supported the fishermen in their successful legal fight to halt payments for fishing licences, hailed as Turkey’s first climate change litigation – says Lake Marmara’s demise illustrates the state’s failure to stem climate change impacts by protecting wetlands.

“Wetlands are not only important as a water source, but they also have ecosystems that can fight against climate change,” said Burcin Yarasli, wetlands coordinator at Doga Dernegi, which has filed two further lawsuits against the government over the lake’s decline. Nearly half of all Turkey’s natural wetlands have been lost, the group says, eroding a vital buffer against the effects of global warming.

Wetlands act as natural sponges that store rainfall, while plants that grow in them replenish groundwater, said Dursun Yildiz, an expert at the Water Policy Association, an Ankara-based NGO which is not part of the lawsuit.

Doga Dernegi argues that wetland degradation is being accelerated by water-intensive agricultural policies and the use of dams to redirect water for irrigation and drinking purposes. During the last decade, 600 small dams have been built for irrigation, according to the Water Policy Association.

When the fishermen’s cooperative filed its 2022 suit to scrap fishing licence payments on the dried-up lake, they argued that the Gordes dam, which cuts off the river feeding Lake Marmara, had devastated their income. The lake lost 98% of its surface water in the decade since Gordes dam was commissioned in 2011 by the General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works (DSI), partly to provide drinking water to the city of Izmir in the neighbouring province.

The DSI, the agriculture ministry, and the General Directorate of Agricultural Enterprises did not respond to requests for comment. Now the legal battle is focused on the government’s decision to transform the lake’s dried-out basin into agricultural land, which Doga Dernegi says violates national wetland protections.