Damning History?

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Turkey’s proposed Ilusu Dam has sparked a rage of controversy between those who view it as an economic saviour, and others who consider it a quick-fix solution to Turkey’s social and political challenges.

The site of the town of Hasankeyf in southeast Turkey has been inhabited since Neolithic times, and has all the archaeology to tell the story, but today it is at the heart of a debate concerning a controversial dam that will threaten its very existence, and the livelihoods of tens of thousands of Kurds living in the country’s most troubled region.

The outcry over the prospect of losing such priceless historical sites such as Hasankeyf is echoed by humanitarian concerns, namely that 78,000 people are due to lose their homes and traditional methods of sustenance, with no prospect of compensation.

Towering above the Tigris river, Hasankeyf lies in the province of Batman at the pinnacle of the ‘fertile crescent’ that stretched up from what is now Egypt, through Syria and Iraq into Iran.

Formerly part of the Sumerian Empire, which was the origin of civilisation, and one of the first communities in the world to domesticate plants and animals, Hasankeyf has remained in place to witness the rise and fall of the subsequent Roman, Assyrian, and Byzantine empires, as each community left its mark and built upon its predecessors.

Archaeologically speaking, Hasankeyf is a goldmine, built upon layer after layer of history that dates back to pre-history, and an extremely important site for the country’s Kurds, who consider the town a vital part of their cultural heritage.

However, the town and its surrounding region could soon be under water if construction of the contentious Ilisu dam goes ahead.

The GAP Project

The proposed dam is a part of the Southeast Anatolia Regional Development Project (GAP), a huge engineering venture established in the southeast of Turkey in 1977, with the aim of constructing more than 90 dams along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that would feed 60 hydroelectric plants, thus enriching the area, and also providing irrigation and employment opportunities.

The project itself is worth 32 billion US dollars and was originally marketed as a way of alleviating poverty in Turkey’s troubled southeast region, which is home to a large chunk of the country’s Kurdish population

Opposition to the dams, which is largely made up of residents from surrounding communities, environmental groups, human rights groups, archaeological associations and sections of local government, is united by the belief that the Turkish authorities are using the GAP project for more than just economic goals.

They argue that the dams are being strategically placed to alter the demography of the region, and to deliberately weaken and displace the Kurdish communities living in the targeted areas, and to erase their cultural history.

Osman Baydemir, the mayor of Diyarbakir, the largest city in the region, stated that the Ilisu dam could be considered an ‘ethnocidal project’, and that, “Flooding this monument under water will be a real massacre, both historically and culturally.”

There are also wider concerns of international tensions arising from Turkey’s control of the currents of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that flow down into Syria and Iraq.

The GAP project certainly doesn’t have a gleaming track record thus far: there have been numerous accusations of insufficient assessment of the social, cultural and environmental impacts of the dams already constructed in the region, as well as inadequate compensation served to those displaced by the project, policies that fall well short of EU directives.

The Ilisu Consortium

The Ilisu dam faced a major setback in November 2001 when the consortium of foreign investors from Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria and Great Britain fell apart as companies began to withdraw due to pressure applied by various campaigners.

However, a new opportunity presented itself when an Austrian company called VA Tech, recently bought out by Siemens, showed interest in the scheme in May 2004 along with the Swiss company Alstom.

Alstom has been involved in other dam-building projects including the Three Gorges Dam in China that forced the relocation of 1.4 million people, and the Tucurui dam in Brazil that resulted in the virtual extermination of some indigenous groups.

With this new financial backing, the dam seems reset for construction, despite strident protest. The mayor of Hasankeyf, A. Vehap Kusen, commented in an interview with the fact-finding mission of the Kurdish Human Rights Project:

“If, as a citizen, I go to pick out one small stone from this archaeological site, I go to prison for three years under the law. But to destroy the whole thing is not a crime, apparently.”

Mr. Kusen’s comments are an example of the outrage and impotence felt by the residents of Hasankeyf, for the destruction of the ancient city, and for the many other archaeological sites in the area.

Obsolete Technologies?

What the anti-dam campaigners have working against them is the fact that the GAP project is already in its advanced stages. So much money has been invested in building other components of the proposed network, that not opening the Ilisu dam is actually costing the Turkish government 250 million dollars a year. Investors in the project stand to profit royally from the construction, and so are highly unlikely to bow to pressure to withdraw.

Dam construction is the cheapest and most efficient way of generating energy in the short term, and is particularly useful for irrigating countries with dry climates or erratic rainfall. However, there is no such thing as an uncontroversial dam: the human price for constructing the necessary reservoirs is huge, though often justified by the principle that dams help more people that they hinder, and so the sacrifice is worthwhile.

The drastic forfeit of the few for the greater good of the many is a calculation that Arundhati Roy calls ‘fascist maths’ in her celebrated essay on dam construction on the Narmada River in India, The Greater Common Good. The fact is that in developed countries, dams are no longer considered a viable engineering option, due to their short lifespans and flawed functioning.

In the west, dams are being decommissioned and blown up; in developing countries, they are still being built, using western contractors and borrowing money from western creditors, without a second thought for the ethical or economic repercussions of investing so much into something that will be obsolete within three generations.

