New Internationalist

Turkey’s unstoppable dam

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After failing to court Chinese investors, Turkey is set to self-finance a controversial billion-dollar dam project, reports Crystal Luxmore.

The Ilisu dam – which activists say will displace at least 11,000 villagers, damage the environment and flood a 10,000-year-old village – is back on Turkey’s books.

Near the end of December, Veysel Eroglu, Minister for Environment and Forestry, announced negotiations with three Turkish banks to finance the deal, saying he expected a contract to be signed by February. The move quashes speculation that Chinese funders could back the project.

Letters, rock concerts, protests at European embassies in Ankara, and at government agencies abroad, are mainstays of an unrelenting campaign against the Ilisu dam by activist groups and European NGOs

The homegrown solution is a last ditch attempt to keep the US$1.7 billion Ilisu dam project alive after two European consortiums backed out of the giant power project, which Turkey has been trying to move ahead since it was green-lighted in 1982. Both consortiums spent years and hundreds of thousands of dollars on the dam, which is set to flood hundreds of tiny villages along a stretch of the Tigris River that flows through the Kurdish-dominated southeast. But relentless pressure from local Turks and European activists forced funders to walk away.

Letters, rock concerts, protests at European embassies in Ankara, and at government agencies abroad, are mainstays of an unrelenting campaign against the Ilisu dam by activist groups and European non-governmental organizations (NGOs), who say the human rights, environmental and heritage violations the project brings are too great to justify the 3.833 billion kWh of power that the second-largest dam in the country would generate annually. Last July, the German, Swiss and Austrian creditors behind the dam were forced to agree. They backed out of the project, saying Turkey failed to meet 80 per cent of the roughly 150 contract obligations needed to bring the project up to World Bank standards.

Playing games

‘We had the impression that the Turkish Government was playing a game with us a little bit,’ said Erich Stather, state secretary of Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Co-operation. He said Turkish officials were vague about meeting contract obligations and would not allow his ministry to visit villages slated for flooding without a military escort.

In 2001, local opposition groups and non-governmental organizations in Europe helped force a British-backed consortium, led by Balfour Beatty, to renege on the deal.

Over the last two years, construction in Ilisu village has been stop-and-go as the financial consortium ordered freezes because contract obligations weren’t being met

But European construction giants remain in the project. Austrian-based Andritz will build the turbines, and German company, Zueblin will build the massive tunnel. Activists could turn the heat up on these companies next – without their know-how, Turkey can’t build the dam.

Over the last two years, construction in Ilisu village has been stop-and-go as the financial consortium ordered freezes because contract obligations weren’t being met. For the villagers, it’s meant living with an unknown future, and with Big Brother.

Photo by: Nick Irvine-Fortescue under a CC Licence
The Oymapinar Dam, currently the fifth largest in Turkey, would be dwarfed by the Ilisu Dam, should the project be completed. Photo by: Nick Irvine-Fortescue under a CC Licence

‘It’s very stressful because they’re in living in a security zone,’ says Heike Drillisch from CounterCurrent, a German NGO. ‘There’s a checkpoint at the closest town to Ilisu, about 20 kilometres away, to control cars going into Ilisu.’ Fifteen security posts, watched over by soldiers with machine guns, dot the surrounding hills.

Ilisu villagers are the first people slated for relocation. The idea is to move villagers to new town sites built nearby. Activists say the new homes will be more expensive than the payouts the villagers receive and will force many into nearby cities like Batman and Diyarbakir – places already overflowing with poor Kurds forced out of their villages during the crackdown on the Kurdish independence movement in the 1990s.

In limbo

Ilisu residents are in limbo, says Heike. ‘Their land has been expropriated, but they have not been relocated yet. The new village that’s being built is not finished and it’s unclear if construction work is actually happening.’

About 100 kilometres upstream from Ilisu sits the protester’s prize gem, and the consortium’s biggest nightmare – Hasankeyf. The 10,000-year-old village rises up at a bend in the wide, shallow waters of the Tigris, its golden, limestone cliffs dotted with thousands of man-made caves. Home to 300 medieval monuments, experts say it could be one of the oldest continuous settlements in the world.

About 100 kilometres upstream from Ilisu sits the protester’s prize gem, and the consortium’s biggest nightmare – Hasankeyf. Home to 300 medieval monuments, experts say it could be one of the oldest continuous settlements in the world

Erkut Erturk, campaign coordinator for Doga Dernegi, says the Government plans to move just nine of the monuments, including a crumbling bridge, a minaret and some ancient doors, and put them in a new park for tourists. ‘Forget about removal – they need protection immediately,’ he says.

But in a country so rich in archeology that some homeowners use ancient, underground caves as cold cellars, the drive for rapid industrialization behind power projects usually trumps history. Currently 148 dams are under construction and plans for 1,400 more are on the books. They will triple the nation’s hydroelectric capacity.

In the past, Turkey has steamrolled over opposition to its major dam projects. But the forcible relocation of Kurdish citizens is a sensitive issue abroad and Hasankeyf has so far proven a worthy opponent.

Two summers ago, I met Halil Güzel. He was rocking the youngest of his 11 children in a hammock strung up underneath one of Hasankeyf’s handful of riverside cafes. His pleated khakis were rolled up, ready to wade into the rocky riverbed should a customer request a tea on the wooden platforms hanging over the Tigris. Like many of the villagers along the river, he works construction jobs in Istanbul or Ankara in the winter and spends summers here. Despite the threat of being labelled a terrorist by the Government, Güzel says he’ll continue to speak out against the dam. He has a responsibility to protect 10,000 years of history. ‘Think of the next generation,’ he says. ‘If Hasankeyf goes under water they’ll say, “What did our fathers and brothers do?”’

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