Turkey's Ilisu Dam Threatens Ancient Town

Hasankeyf village. (Photo: WitR, Shutterstock)

Hasankeyf, one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited settlements, has outlived the comings and goings of multiple civilizations in southeastern Turkey. The Ilisu Dam, a government project designed to revitalize the region's economy, threatens to flood the town, drowning its 10,000 year-old historical legacy in the hope of bringing future prosperity to a changing modern nation.

Located along the Tigris River, Hasankeyf is a town rich with ancient history. Early days saw Romans, the Byzantine Empire, the Artukid dynasty and the Kurdish Ayyubids, followed later by the Mongols and the Ottoman Empire. With 300 medieval monuments and thousands of manmade caves carved within surrounding cliffs, Hasankeyf is one of the world's most significant cultural sites. Noteworthy structures include the remnants of a bridge built in 1116, 12th-century Artukid Palace ruins, El Rizk Mosque built in 1409 by an Ayyubid sultan and the cylindrical tomb of Zeynel Bey built in the 15th century.

Completion of Ilisu Dam will put many of these structures under the waters of the dam's reservoir and destroy the possibility for further archeological excavations. Turkey's government has argued that this is a sacrifice necessary to provide power, irrigation and economic development to the underdeveloped and largely impoverished southeast.

A 58-year project

The Ilisu Dam has spurred international controversy since its inception with the Southeastern Anatolia Project, known in Turkey as GAP.

The hydroelectric dam will impound the waters of the Tigris, harnessing the water for energy and irrigation purposes through a reservoir roughly the size of 58 and a half American football fields. With a 1,200 megawatt hydroelectric power plant the dam will supply an annual power production of 3,833 gigawatts an hour—approximately 2 percent of the country's total usage.

Officials say power generated by Ilisu Dam will serve the southeastern region where electricity is in short supply. However, critics fear most energy will be directed to western Turkey, where a continually expanding Istanbul currently monopolizes the county's electric needs.

First proposed by the State Water Works Department in 1954 the Ilisu Dam was formally accepted as a part of GAP in 1982. Preliminary work didn't begin, however, until 1997, and even then construction was not started until 2006.

Debate and financial obstacles have stalled the $1.5 billion project, which has suffered two serious funding losses. The most significant loss came in 2009 when German, Swiss and Austrian banks withdrew $610 million in funding after Turkey failed to comply with World Bank standards on the environment, preservation of cultural heritage and relocation.

Turkey's government remained undeterred.

"Let me tell you this," said Turkish Environment Minister Veysel Eroglu in a public statement at the time. "These power plants will be built. No one can stop it. This is the decision of the state and the government."

In 2010 Turkish banks Garanti and AkBank made up the project's funding deficit and construction began again as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for the dams date of completion to be pushed forward two years, to 2014.


Opposition has grown from local communities affected by the dams to international environmental organizations and a portion of the mainstream Turkish public. The issue has been brought to light in areas of western Turkey by well-known writers like Orhan Pamuk and Yasar Kemal, filmmaker Fatih Akin, Turkish singers Orhan Gencebay and Sezen Aksu, and popstar Tarkan.

The backlash of public opinion has put pressure on GAP and brought aspects of the Ilisu Dam project under scrutiny. After a decade of floundering within Turkey's legal system a lawsuit filed in 2001 by Istanbul lawyer Murat Cano resulted in a government-appointed team of scientists sent to asses the cultural value of Hasankeyf and impacts of the dam. Their expert report, released in early December, stated, "The Ilisu Dam is expected to provide significant contributions to the social, economic and cultural development of the region and its vicinity." Indeed, Turkey's government has said the Ilisu Dam will contribute $300 million a year to the nation's economy. In comparing the environmental damage of hydroelectric dams to nuclear and thermal power plants, the report concluded a hydroelectric dam would have less of a negative impact on its surrounding environment.

Cano objected to the report, claiming the appointed scientists, who have previously held positions in government councils or departments, possessed a clear bias. A report released in May 2010 by the London-based Kurdish Human Rights Project [KHRP] reported conclusions conflicting with those of the court experts.

KHRP's report claimed, "Studies of the future sites and experience from currently operating dams indicate, however, that the [Ilisu Dam] will be unable to achieve [its] economic goals. Furthermore, Kurdish villagers and farmers will be unable to benefit from any economic growth because they will be displaced from their homes to the shanty towns of nearby cities such as Diyarbakir and Hakkari, which already suffer from poor infrastructure, over-population, unemployment and poverty."

A major concern for critics is the involuntary relocation of residents who have deep-seated ancestral roots to the proposed flood lands. With little input in how new settlements are planned, designed and constructed, locals are left with little control over what has become an uncertain future.

Human rights organizations have criticized the removal and relocation of families in Hasankeyf as possessing a lack of cultural sensitivity and inadequate compensation for residents.

A May 2011 report assessing Turkey's compliance with U.N. Social Convenant obligations by the U.N. Committee for Economic Social and Cultural Rights criticized potential economic, social and cultural impacts of the Ilisu Dam. It stated deep concerns over what the committee defined as "forced evictions, area resettlements, displacement, and compensation of people affected as well as the environmental and cultural impacts of the construction."

Examining the recent resettlement process of villagers from Ilisu provides little evidence that Hasankeyf residents will find their lives improved after relocation.

"Residents say the way Yeni [New] Ilisu was designed makes it impossible for them to resume the lives they were forced to leave behind," said a Hurriyet Daily News article published Dec. 13, 2010.

