Flooding history: the local fight against the Ilisu Dam in Turkey

Spring has started, and the small town of Hasankeyf in Turkey’s unruly southeast is buzzing with activity. Young men are busy building a new pavilion on the Tigris river bank while across the water a man is planting saplings together with his family. A local hotel owner recently built a couple of new bungalows, and one of the ruined pillars of a 12th century bridge is in scaffolding. “For restoration,” explain some of the locals, but no-one seems to be really sure whether this is true or not.

Sadly, the locals of the town are building a future that may never come to pass. One day soon, the water will come and submerge everything. First the cafes and pavilions on the river’s banks will disappear. Then the people’s orchards and vegetable gardens, situated on the edge of the small town where access to the unlimited supply of water is easy. After the gardens, the waters will slowly rise to the doorsteps of the concrete houses, built half a century ago when the locals were forced to move out of their cave homes which their ancestors had dug out of the surrounding mountains’ soft rock many centuries ago.

Slowly but surely the water will swallow the entire town until only the tip of the minaret of the iconic El Rizk mosque will remain visible above the water’s surface. A silent witness to the historic beauty which will be lost forever, drowned by the very same water that once brought life to this ancient Silk Road trading town.

The reason for Hasankeyf’s imminent disappearance is found sixty miles downstream, where the Turkish government is constructing the controversial Ilisu dam. Once completed, the dam reservoir will cause the water to rise more than sixty meters, flooding Hasankeyf together with almost one hundred villages on the river’s banks.

The government argues that the construction of the dam and the accompanying hydroelectric power plant is essential to meet the country’s ever rising energy needs and that the project will serve to irrigate large swaths of agricultural land, bringing employment opportunities and development to the poverty-stricken region.

Move, or be moved

When exiting the town via the new bridge, a ten-minute uphill drive brings you to the site of ‘New Hasankeyf’, a town built from scratch to accommodate the displaced townspeople when the water finally comes. Tellingly, a police station and a mosque were amongst the first buildings to be finished – as if law enforcement and religion are among the primary needs of the displaced population once they have been expropriated from their houses.

The insecurity of the people and the general lack of information is striking. Asking different people around town when the water will come will leave you with as many different answers: “next year,” “it will be ten years at least,” “never!”.

“Nobody knows what’s going to happen,” says Arif Ayhan, seated in front of his shop in Hasankeyf’s only shopping street. “The DSI [State Water Agency] first told us that by the end of 2013 we would have to move to New Hasankeyf, but now it’s now 2015 and still nothing has happened.”

Despite the fact that the new homes are of significantly better quality than the dilapidated concrete houses in the old town that were built back in the 1970s, none of the town’s inhabitants has actually moved yet. Ayhan explains one of the reasons why people are reluctant to do so: “The government is not giving the new homes to the people. They’re selling them.”

The people of Hasankeyf receive as compensation the market value of their old homes, which can be as low as 20.000 or 30.000 Turkish liras (~US$7.000-US$10.000), while the prices for the new houses can go up to 150.000 Turkish liras (~US$50.000). “Because the people don’t receive a fair compensation for their old homes they don’t want to move to the new town,” Ayhan adds, while stressing that money is not the only issue. “They say they want to buy my old home, but I’m happy here. I didn’t ask to move!”

The situation in New Ilisu, the settlement that was built when the construction site swallowed the old village after which the dam has been named, is illustrative of what the residents of Hasankeyf awaits when (and if) they decide to move. A local who prefers not to be named conveys that the new settlement is not too bad, but that the “old village was better. Better view, better life, bigger gardens.”

Whereas their former surroundings were made up of the river and the mountains, they now live next to a busy road, in the shadow of a military base built on top of a neighboring hill. Their new houses come with little gardens where the people are growing vegetables, grapes and pomegranates, but these are significantly smaller than the original ones and certainly not big enough to make a living of agriculture, let alone house their animals. The men of Ilisu have found temporary employment at the dam construction site, but they will be forced to move to the urban centers once the work is done.

Some of the families still have court cases going on to demand a higher compensation, but there is little hope that these will turn out in favor of the villagers. “This is the state, what can you do?” adds the man with an disarming smile.

Assimilation tools

The Ilisu dam project was announced in 1997, as part of the largest regional development project in Turkey, the Southeast Anatolia Regional Development Project (or GAP, after its Turkish acronym). The GAP includes a total of 90 dams and 60 hydroelectric power plants, along with hundreds of kilometers of irrigation canals, all situated in the Kurdish heartland in southeastern Turkey, hugging the borders with Syria and Iraq.

