Turkey's Great Leap Forward risks cultural and environmental bankruptcy
Turkish government's rush to build dams, hydro and nuclear power
plants angers villagers and environmental campaigners
ï¿½ Fiachra Gibbons and Lucas Moore in Ankara
29 May 2011
Every springtime Pervin ï¿½oban Savran takes her camels and sheep up
into the Taurus mountains of southern Turkey, following the same
routes along the Goksu river that Yoruk people like her have taken for
more than 1,000 years. To many Turks these last nomadic tribes are
symbols of the soul of their nation.
Their way of life ï¿½ and that of millions of small farmers ï¿½ is being
threatened by Turkey's Great Leap Forward, one of the most dramatic
and potentially devastating rushes for economic development and
prosperity Europe has seen in decades.
Thousands of dam and hydropower schemes are being built on almost all
of the main rivers in a pharaonic push to make Turkey a world economic
power by the centenary of the republic in 2023.
The ruling AK party, expected to win a record third term in next
month's elections, is forcing through a series of gigantic public
works projects that include three nuclear power plants ï¿½ despite
Turkey being one of the most seismically active nations on earth.
The first plant, a prototype Russian reactor on the Mediterranean
coast near the port of Mersin, is close to a highly active faultline.
A second, Japanese-built, plant will soon follow on the Black Sea near
the city of Sinop.
Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised eyebrows across the world
last month by promising to cut a 40-mile canal between the Black Sea
and Marmara to relieve the dangerously overcrowded Bosphorus strait,
an idea even he calls his "crazy plan".
He has since topped that by revealing a blueprint for two new cities
to relieve earthquake-prone Istanbul. Critics say they will only
further extend Europe's largest megalopolis, home already to nearly 17
It is Erdogan's declaration that Turkey's rivers must no longer "run
in vain" and 100% of its hydroelectric potential be harnessed over the
next 12 years that has environmentalists most worried. They claim that
the rush for hydropower is likely to be even more damaging to Turkey's
delicate ecological balance, where desertification and depopulation
are already problems.
Hundreds of private companies have been given extraordinary latitude
to evict villagers, expropriate private land, clear state forests and
steamroller normal planning restrictions to meet the target of 4,000
hydroelectric schemes by 2023. Protestors claim licences have been
granted on highly favourable terms, guaranteeing investors four
decades of clear profit.
The Turkish Water Assembly, an umbrella group researching the impact
of the push for more power, argued that 2 million people could be
displaced by the hydropower schemes alone. They accuse the government
of riding roughshod over human rights, and Turkey's commitments to
preserving its extraordinary biodiversity and cultural heritage, in
the name of energy security.
Campaigners fear Ankara is also determined to press ahead with the
massive Ilisu dam project on the Tigris river, which was halted three
years ago after an international outcry over the flooding of the
ancient city of Hasankeyf.
The Ilisu dam is dwarfed by the $4bn Beyhan project on the Euphrates,
also in the Kurdish south-east, where fears of the forced evacuation
of the local population evokes bitter memories of the mass clearances
of Kurdish villagers by the Turkish army during the war with the
Kurdish separatist PKK in the 1980s.
Demonstrators intent on converging on Ankara from five corners of the
country are still being prevented from reaching the capital after a
week-long standoff with riot police outside Ankara. Many, like the
Yoruks, had been walking for two months as a part of the Great March
of Anatolia, a movement sparked by anger at the hydro plans but which
has come to embody growing anxiety that the country is being despoiled
in the rush for growth.
While the neo-liberal reforms of the moderately Islamist AK party have
been credited with firing the country's runaway growth, the gulf
between the rich and poor has widened dramatically, and corruption has
The Turkish government insists it must act radically to safeguard the
decade-long boom, with growth this year predicted to top 7% despite
the worldwide downturn.
Energy, however, is the achilles heel of the so-called Anatolian
tiger, with industry heavily dependent on imported gas from Russia and
Iran. Despite making itself the hub of a network of pipelines serving
Europe from Russia, Central Asia and Iran, Turkey is even more at the
mercy of Moscow and Tehran ï¿½ a fact dramaticallydemonstrated four
years ago when Iran turned off the tap and sent fuel prices in
Istanbul soaring overnight.
Erdogan has so far been withering of critics of his Great Leap
Forward, accusing them of holding Turkey back. He argued that the
hydro projects will bring thousands of jobs to the underdeveloped
east, irrigate barren land and reverse the wave of migration to the
more prosperous west.
"All investments can have negative outcomes," he said. "But you can't
give up just because there can be some negative outcomes. We cannot
say that there will be no earthquake, but we will take all the
After the Fukushima disaster in Japan, his energy minister Taner
Yildiz caused consternation by claiming that nuclear power was no more
dangerous than staying single, citing studies showing married people
tend to live four years longer. Alcohol and smoking posed more danger
than nuclear power, he claimed, prompting comparisons with former
president Kenan Evren's claim after Chernobyl that "radiation is good
for the bones".
Tourism minister Ertugrul Gunay appeared to break ranks, warning that
"if the hydroelectric energy projects are carried out in a reckless
manner, cutting out each brook, levelling each mountain and destroying
forests just to be able to produce a few watts of energy, tourism
would be an impossible dream", particularly in the Black Sea region.
His comments came as laws were being drafted to allow nature reserves
to be handed over for hydroelectric projects. Still more worrying to
campaigners has been the official reaction to the legal morass the
plans have created, with almost 100 lawsuits filed in the last two
years. Of the 41 cases so far heard, judges have halted 39. Work has
often continued in defiance of the courts with the protection of
police and gendarmerie.
Each hydro scheme is allowed to take 90% of the water out of a section
of river, leaving the remaining 10 % as "lifeline support". After the
water travels through the turbines, it is returned to the river, but
farmers say much of the water is either lost, polluted or has had the
"life taken out of it".
For Yoruks such as Pervin ï¿½oban Savran it is their very survival that
is in question. "Nobody in parliament has shown any interest in our
cause," she said. "They don't love life, only money. These dams are
bringing about our end. Our culture is being destroyed."
Hydroelectric projects on the tributaries of the Goksu river have
already severelydamaged traditional pastures, she said. "It has
affected us very quickly. But in the end, everyone else will suffer
'They want to turn us into slaves'
"They killed me when they took my land," said Sinan Akï¿½al, a tea
grower from the spectacular Senoz valley on the Black Sea. He has
watched his local court order the cancellation of the hydropower
project his land was expropriated for no less than three times. But
each time the Turkish environment ministry, which originally rubber-
stamped the project without an environmental impact assessment,
overrides the court ruling ï¿½ and work on the dam continues.
In the meantime, large swaths of forest above the valley have been
felled, triggering landslides and soil erosion.
"They've taken my land and they've offered me 15,000 lira [ï¿½5,800]. I
didn't take it, and I won't take it," said Akï¿½al, 54. "They just want
us to go to the cities and turn us into slaves. But what does 15,000
lira get you in a city? In a year the money will run out.
"Where I come from, people don't have a lot of arable land, but we
grow corn, potatoes, tea and vegetables and we have everything we
need. I don't need huge amounts more of electricity, it is not going
to benefit us. My mother is 84, and she can't live anywhere else."
He added: "The talking is going nowhere. Again and again we went to
court ï¿½ again and again the courts sided with us. But they didn't
stop, they just kept on working, cutting trees, dirtying the water. In
total we have counted 25,000 dead fish in our stream."
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