The Turkish Housing Development Administration [TOKI] failed to adequately take the needs and lifestyles of Ilisu residents into consideration when constructing the new town. Previously, Ilisu villagers earned their living from the land, working as herders, fishers or farmers. But planting is forbidden within Yeni Ilisu, leaving villagers unable to return to their agricultural livelihoods or even plant home gardens.

"Villagers have in most cases been poorly compensated for their losses," the Hurriyet Daily News reported. "Most villagers moved into their Yeni Ilisu houses burdened by debt; they received between 20,000 liras and 35,000 liras for their old homes but have to pay 75,000 liras for the new ones."

The KHRP's 2010 report also raised concerns over the relocation of those affected by GAP dams. Article 11 of the report stated, "The compensation packages proposed by the Turkish government for resettlement in its Resettlement Action Plan are wholly inadequate. … In general, government efforts to improve housing conditions have been inadequate. In some cases, housing problems have even been dramatically exacerbated by 'urban renewal' programs which pay little heed to deprived families who are displaced in the process."

TOKI began construction of the new Hasankeyf district, which will contain four neighborhoods, malls and sport complexes, in late 2011. Phase one of the new settlement is set to be complete in August.

Hasankeyf District Governor Cevat Uyanik said that an effort would be made to meet with residents to review details of the new settlement. "Everything will be built according to their requests. With this project we will make a tailor made settlement," he said.

The government has also said it will relocate 12 of Hasankeyf's significant cultural and historical monuments to higher ground to form a "Cultural Inheritance Park and Museum." Yet critics remain skeptical of the practicality of relocating ancient structures without destroying them, or at best, damaging them. Opponents further argue that much of Hasankeyf and its surrounding land has yet to be excavated by archeologists, meaning many significant cultural and historical finds could be lost under the dam's waters.

Maggie Ronayne, an Irish archaeologist and lecturer at the National University of Ireland, Galeway, has studied the Hasankeyf area since 1999. In her work she estimated that archaeologists have surveyed just 20 percent of the land.

For Hasankeyf residents the issue goes beyond physical buildings. "If the dam is constructed we will lose everything," said Hasankeyf resident Semra Argun in a Hurriyet Daily News article from March 23, 2011. "Our homes, this history and even the graves of those we have lost will go under the water."

In a push to save Hasankeyf, opponents to the dam have proposed developing the area for tourists, but many opportunities to increase tourism have been cut short by the government. Despite a rich cultural and historical background the town fails to receive much publicity as a tourist destination. Turkish laws restrict building and construction in Hasankeyf, as it was declared a natural conservation area in 1981, limiting locals' ability to improve the town's infrastructure and attract tourists.

Emin Bulut of the Tourism and Promotion Association claimed Hasankeyf could generate more income through tourism than the dam if money was properly invested in developing tourist opportunities. Bulut claimed Hasankeyf didn't receive the same treatment as western cities in Turkey for political reasons.

"The government looks at this region differently than Cappadocia. It wants to exploit the water and petrol resources and destroy this cultural center," Bulut said.

Turkey's Ministry of Culture and Tourism did not respond to requests for an interview.

Alleged political motives

Some critics have spoken out against GAP, which is centered on developing a region comprised mainly of Kurds, as masking an ulterior political motive of the Turkish government.

The state promotes GAP as an effort to equalize communities in a region once neglected by government infrastructures. They argue it is an endeavor to bring potential jobs and economic prosperity to an impoverished people.

"The step that we are taking today demonstrates that the southeast is no longer neglected," said Prime Minister Erdogan at the 2006 groundbreaking ceremony for the Ilisu Dam. "This dam will bring big gains to the local people."

Critics argue that the dam disguises an effort to destroy an ethnic culture by displacing a large number of Kurds from their regional homelands. The KHRP's 2010 report stated that they believed "the Ilisu dam forms part of a wider goal of cultural assimilation aimed at diminishing Kurdish culture whilst simultaneously strengthening Turkish security over the region." The report said the World Archaeological Congress claimed the Ilisu Dam project amounted "to a form of ethnic cleansing."

A leaked 1993 memo from then President of Turkey Turgut Ozal to then Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel—first published in November of 1993 by the English language weekly Turkish Probe—stated that "starting with the most troubled zones, villages and hamlets in the mountains of the region should be gradually evacuated … [and] resettled in the western parts of the country according to a careful plan. … Security forces should immediately move in and establish complete control in such areas. To prevent the locals' return to the region, the building of a large number of dams in appropriate places is an alternative."

Concerns have also been raised over how the dam will change Turkey's southeastern landscape. Some see flooding the river valleys of the Euphrates and Tigris as a strategic maneuver by the Turkish government to gain the upper hand in a region riddled with decades of conflict between the PKK and Turkish military. Reservoir lakes formed by the dams would severely alter the land and residents' ability to move across it, isolating and restricting the mobility of the PKK.

Located near the town of Ilisu along the border of Mardin and Sirnak provinces, the dam sits approximately 28 miles north of the Syrian border. Its completion will decrease downstream water flow into Syria and lead to possible future tensions.

Just like the layers of history and culture preserved within Hasankeyf, the particulars of the project are varied and complex. Its controversy lies in evaluating which is more valuable: preserving an ancient, culturally significant area or the rising power needs of a nation looking to bring about a new era of economic development and wealth.

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