GAP was launched in 1977 and focuses on the exploitation of Turkey’s two largest rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris. The completed project will generate about one-fifth of the country’s total energy production, irrigate 1.7 million hectares of agricultural land and in the process create nearly four million jobs. As positive as these numbers may sound, critics of the project have pointed out that there is an unpleasant truth hiding behind the government’s discourse of regional development and job creation.

The main beneficiaries from irrigated land are the regional large landowners, who also happen to take the lion’s share of the expropriation money. Compensation paid to local small landowners and subsistence farmers is in many cases insufficient to buy similar sized land plots elsewhere and they are often forced to give up their former occupations, instead being forced to sell their labor for a wage that is rarely sufficient to maintain one’s previous living standards.

Ercan Ayboga is a founding member of the grassroots Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive and has been involved with the popular resistance against the Ilisu dam for many years. He has little faith in the good intentions of the government and instead points to the many other ways in which Ankara might benefit from the construction of the Ilisu dam and other similar mega projects.

“A lot of companies with close connections to the ruling party will earn a lot of money from this project,” he begins. “As well as some members of the government, both in terms of bribes and corporate connections.”

Ayboga also points out that the GAP can be used as an instrument by the central government to force the local Kurdish population into submission. The dam reservoirs function as a ‘natural’ barrier against the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party which has been waging a guerrilla war against the Turkish state for over thirty years, limiting their movements, cutting their supply lines and confining their operations to the extreme southeast, far away from the urban centers in the west of the country.

On another level the GAP, which has thus far displaced up to 200,000 people, is an assimilation tool that breaks up communities, forces people of their land and into the cities where the government “can more easily include the people in the capitalist consumption culture,” Ayboga adds. “Subsistence economy is not good for the big companies.”

A final reason for the Turkish government to control the flows of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers is that it provides them with significant leverage in dealing with their downstream neighbors Syria and Iraq.

Take it or leave it

Meanwhile, the work on the Ilisu dam continues. The dam, now that it’s almost finished, provides a surreal sight, as if someone has drawn a huge, gray curtain across the valley. Big trucks driving across the dam are dwarfed by the immense size of the structure, and from a distance they remind one of a caravan of working ants making their way across a rock’s edge.

The very essence of the mega project is flawed to begin with, argues Ayboga. “In general, large dam projects like Ilisu are wrong. They areunacceptable and the needs for energy and water can be met in other ways.” He doesn’t claim that the rivers can’t be touched in any way, but he points out that “there are a lot of alternatives [to damming]”.

If the government is really so eager to become energy independent, one of the first steps they ought to take is to rehabilitate the transmission lines. Turkey’s outdated transmission lines are causing the loss of 14 percent of the country’s energy output, which is almost three times as high as the average in OECD countries where the loss is around 5,5 percent. Considering the fact that the Ilisu dam is planned to provide two percent of the country’s energy needs, a simple upgrade of the transmission lines would have the potential to cover this.

Besides objecting to mega projects like the Ilisu dam per se, many locals and activists involved with different campaigns against the dam have drawn attention to the violations of human rights and neglect of both international and customary law by the Turkish government in the process. The government’s failure to meet international standards set by the World Bank, and in particular 153 conditions for Export Credit Agency financing of the Ilisu dam led to the suspension of financing agreements by the Austrian, Swiss and German governments, leaving Turkey with almost no foreign assistance.

International observers have confirmed that the Turkish government has failed to adhere to international standards in resettling and compensating the affected population. From the project’s onset the local population has been kept out of the decision making process and regarding the resettlement process the government has often followed a police of ‘take it or leave it’, cutting people’s compensation rates when they dare to speak up.

Public good, private property

While the world is holding its breath concerning the fate of Palmyra now that the ancient town has been taken over by ISIS, in Turkey’s it’s the government that is threatening to destroy thousands of years of history.

Thousands of people will be forcefully displaced from their homes; a unique world heritage site will be forever lost beneath the surface of the water; homes will be lost; animals will be have to sold off; an entire ecosystem will be destroyed; and millions of Iraqis and Syrians will be dependent on Turkey’s grace for their fair share of the water.

Under the auspices of yet another neoliberal-inspired government has yet another natural resource been turned into a commodity, another public good made private property. There are other, less destructing ways to meet the country’s energy needs, develop the region and irrigate the land than a mega project like the Ilisu dam, but unfortunately none of those have the ‘positive’ side effects of forcing a population into submission, turning farmers into consumers, families into debt-slaves.

Arif is getting ready to move when the water comes, to Marmaris or Antalya or any other of Turkey’s coastal towns where he can sell his handwoven kilims, traditional Turkish carpets, to tourists. “If the people of Hasankeyf would have been united, we could have resisted,” he says with more than a hint of regret in his voice. Unfortunately the people in this poor region were too busy surviving to organize themselves, and again, its up to powers bigger than themselves to decide their lives for them.

This article was originally published at Contributoria.

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