There are other forms of energy production: solar, wind, geothermal. The problem with these is that they are much more expensive to establish and maintain. From an economic perspective, dams are by far the optimum short-term solution.

Local Concerns

Hasankeyf is built on two levels: the old citadel, the kale, sits on top of a cliff, surveying the valley below, and is reached by a series of stone steps that pass through 15th century ornamental gateways. The height of these structures will undoubtedly save them from submersion, especially if the water levels in the reservoir are maintained at a certain level, but the rest of the city, which was developed on the lower levels and includes hand-carved cave-dwellings and ancient churches, will be completely destroyed by the dam.

There have been some proposals to remove certain key artefacts from the Hasankeyf site into storage elsewhere, but it is clear to anybody walking among the spectacular ruins there that the any experience with the structures would be far altered by the absence of the surrounding landscape.

But at the heart of the debate is the welfare of the area’s residents: 78,000 people are to be relocated as a result of the Ilisu dam, having to leave their villages and move to the nearby cities of Diyarbakir and Batman, that are already overpopulated from the refugee influx in the 1990s that was a result of conflict in the region.

Mounting pressure has forced the Turkish authorities to take greater responsibility for the interests of those made to move. A compensation scheme has been in place for some time, but it only pays out to landowners, who make up a very small percentage of the population, when compared with the large numbers of people who use the land for agricultural sustenance, without actually having an ownership status.

It is these people who have been the worst affected by displacement so far: forced to move to the urban areas, or to new housing complexes provided by the government, they find themselves in a new environment in which their traditionally acquired tools for survival mean nothing.

There are also low-interest credit schemes in place designed to help families to buy new houses, but the lack of urban work skills of those coming from the villages mean that such schemes are extremely problematic.

The reality of the situation is that the destination domiciles only offer poverty and hardship: the population of the city of Diyarbakir has risen from 380,000 in 1990 in the last fifteen years, with most of the city’s newcomers living in slums on the outskirts of town with poor access to clean water and other facilities. Concerns over the threat of pollution have been raised in light of the fact that cities like Batman do not even have a sewage treatment facility.

An impact assessment report for the Ilusu dam was carried out on the region some time ago, but was criticised as being grossly inadequate, as well as having a significant lack of communication with those residents that were to be directly affected by the project.

In the face of wide criticism, an update of the impact assessment has been commissioned and will be carried out by the same freelance evaluators who wrote the first report. It will be published in conjunction with a Resettlement Action Plan, described as a thorough survey of villagers in the area and their needs, which is being produced by an independent Turkish company.

This new report is due to be ready by the beginning of October, a date that coincides comfortably with the beginning of Turkey’s EU membership negotiations. If the report finds no major flaws in the execution of the project in the light of EU guidelines, as is expected, then the commencement of the dam will be a certainty.

The PKK and GAP

On a security level, there have been suggestions that the dams are also functioning as military blockades, to hinder easy movement of insurgent groups in the area, especially the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, against whom the Turkish government fought a campaign during the 1990s, at a loss of more than 30,000 lives.

A large number of mysteriously disappeared people over the period of conflict has also raised questions as to the possible existence of mass graves, which some claim could lie in the area earmarked for flooding.

These more sinister accusations towards the authorities are treated with scepticism by many urban Turks from other parts of the country, who believe that the Kurds are using the project as material for self-pity, and that the current outcry is unfounded and paranoid in its nature.

Ozan Erdogan, an outspoken young Turkish media worker based in Istanbul, expounds upon this point of view, emphasising that if cultural and historical cleansing were the main incentive of the Turkish authorities, there would be far more economical ways of carrying out such a procedure:

“Even when you bring investment to these people, they are so paranoid as to say, “Look at these Turks, they are building a dam here to erase our past and our history, to erase our traces.”

“You don’t build a 3.5 billion dollar dam when you can just bomb the place with dynamite and erase in for 100 million. They could just empty out the villages and bulldoze them and landscape the area for maybe just a fraction of the cost of building a dam.”

Change in Attitude

Even the summer heat is not a deterrent for the scores of tourists that arrive in Hasankeyf every day to pick their way through the ruined city and to look out over the Tigris that flows through the great valley at its feet. From the top of the kule you can literally see for miles, across the length of the epic historical landscape.

This region is the poorest in Turkey; illiteracy rates are high, as is unemployment (as high as 50% in some towns.) The economy here desperately needs a boost, and the expanding cities need revitalising through investment and development. Where there is poverty on this level, the range of solutions is very narrow.

However, short-term solutions eventually prove to be false economy when, after seventy years the population is left with the problem of dealing with obsolete dams that will by then litter the landscape.

Opponents to the scheme will have to accept certain truths: the Ilisu dam will be built, though the monuments of Hasankeyf could be saved, at least in part. But still suspended under the question mark are welfare of the 78,000 displaced people, and the long-term economic plans for the region.

These are perhaps the most poignant issues raised by the dam, and the areas with most potential for radical change in attitude on behalf of the powers that be.