In a country accustomed to tumult, a single dam is causing ripples of turbulence. Over 60 years in the making, Turkey’s Ilisu Dam’s construction began when President Kemal Ataturk’s administration pushed the state to expand domestic hydroelectric power generation in an attempt to modernize Turkish infrastructure. But now, locals are less concerned with decades-old modernization attempts and more so with the mass flooding the dam’s construction will bring, which will displace nearly 78,000 civilians in the Kurdish-majority region. This will add further fuel to the fire of regional territorial disputes. Worse, should the dam be completed, the remains of the nearly 12,000-year-old city of Hasankeyf in southeastern Turkeywill be obliterated. Nonetheless, the Turkish government aims to complete the dam while dispelling so-dubbed “myths” perpetuated by archaeologists, scientists, and politicians about the dam’s significant drawbacks. Culturally, logistically, and geopolitically, the dam is set to be a detriment to Turkey and its neighbors.
Despite its groundbreaking in 1950, the Ilisu Dam is a blip on the historical radar compared to Hasankeyf. The city, in its classical heyday, was a crossroads of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires, and contains remnants of some of the first Neolithic human communities as well as singular evidence of 12th century Islamic town planning. But despite its millennia-long history, Hasankeyf would be submerged by the dam, which is expected to be functional for only 50 to 60 years – only 0.4 to 0.5 percent of Hasankeyf’s total history. The Turkish government has provided funds for the theoretical relocation of 12 of Hasankeyf’s 300 monuments, but Ercan Ayboga, a hydrologist at Bauhaus University in Germany, says that the plans for the physical relocation of these monuments are “totally impractical and technically impossible.” The masonry prevents the structures from being taken apart and reassembled easily, and the porous limestone geology of the site makes it vulnerable to collapse under hydrologic pressure. Archaeologists such as Professor Zeynep Ahunbay at Istanbul Technical University state that not only will the transfer be impossible, but that excavators have not yet fully excavated under the “rubble and earth” of the ruins. Only 20 percent of archaeological sites in Hasankeyf have been unearthed, and 85 percent of those yet to be explored would be flooded.
Metchild Rossler, director of the UNESCO Division for Heritage and World Heritage Center, has noted that, tellingly, Turkey has never nominated the site for the World Heritage List, which would have linked the Turkish government to advisory support and guidance for the city’s archaeological preservation. When Hasankeyf’s local government submitted a request and proposal to UNESCO by way of the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) to the Turkish National Committee Vice President, Turkey denied ever having received the request. Ironically, in 1981, the site was declared a natural conservation area by the Turkish government, and the government’s evident hypocrisy has incited regional protests.
While Turkey has given some thought to important site monuments by allowing for relocation, its economic plan for the region is likely to fail. The dam construction is ecologically unsustainable and will negatively impact regional agricultural opportunities and jobs. Additionally, one of Hasankeyf’s main industries, tourism, has already declined due to recent insecurity brought on by terrorist attacks from the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in the region. Even Sadretten Karahocagil, the administrative head of the Southeastern/Greater Anatolia Project (GAP) – Turkey’s massive regional infrastructure overhaul – admits that the economy has taken a downturn that one infrastructure project alone cannot offset. Nevertheless, Karahocagil explained that the government is not “demoralized” and completing the Ilisu Dam will bring regional “peace and stability.” But to many Turks, activists, and academics, the future seems far less certain. Although Karahocagil suggested that government investments are the key to economic progress, he offers few tangible policy specifics as to the government’s plans for relocation, restoration of archaeological artifacts, and regional job creation. Given these realities, Karahocagil and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambitions appear senseless.
But the fate of Hasankeyf’s residents does not end with economic uncertainties. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs expects 15,000 people would be displaced, which is roughly 53,000 individuals fewer than estimates by the New York Times, the Smithsonian, the Ilisu Dam Campaign, and archaeologists like Professor Olus Arik. On its face, the relocation of tens of thousands of local citizens seems logistically impossible. Further, proposed remedies seem doomed to fail. Just north of the current site, the new government-built housing community of “New Hasankeyf,” intended for the displaced families of the old Hasankeyf, appears likely unaffordable for most of the displaced population. The average cost of a three-bedroom house in New Hasankeyf is around $85,000, while homes in old Hasankeyf are valued at roughly one-eighth of that price. Moreover, a 2013 study conducted by Newcastle University revealed that a majority of these expensive New Hasankeyf homes were plagued by “broken stairs, leaking roofs, and poor-quality windows.” Though octupled rent prices and poor-quality housing are rarely welcome anywhere, Hasankeyf’s existing employment woes combined with an ongoing civil conflict between the PKK guerillas and the Turkish State make the government subsidies seem like a particularly hopeless solution.
Seemingly aware of its impending housing crisis, the Turkish government has resorted to promising environmental miracles to distract their disgruntled citizens. Ilisu is set to generate approximately two percent of the country’s electricity supply as well as carve out an 11-billion-cubic-meter reservoir in the Tigris river. Ahmet Saatci, director of Turkey’s State Water Works, the government agency in charge of the dam’s construction, argues that “Turkey is suffering for energy sources. We currently have to buy our energy from Russia and other countries, so we’re trying to use our renewable energy to its fullest extent.” Hydroelectric energy does make up nearly 25.8 percent of Turkey’s total energy production, according to the Turkish Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources.
