Adapted from the broadcast audio segment; use the audio player to listen to the story in its entirety.
It is the early afternoon in Hasankeyf. In a coffeehouse, men are sitting around tables, chatting, sipping tea and playing cards. A balcony overlooks the Tigris River where the remains of a medieval bridge, one of the largest of its era, still withstand the currents of the river.
But maybe not for much longer. Ömer Güzel, a Hasankeyf resident, looks troubled.
“Construction on the dam continues. Tunnels have been dug and are about to be finished. After that, they will change the course of the river. Following that, they’ll construct the dam.”
His town, one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements on earth, faces the danger of being submerged by the waters of the contested Ilısu Dam as early as 2014.
Much would be lost.
The small town of Hasankeyf dates back to the Bronze Age and has housed all the civilizations of Anatolia: Romans, Byzantines, Assyrians, Arabs, Mongols, Ottomans.
Hasankeyf is a treasure trove for archeologists. More than 300 historical sites lie in and around the town, many of them still unexplored. Güzel does not think that the dam is worth losing them all.
“Maybe if dams would last forever, it would be ok. But a dam has a shelf life of fifty to fifty-five years. Then the water will recede. The reservoir will turn into a swamp. There will be illnesses… and those historical sites will not be the same anymore when they are dug out.”
The highly contested Ilısu dam is part of the Southeast Anatolian Project – also known as GAP, by its Turkish acronym – that, once completed, will comprise 22 dams and 19 power plants on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
Water research specialist at the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, Dr. Tuğba Evrim Maden, underlines the importance of GAP for Turkey, especially in the agriculture sector.
“The project aims to create new jobs, increase investment and expand agricultural production, making [the Southeast] a larger export region.”
Turkey also hopes to produce its own energy in the future, much of which the country currently imports. Proponents of the GAP project argue that it will not only develop the economically and politically troubled southeastern region, but also lead to energy security in Turkey.
Critics of the project say that the consequences will be dire, not only for Turkey, but also for neighboring countries Iraq and Syria, both of which rely heavily on the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates for agriculture and drinking water. Both countries contest Turkey’s extensive use of the rivers.
Gün Kut, professor for international relations at the Bosporus University in Istanbul, explains how these problems started.
“When this project – the Southeast Anatolian Project – started to be implemented, it caused immediate panic to the downstream neighbors of Turkey, namely Syria and Iraq, who rightly thought that Turkey’s consumptive use of the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates would result in a diminution of their share of the water from these rivers.”
Nine out of the twenty-two dams have so far been completed. Construction on the contested Ilısu Dam is underway despite widespread national and international protest. According to Kut, a solution to this trans-boundary water dispute has already been put down on paper.
“The blueprint for that solution is in the 1997 Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of International Water Courses by the UN.”
However, Turkey refuses to sign the UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigable Uses of International Watercourses, which would give Syria and Iraq the right to take Turkey to court over the planned Southeastern Anatolia Project and its 22 dams.
While water rights have not yet created problems among the states in the region, local and international NGOs and activists point out the dire consequences for all involved parties on a social and environmental scale.
Hydroelectric dams like Ilısu will not divert water from downstream use, but water quality will decrease substantially due to pesticide and fertilizers used in agriculture that will end up in the reservoir, and finally, in downstream countries.
Ercan Ayboga, water engineer and spokesperson for The Initiative to Save Hasankeyf, adds that in case of a draught, Iraq would not be able to satisfy its water needs.
“Grave problems can arise when the river is being dammed. If there is a drought during the construction, the consequences for Iraq could be severe. If Turkey insists on keeping the same net amount for itself, then there will be no more water for Iraq.”
While several court cases that aim to stop the project are ongoing, construction works in the Ilısu Dam continue. Güzel fears that if it is finished, the bill will have to be shouldered by generations to come, on both sides of the border.
“We might be able to live with this for the next 30 to 40 years. But for the generations after us, they will have to bear the consequences of this dam.”
