Turkey's Hasankeyf dam can drown Kurds' hideaways
By Jay Cassano
HASANKEYF, Turkey - Hasankeyf, a small village in southeastern Turkey,
has been under threat for 15 years. Home to about 3,000 people, it is
the site is one of the oldest continuously inhabited human
settlements, with an archaeological record going back at least 9,500
Now, the Ilisu Dam - part of a hydroelectric project undertaken by the
State Hydraulic Works - will flood Hasankeyf and the surrounding
region, effectively washing away millennia of history.
In addition to destroying a historical site, which includes vestiges
of every empire that ever inhabited Mesopotamia, the dam will cause
immense ecological harm to the Tigris River valley.
Derya Engin, who staffs the Hasankeyf office of the Nature Society, a
Turkish non-government organization, told Inter Press Service (IPS)
that numerous endangered species will lose their habitat if the dam is
"The Tigris is the only untouched river ecosystem in Turkey and it is
vital that it remain that way," she said. "It is well-known that dams
dramatically change the climate of entire regions. This dam will
destroy the habitats of fish, birds, and plant life, some of which are
unique to the Tigris valley."
Construction of the dam began in earnest in 2008, but plans for its
implementation date back even further.
The dam was originally conceived in the 1950s as part of the
Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), intended to develop the
infrastructure of largely rural and Kurdish southeastern Turkey. Since
1997, several European finance consortia have attempted to fund the
project, only to withdraw support
before anything concrete materialised.
The European banks and companies pulled out in large part due to
campaigns against the dam in their respective home countries. In 2009,
the German, Austrian and Swiss governments revoked the export credit
guarantees to the final consortium because the Turkish government
failed to meet the ecological, social, and cultural heritage standards
set by the World Bank.
For a while, activists in Turkey and throughout Europe believed they
had won the fight and that construction of the dam would stop. To
their surprise, construction is continuing to this day.
It was later revealed that the Turkish government had secured funding
from two of the country's largest private banks, Akbank and Garanti,
making the project still viable.
The Turkish government's reasons for pressing ahead with the
controversial project are not what one might expect. Projections place
the amount of hydroelectric power the dam will produce at less than 2%
of Turkey's total energy needs - not enough, opponents argue, to
justify the destruction of an entire ecosystem, invaluable cultural
heritage, and the livelihoods of several thousand people.
The Turkish government has openly proclaimed that the main function of
the dam system is to bolster the country's counter-insurgency strategy
against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which operates from the
mountainous Iraqi-Turkish border. Together, the strategically placed
dams created by GAP will form a massive wall of water close to
Turkey's border with Iraq.
Having flown through the Hasankeyf for millenia, the Tigris has
created a vast canyon topography that is not only visually spectacular
but also provides necessary cover for militants. In addition to
raising the water level of the Tigris, flooding from Ilisu Dam will
spill over into nearby canyons that are currently dry.
With canyons filled and massive lakes created where rivers once
flowed, the terrain will become impassable by foot.
Furthermore, the effects of the dam will extend beyond Hasankeyf, well
across national borders. By virtue of being upstream from Iraq and
Syria on both the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, Turkey effectively
controls the flow of water southward.
With the Euphrates already heavily dammed, the Syrian and Iraqi
governments have raised serious concerns about dam projects on the
Tigris. Twice the region has been on the verge of water wars, once in
1975 and again in 1990. Restricting water flow from the Tigris could
prove to be a tipping point in the incendiary region.
Activists believe that, ultimately, the dam will turn water into a
political tool both inside and outside Turkey's borders.
Down the road, Mehmet Ali, a shopkeeper selling tourist souvenirs,
lamented the imminent loss of his home. "They are condemning a place
like this, with no equal in the world, for a dam that will only
operate for 50 years."
An invaluable site
Today there is little recourse left to stop construction. The European
Court of Human Rights (ECHR) could theoretically put a hold on the
project. A case was brought before the court in 2006 but was rejected
on the grounds that the ECHR protects human rights, not cultural
heritage, ignoring the 35,000 people who will be forced to give up
their way of life if the dam is completed.
A new case is being submitted to the ECHR after a Turkish regional
court rejected it this week. Locals hope that it will work, but are
not deceiving themselves. They have learned from experience how
determined the state is to continue with the project.
Omer Guzel, a shop owner and local activist in Hasankeyf, told IPS
that at one point the villagers held protests every week. "It didn't
accomplish anything," he said. "In the end the dam is still being
built right now."
The government has kept the construction site, 16 kilometres
downstream from Hasankeyf, under heavy security. However, sources with
access to the site, who spoke to IPS on the condition of anonymity,
claim that the dam is already half completed.
There is still a chance that the United Nations Education, Scientific
and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) might list the area as a World
Heritage site, effectively guaranteeing its protection.
To qualify for World Heritage status, a site must meet one of 10
criteria for outstanding universal value in an area of cultural or
natural significance. Hasankeyf, as the only site in the world that
meets nine of the 10 criteria, is an exceptional candidate for
Unfortunately, that fact alone is not enough to be listed. "In order
to be included as a World Heritage site, the country in which the site
is located must submit an application to UNESCO. The Turkish
government has not done this," Engin said.
A UNESCO delegation previously visited Hasankeyf and, upon taking
stock of the area, urged the Turkish government to apply. The
implication was that if Turkey applied, Hasankeyf would be accepted.
"But the government does not want to protect this area, so why would
they apply? The dam project is too important to the state," Engin said.
(Inter Press Service)
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