But the dam is not entirely sustainable. Umit Sahin, a member of Turkey’s Green Party, stated in 2010 that “the dams…are unsustainable sources of energy that become useless over time due to silt build-up.” In an unobstructed river, “natural sediments are carried downstream and are deposited naturally along the riverbeds and banks, serv[ing] as a kind of fertilizer for the crops irrigated downstream.” But a dam collects silt upstream, and over time, siltation reduces the storage capacity of the dam reservoir and puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the dam’s structure. Moreover, the Middle East has the second-highest annual loss of dam storage capacity due to sedimentation in the world, making the overall efficacy of the dam likely to decline over time if sedimentation is improperly handled or ignored. In most cases, such as the Cubuk or Borcka Dams, Turkey is either financially or logistically ill-equipped to effectively restore dam functionality. As a result, the Turkish people are in the dark about the true environmental effects of the dam and its unsustainable future.
Construction of the Ilisu Dam has always been ill-fated and troubled. Turkey originally struggled for many years to acquire the finances to continue construction. Major foreign creditors including Germany, Austria, and Switzerland all pulled their support from the project in 2014 when “developers were unable to meet environmental and cultural conditions set by the World Bank,” according to Environmental Justice Atlas report on the dam. If the financial scandal wasn’t enough, Turkey’s own judiciary added to the mayhem by mandating that the Turkish State stop construction in 2013 because of a failure to conduct and fulfill environmental impact assessments. In response, Turkey altered its own laws in order to bypass assessments and expedite the construction process.
Yet the environmental concerns around the dam don’t stop at its construction or eventual energy production. Turkey has long controlled the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and has a history of using its authority irresponsibly: When the Ataturk Dam was completed in 1990, it reduced water flow downstream to a mere dribble for one month. Repetition seems likely, as the aggregate effects of all dams constructed via the GAP are expected to dehydrate some 670,000 hectares of arable land in southern Iraq. Marshland inhabitants will be forced to buy potable water and then transport it back to their homes. Iraqi waterways will face pollution and quality degradation. In the end, Iraq could lose up to 47 percent of its annual water income, spurring further unemployment and displacement of locals.
Despite the impending Iraqi losses, Turkey’s foreign policy on water remains rigid. According to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ policy statement on water issues, Turkey contributes “about 89 percent of the annual flow… of the Euphrates. The remaining 11 percent comes from Syria,” whereas Iraq makes no contribution to the water flow. Additionally, Turkey controls 52 percent of total flow of the Tigris, while Iraq contributes the other 48 percent. Turkey claims that that 48 percent is sufficient for the Iraqi lands in question, and that water should be a “catalyst for cooperation rather than a source of conflict.” The Ministry has clearly not heard its neighbors’ opinions on the matter. By trying to distinguish between “equitable” water use and “equal distribution of water,” Turkey is fundamentally shifting the narrative from providing water for the entire region to providing hydropower for itself. In fact, this distinction is listed twice on the Ministry’s policy statement. The Turkish government expects water shortages in Syria and Iraq, but holds strong to its view of complete Turkish sovereignty over the Tigris and Euphrates headwaters. For this reason, the Turkish government failed to negotiate a water-sharing treaty with Iraq and Syria after both countries raised concerns at the prospect of the completion of the Ilisu Dam completed as a direct violation of international law. Some expect armed conflict to ensue as droughts are exacerbated by river partitioning all while ISIL, of all organizations, works to defend the fundamental human right to water.
In ISIL-controlled border regions and river cities including ISIL’s capital, Raqqa, dam construction and water shortages are used as propaganda against the “westernized” state of Turkey. ISIL’s water politics are far beyond its quarrels with Turkey alone. In 2013, ISIL captured the Tabqa Dam in Syria and attempted to increase electricity supply in rebel-held areas formerly denied electricity under the Assad Regime. Instead, ISIL fighters opened the dam’s gates and dried out Lake Assad, a large irrigation source for the surrounding regions. And in August 2014, ISIL seized control of the Mosul Dam, kicking off a period of heavy looting, property damage, and personnel shortages. While ISIL seems hypocritical in attacking the Turkish dam while profiting off its own destruction of dams, ISIL is legally founded in protests against Ilisu. Quite frighteningly, this legitimacy puts Turkey in an antagonistic position on the world stage and gives credence to ISIL.
The Ilisu Dam may also have a negative impact on the relationship between Turkey and the very ethnic group it threatens to further displace: the Kurds. Kurdish militants see the Dam’s completion as a premise for protest and unrest in Hasankeyf and neighboring areas, as well as a political opportunity of their own. The possibility of a military intervention from groups like the PKK could only worsen the strained negotiation processes between the Turkish state and Kurdish independence groups. Making matters worse, the PKK recently received support from some of the roughly 1,128 academics from 89 different universities who signed a declaration entitled “We won’t be a part of this crime,” referring to Erdogan’s violent condemnation of the PKK and their attempt to establish a Kurdish state.
Responding to the PKK’s support, President Erdogan stated, “I know what these so-called academics do to avert these affairs. Greenpeace activists here and there always come together to try to block it…their name is ‘Greenpeace.’ Ours is ‘green’ in the strict sense. These dams bring different beauty to the environment.” But these environmentally driven words conceal the state’s political ambitions for the dam, long excluded from the government’s public statements. Originally, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the primary purposes of the Ilisu Dam were to reduce carbon emissions in domestic energy production and to revitalize Southeastern Anatolia’s struggling economy. Now equivocally, the Turkish government openly proclaims that the dam primarily serves as a counter-insurgency tactic against the PKK, mainly because of the PKK’s infiltration and mobilization of regions along the Iraqi-Turkish border.
The economic premise of the dam is moot, the cultural and geopolitical opportunity costs of finishing the dam are tremendous, and the actors who stand to serious benefit at this point could be ISIL with its added propaganda against Turkey. A 12,000-year-old city would be destroyed for a dam expected to last 50 years. While the government’s plans may have originally been well-intentioned, further pursuit of the endeavor would do more harm than good. Given the vastness of the dam project, a more viable option for Turkey would be to reallocate its efforts to a politically cooler region, lest it commence a fiery territorial battle of its own.