Global Policy Forum

Dam Project in Turkey Breeds Controversy

The Illisu dam project in Turkey has raised concerns from Turks, Kurds and Iraqis as the project will impact all three groups. While the dam will generate a significant amount of energy, it will at least partially destroy a town inhabited by Turks. Kurds in the area see the project as “a violation of their culture and land.” Iraqis have raised concerns over Turkish control of the water on the Tigris River, which despite promises of an increase of water flow could actually result in less water if there are Iraqi-Turkish tensions. The Turkish government, however, argues that if Turks want a more modern lifestyle, they must accept the sacrifices that come with projects like the Illisu dam.

By Mohammed A. Salih

June 13, 2011

The tranquillity and mystery of this town on the banks of Tigris River will not last long. The millennia-old town will be nearly totally destroyed once the nearby Ilisu dam, built for energy and irrigation, is complete.

"I don’t want to be forced to move from here," said Nurten Kandemir, 27, who was born and has lived most of her life here. Kandemir’s family along with other residents of the town have to evacuate the area in the coming months. "I feel a part of my body is taken away from me," she told IPS.

Hasankeyf is dotted with captivating architecture surviving from the times of Roman, Byzantine, Assyrian and Muslim empires.

The construction of Ilisu, part of the larger South-eastern Anatolia Project, started in 2006. After completion, it is expected to produce 1,200 megawatts of electricity.

Many local and international groups are criticising what they call the detrimental effects of the dam on environment, archaeological sites and the rights and culture of the people living in the area.

Some hydrologists warn that Ilisu’s large and deep reservoir will negatively affect the quality of the water as there will be less influx of oxygen. They say the dam will alter the ecosystem of the area and threaten to make some species extinct. Fish eggs, for instance, are not expected to survive in the deep reservoir of the dam.

The dam project has also sparked the wrath of ethnic Kurds in the area who see it as a violation of their culture and land.

In the face of mounting criticism of the Ilisu project, the Turkish government says that the dam will not pollute the water as large sewage treatment facilities will be built.

The government asserts that only the lower parts of Hasankeyf will be submerged - the town’s ancient citadel will stay above water.

"It has to be stressed, however, that almost every town in Turkey is a major archaeological site," says the Turkish foreign ministry on its website, perhaps indicating the government’s recognition of the rage and sensitivity surrounding the dam project.

"If the 65 million people of Turkey are to be enabled to enjoy a modern lifestyle, there will be occasions when the interests of archaeology have to be subordinated to those of economic development," says the foreign ministry.

But the government’s words have not brought any relief to the project’s critics.

"We even don’t know the exact extent of the damage and what we will lose as a result of Ilisu," Ipek Tasli, coordinator for the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive, a group that campaigns against the dam, told IPS. She said the area’s archaeological wealth has not been fully excavated yet.

"All of this is for generating energy while there are several other alternative ways of producing energy," said Tasli.

Concerns about Ilisu have not been confined inside Turkey.

In a meeting in late May, the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights said it is "deeply concerned at the potential impact" of Ilisu on "the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights" in the areas affected by the dam.

The committee called on the Turkish government to adopt a "human-rights based approach" in its infrastructure development projects, particularly dams.

Ilisu has also become a source of much controversy between Turkey and the downstream countries of Iraq and Syria. Iraqi officials have repeatedly voiced their concerns about the country’s future water security as Turkey moves forcefully ahead with its dam plans.

Akram Ahmed Rasoul, a senior official at the ministry of water resources of the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, says that the Ilisu dam will seriously affect water volume all over Iraq - especially in southern and central parts of the country where there are less water resources.

"Turkey has promised more flow of water into Iraq," Rasoul told IPS. "But it’s just a promise and whenever there is a conflict or tensions, they can hold off the water flow and put pressure on Iraq that way." At this point, Iraq does not possess the means to pressure Turkey for a fair agreement on water sharing, Rasoul said.

International law experts say Turkey is required by international agreements to opt for equitable sharing of rivers that run through more than one country to prevent environmental damage on their neighbours.

"The Iraqi and Syrian governments could file a case against the Turkish government at the International Court of Justice," said Heike Drillisch, coordinator of CounterCurrent, an Ilisu campaign group in Germany. "In our opinion, the Iraqi government did not take this step due to political constraints and considerations related to other issues."

As debate continues about Ilisu and its impacts, alternative plans are being proposed.

Last year, a study by Turkey’s Middle East Technical University suggested that building five smaller dams instead of the gigantic Ilisu dam might save the historic town itself. The smaller dams could generate the same amount of energy and would only flood two-thirds of the area that Ilisu is expected to submerge.

Hasankeyf’s mayor, Abdulvahap Kusen, is urging the construction of smaller dams instead of Ilisu. He says Ilisu’s disadvantages outweigh its advantages.

"As someone who loves his history and culture, it is not possible to accept this," said Kusen. Although the mayor belongs to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that rules Turkey, his stance reflects the unpopularity of the dam project in the local area. AKP’s government is moving fast to finish the dam by 2015.

When the governments of Germany, Austria and Switzerland refused to provide export guarantees for the project, most companies and banks from these countries that were involved in Ilisu decided to withdraw.

But the AKP government managed to secure funds mostly from domestic Turkish banks and kept the project afloat.


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