Friday, July 8, 2011

Turkey: Drowning the Past in the Waters of Progress

(There is also a wonderful photo essay on the site)

Turkey: Drowning the Past in the Waters of Progress
July 8, 2011 - 12:00pm, by Jonathan Lewis and Constanze Letsch

For half a century, Hasankeyf, a Bronze-Age-era town on the banks of
the river Tigris, has faced the threat of being submerged by
construction of the proposed Ilisu Dam, part of a controversial 23-dam
project in southeast Turkey. If completed, the dam would wipe out a
town that has been continuously inhabited for over 6,000 years.

Despite ongoing protest against the project both in Turkey and abroad,
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan leaves no doubt about his
determination to bring the dam to completion. Citing concerns about
the project's social and environmental impact, Germany, Austria and
Switzerland withdrew their financial support for the construction
project in 2009, but the Turkish government was able to secure the
needed 1.1 billion euro (about $1.58 billion) domestically. Last year,
Erdoğan shaved two years off the dam's official opening date -- from
2016 to 2014.

The relocation of villages that will be affected by the dam has
already started. Tens of thousands of people could be affected.

Approximately one mile from Hasankeyf, the state housing agency TOKI
has begun the construction of New Hasankeyf, a village that will
contain 596 houses. The 48-house New Ilisu Village, 100 kilometers
downriver from Hasankeyf, was inaugurated last October.

About 50 workers are employed at the New Hasankeyf site; not one of
them is from the original town. "The government has guaranteed that
the GAP project would bring employment to Hasankeyf. But that turned
out to be an empty promise," comments local storeowner and
environmental activist Ömer Güzel, in reference to the government's
23-dam project. "It feels like we will be buried alive and all we can
do is sit and watch them dig our graves," he adds, pointing to the
dust clouds rising from the construction of his future town.

Kerem Biroğlu, one of the owners of Biroğlu Inşaat, the company
building New Hasankeyf's roads and installing telephone lines and
other infrastructure, underlines that the builders only want "to do a
good job. We don't want to get involved in the politics of the dam."

In the ten months that his company has worked in the valley, Biroğlu
has never visited the town of Hasankeyf. But looking at the Tigris and
the town, he adds: "Though it really is a pity that this place and
all these historic monuments will be flooded, isn't it?"

The replacement villages in store for Hasankeyf and its nearby hamlets
may do little to compensate for that lost past. In New Ilisu (Yeni
Ilisu), TOKI regulations forbid planting anything on the grass patches
in front of the houses, or letting children step on the lawns. Those
residents making monthly payments to TOKI for their houses have little
choice but to abide by the agency's rules.

TOKI charges villagers 75,000 lira (about $46,368) for a house in New
Ilisu; residents from villages affected by the Ilisu Dam's
construction, however, received only between 20,000 and 35,000 lira
(about $12,370 to $21,648 ) from the state in compensation for their
old houses.

Only a few months after having moved into their new homes, though,
residents started complaining about water leaks and broken fixtures,
but most of all about lacking possibilities to secure a modest income.
Small stables have been built too close to houses and kitchens to be
able to shelter cattle or goats. The nearest large town where
employment could be found, Batman, is approximately 150 kilometers away.

Given these drawbacks, the Turkish press has dubbed the settlement
"Absürtköy" or "Absurd Village."

TOKI, though, will use the exact same model for New Hasankeyf.
According to construction company owner Biroğlu, there are no plans
for animal stables, workshops or factories, and with most of
Hasankeyf's historical monuments under water, the small profits made
from tourism are likely to vanish.

To prevent that prospect, lawyer Murat Cano, who has been battling the
Ilisu Dam for 11 years convinced a local court in March to order an
investigation to assess Hasankeyf's cultural value and the potential
damage the dam might cause.

"The Ministry of Culture has no feasible plans on how to move and
protect historical monuments," says Cano. "They are not even sure
which monuments will be relocated." The ministry has not responded to
the allegations, but government officials maintain that New
Hasankeyf's waterside location will attract tourists.

The report, written by three court-appointed experts, was expected by
the end of June, but has not yet appeared. Nonetheless, Cano remains
convinced that the findings will end the Ilisu Dam's construction.
"If the assessment report is written to international preservation
standards, Ilisu will be scrapped," he says.

But the government, so far, has given scant sign of heeding such
concerns. "Let me tell you this – these power plants will be
built," news agencies reported then Environment Minister Veysel
Eroğlu as saying in 2009. "No one can stop it. This is the decision
of the state and the government."

Editor's Note:
Jonathan Lewis is a freelance photojournalist based in Istanbul.
Constanze Letsch is a freelance writer also based in Istanbul.

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