Construction of Disputed Turkish Dam Continues
The 15th century tomb of Zeynel Bey, a prince of the Ak Koyunlu
dynasty. The Ilisu reservoir will flood more than 30,000 hectares of
land, or 74,000 acres, submerging parts of the historical town of
By SUSANNE Gï¿½STEN
Published: February 27, 2013
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ï¿½These are live,ï¿½ he said, as he toggled between images of men and
machines swarming over a dozen different building sites of the Ilisu
The feed goes to the prime ministerï¿½s office in Ankara, Mr. Dundar,
general manager of the project, said last week. ï¿½The prime minister
can watch every point of construction 24 hours a day, minute by
minute, so he is informed of our progress at all times. He has set the
target for completion for 2014, and we mean to make that date.ï¿½
About 1,450 workers are laboring around the clock to complete the
Ilisu Dam, one of the most controversial public works projects in
recent history, by the middle of next year. That would be exactly five
years after European lenders pulled out of the ï¿½1.1 billion, or $1.5
billion, project in July 2009, citing concerns about environmental
impact, resettlement policies and the destruction of cultural
treasures. Undeterred, Ankara quickly raised domestic financing and
resumed work in 2010.
ï¿½We have now completed 53 percent of the project, and we will complete
the rest on time,ï¿½ said Mr. Dundar, who is also regional director of
the state hydraulic works. ï¿½We have no funding problems whatsoever, we
work day and night, and all relevant agencies are in constant
On the construction site, about 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, from the
Syrian border and 70 kilometers from Iraq, the roar of machinery
drowned out the rushing waters of the Tigris, which has been diverted
from its natural bed to flow through three diversion tunnels and
emerge roiling and foaming into a new concrete basin.
The surrounding mountain ridges bristled with military sentry posts
and surveillance equipment guarding the construction site against the
Kurdish rebels roaming the area.
Trucks and earth movers hauled loads of limestone, basalt and clay
onto the rising body of the dam, which is to attain a height of 141
meters, or 460 feet, when complete. The crest of the dam will be 2.3
kilometers long, with a volume of 24 million cubic meters of earth and
One-third of that is done, Mr. Dundar said, with the rest scheduled to
be finished within the year. ï¿½Meanwhile, construction of the spillway
and the power plant are going ahead according to plan,ï¿½ he added.
If the project stays on track, the Ilisu Dam will begin to impound
water next year. Filling the reservoir could take anywhere from 5 to
11 months, Mr. Dundar said, depending on the season in which it is
begun. ï¿½We think the reservoir will be filled in 2015,ï¿½ he added.
The project appeared to hit a snag last month when Turkeyï¿½s highest
administrative court ruled that a decree issued by Prime Minister
Recep Tayyip Erdogan last year to accelerate work on the dam was in
part null and void.
The court declared invalid that part of the decree that declared all
infrastructure projects connected to the dam to be exempt from
environmental impact assessment requirements on the grounds that plans
for the dam were drawn up before the relevant law came into effect in
1993. Opponents of the project were jubilant and staged a rally in
Ankara, calling for the Ilisu construction site to be shut down.
Emre Baturay Altinok, the lawyer who lodged the complaint on behalf of
environmentalists, said by telephone from Ankara this month: ï¿½It is
unlawful to continue work on the project without environmental impact
assessments. The construction site must be closed and sealed.ï¿½
Mr. Dundar disagreed with that interpretation of the ruling, which he
said would not impede work on the dam.
ï¿½The ruling does not even remotely have anything to do with stopping
the project,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½It is merely about applying the environmental
impact assessment regulations, which we are now doing anyway.ï¿½
The state hydraulic works authority has lodged an objection to the
ruling, asking for clarification of certain terms, he said. ï¿½But in
any case,ï¿½ he added, ï¿½the final judgment will definitely not stop the
Mr. Altinok, the lawyer, said he was not surprised that construction
was continuing six weeks after the court ruling. ï¿½That is the way of
justice in Turkey,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½We are accustomed to court rulings
against large projects not being implemented.ï¿½
The Ilisu project has long inflamed passions in Turkey and beyond.
Concerns about its environmental, cultural and social impact forced
companies and financial backers from Germany, Austria and Switzerland
to pull out of the project under pressure from public campaigns in 2009.
With a capacity of 11 billion cubic meters of water, the Ilisu
reservoir will flood more than 30,000 hectares of land, or 74,000
acres, submerging parts of the historical town of Hasankeyf upstream,
as well as uncharted archaeological sites along the Tigris. The waters
will displace 199 settlements, affecting 55,000 people, according to a
report drawn up in 2008 by international experts acting on behalf of
European export-credit agencies.
Scientists are at work in Hasankeyf to prepare for the removal of
cultural monuments to a safe location across the Tigris and to fortify
higher parts of the ancient town that will not be submerged, Mr.
A new town on a mountainside across the river from Hasankeyf is
nearing completion and should be ready for resettlement of the townï¿½s
population before the water begins to rise.
Resettlement has been completed in the village of Ilisu near the dam
site, where villagers were moved to a new settlement at the end of 2010.
Villagers interviewed in Ilisu this month were unenthusiastic about
their new homes, despite the running water in modern kitchens and
bathrooms and communal amenities such as a playground and a meeting
ï¿½It was better in our old village,ï¿½ a woman who gave her name as
Zekine said. ï¿½Our fields and orchards were there. They are all gone
Many villagers complained about the loss of their farmland. ï¿½Most
people here work on the dam construction site now, but once that wraps
up, there will be no place to work,ï¿½ said Mehmet, a young man who did
not give his family name. ï¿½I preferred our old village, because we had
our orchards and our vines and could always make a living if we worked
ï¿½We were farmers, now we are workers,ï¿½ said Osman Demir, from the
neighboring village of Karabayir, whose agricultural land was
nationalized to build the new village of Ilisu.
Like most settlements affected by the dam, his village has not applied
for resettlement by the state.
Besides Ilisu and Hasankeyf, only one other village has signed up for
resettlement, Mr. Dundar confirmed. ï¿½It is up to the free will and
democratic wishes of the villagers,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½We want to build modern
settlements for them. But we can only do it for those who want it.ï¿½
This is what opponents of the dam have feared all along, said Arif
Arslan, president of the Friends of Hasankeyf Association in Batman,
who has been monitoring the Ilisu project for 20 years.
ï¿½It will be just like when the Batman dam was built and 20,000
villagers were displacedï¿½ in the 1990s, Mr. Arslan said in a recent
interview. ï¿½Villagers will move to the city with their cash
compensations, the money will run out, and they will end up leading
miserable lives in the slums.ï¿½
Mr. Arslan is skeptical that the Ilisu project will contribute to the
welfare and development of the region, among the poorest in Turkey.
ï¿½We have seen 18 dams built in this region already,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½Do you
see a rise in the standard of living anywhere around here?ï¿½
In Ilisu, Mr. Dundar said that ï¿½every project has unwanted side
effects.ï¿½ Yet the Ilisu Dam is essential to the development of the
country and the welfare of its people, he argued. ï¿½Our country needs
energy, and we are trying to meet that need,ï¿½ he said.
Ilisuï¿½s 1,200-megawatt hydroelectric power plant is designed to
produce nearly 4 billion kilowatt hours of energy per year, worth an
annual $400 million, according to project managers.
ï¿½Our countryï¿½s weakest spot is its dependency on energy imports,ï¿½
Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek said at the opening of Ilisuï¿½s
diversion tunnels last year. To partly overcome that dependency, he
added, ï¿½This jumbo project is of the utmost strategic and economic
importance to our country.ï¿½
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