– Reported by Constanze Letsch for America Abroad
Andrew Finkel, a reporter from Turkey for over twenty years and author of “Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know” discusses Turkey, its dams, and the way it uses water.
Ray Suarez (RS): You’ve written that water is the one resource advantage Turkey has over its neighbors. What do you mean by that?
Andrew Finkel (AF): Turkey is a big industrial economy and it’s a big service economy, but it’s not an economy like the Middle East states which survive on one commodity. One [resource] that it possesses is water. It has enough water for irrigation and it believes it has enough water for hydroelectricity as well.
RS: There’s a lot of dam construction in the offing. Turkey has big plans for the future of its water. Tell us more about that.
AF: The State Hydraulic Board – the body that builds dams in Turkey – [has produced] several presidents of the republic from this institution. It’s [an] institution that commands a lot of respect and political clout. They pretty much want to build a dam wherever they see running water. I mean, if you have your bathtub running, then you better be careful, because they might come in and build a dam there! There are some major waterways in Turkey – the Tigris and the Euphrates – that run through eastern Turkey and there are many other rivers, [though] not so large nor important, on which the state wants to build hydroelectric dams.
RS: Right now, in the United States, a lot of 20th century dams are being torn down because of their environmental impact. Is there an environmental movement in Turkey? Have the dams – and the planned dams – do they carry the potential to create a lot of environmental problems in Turkey?
AF: They do have a lot of potential for environmental problems and there are a lot of very large dams in the southeast Turkey. Part of the environmental problem is that you have to displace a lot of people. Secondly, you change the ecosystem of the countryside. Where the Ataturk dam was built 20 years ago, the whole climate of the region changed. You have to re-train the farmers to use wet agriculture instead of dry agriculture. There’s a great loss you have to calculate before you build a dam in Turkey. Many people believe – and I happen to be one of them – that they are not making that calculation.
RS: Is there an ethnic difference, from most Turks, that creates some political tensions when you decide that whole towns – whole regions – are going to be affected by this kind of construction for the good of the nation?
AF: That is a serious issue. Most of the hydroelectric resources – the most serious ones – are in the southeast of the country. The southeast of the country is a Kurdish region. You have to deal with the problem – or the accusation – that you are building dams in the Kurdish southeast in order to take the energy and bring it to the west of the country, which is more industrially developed.
RS: Eastern Turkey is part of a region that has to worry about its water future. When you mention the Tigris and the Euphrates, these are rivers that don’t flow through one country alone. Are there things the Turks are doing that will affect downstream neighbors?
AF: This has been the great accusation. By controlling the headwaters – the sources of these major rivers – Turkey would be in a position to exert geopolitical pressure on its downstream neighbors, notably Syria and Iraq. There was a demonstration just the other day about the Ilısu dam by Marsh Arabs in the south of Iraq, who’ve come all the way to the dam in Turkey to protest a waterway which they say will affect their lives. It’s not simply people in Turkey who are affected. It’s people who are downstream who are affected.
In fact, some of these worries are genuine but a lot of these worries are exaggerated. With hydroelectricity, you actually have to let the water through in order to generate the power. The amount of water which goes downstream on the Euphrates may be lessened. In the case of the Tigris, you actually need the water to pass through in order to generate the electricity. The huge reservoirs which you create actually regulate the flow of water so instead of having great seasonal differentiations between a trickle in summer and a flood in the spring, you actually get a less dangerous and a more regulated flow of water.
In many ways, the concerns of the downstream neighbors have been exaggerated. Many used to speak of the dangers of conflict. There was an expression I remember using in the early 1990s – “hydropolitics” – which meant that Turkey’s control over Syria was very much based on control over the great waterways. Countries like Iraq and Syria have demonstrated that they have political problems and concerns quite independently of water. This hasn’t been the issue that commentators once thought it would be.
RS: But these rivers are important to Turkey’s neighbors and Turkey gets the say-so about when and how much water heads into those countries.
AF: Ultimately yes, that is the case. I think Turkey has given guarantees that it will not diminish the flow of water downstream. They’re not going to use every last drop, turn the spigot off, and allow these countries to become deserts.