Turkey's Hasankeyf dam can drown Kurds'
By Jay Cassano - IPS News
June 12, 2012
The Kurdish village of Hasankeyf (Turkey Kurdistan)
lies above the Tigris River, whose flow has carved
out rock formations over the course of millenia.
Photo Credit: Jay Cassano/IPS.
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HASANKEYF, The Kurdish
region of Turkey, — Hasankeyf, a small Kurdish
village in southeastern Turkey, has been under
threat for 15 years. Home to approximately 3,000
people, the site is one of the oldest continuously
inhabited human settlements, with an archaeological
record going back at least 9,500 years.
Now, the Ilisu Dam – part of a massive hydroelectric
project undertaken by the State Hydraulic Works –
will flood Hasankeyf and the surrounding region,
effectively washing away millennia of history.
In addition to destroying a historical site, which
includes vestiges of every empire that ever
inhabited Mesopotamia, the dam will also cause
immense ecological harm to the Tigris River valley.
Derya Engin, who staffs the Hasankeyf office of the
Nature Society, a Turkish NGO, told IPS that
numerous endangered species will lose their habitat
if the dam is built.
"The Tigris is the only untouched river ecosystem in
Turkey and it is vital that it remain that way," she
warned. "It is well-known that dams dramatically
change the climate of entire regions. This dam will
destroy the habitats of fish, birds, and plant life,
some of which are unique to the Tigris valley."
Construction of the dam began in earnest in 2008,
but plans for its implementation date back even
The dam was originally conceived in the 1950s as
part of a plan, called the Southeastern Anatolia
Project (GAP), intended to develop the
infrastructure of largely rural and Kurdish
southeastern Turkey. Since 1997, several European
finance consortia have attempted to fund the
only to withdraw support before anything concrete
The European banks and companies pulled out in large
part due to massive solidarity campaigns against the
dam in their respective home countries. In 2009, the
German, Austrian and Swiss governments revoked the
export credit guarantees to the final consortium
because the Turkish government failed to meet the
ecological, social, and cultural heritage standards
set by the World Bank.
For a while, activists in Turkey and throughout
Europe believed they had won the fight and that
construction of the dam would stop. To their
surprise, construction is continuing to this day.
It was later revealed that the Turkish government
had quietly secured funding from two of the
country’s largest private banks, Akbank and Garanti,
making the project still viable.
The Turkish government’s reasons for pressing ahead
with the controversial project are not what one
might expect. Projections place the amount of
hydroelectric power the dam will produce at less
than 2 percent of Turkey's total energy needs. Not
an entirely insignificant amount but certainly,
according to various sources, not enough to justify
the destruction of an entire ecosystem, invaluable
cultural heritage, and the livelihoods of several
The Turkish government has openly proclaimed that
the main function of the dam system is to bolster
the country’s counter-insurgency strategy against
the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which mobilises
from the mountainous Iraqi-Turkish border. Together,
the strategically placed dams created by GAP will
form a massive wall of water close to Turkey's
border with Iraq.
Having flown through the Hasankeyf for millenia, the
Tigris has created a vast canyon topography that is
not only visually spectacular but also provides
necessary cover for militants. In addition to
raising the water level of the Tigris, flooding from
Ilisu Dam will spill over into nearby canyons that
are currently dry.
With canyons filled and massive lakes created where
rivers once flowed, the terrain will become
impassable by foot.
Furthermore, the effects of the dam will extend
beyond Hasankeyf, well across national borders. By
virtue of being upstream from Iraq and Syria on both
the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, Turkey
effectively controls the flow of water southward.
With the Euphrates already heavily dammed, the
Syrian and Iraqi governments have raised serious
concerns about dam projects on the Tigris. Twice the
region has been on the verge of water wars, once in
1975 and again in 1990. Restricting water flow from
the Tigris could prove to be a tipping point in the
Activists believe that, ultimately, the dam will
turn water into a political tool both inside and
outside Turkey's borders. "We know that the dam is
really about security," Mehmet İpek, a young local
activist, told IPS.
Down the road, Mehmet Ali, a shopkeeper selling
tourist souvenirs, lamented the imminent loss of his
home. "They are condemning a place like this, with
no equal in the world, for a dam that will only
operate for 50 years."
An invaluable site
Today there is little recourse left to stop
construction. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)
could theoretically put a hold on the project. A
case was brought before the court in 2006 but
rejected on the grounds that the ECHR protects human
rights, not cultural heritage, ignoring the
approximately 35,000 people who will all be forced
to give up their way of life if the dam is
A new case is being submitted to the ECHR after a
Turkish regional court rejected it this week. Locals
hope that it will work, but are not deceiving
themselves. They have learned from experience how
determined the state is to continue with the
Ömer Güzel, a shop owner and local activist in
Hasankeyf, told IPS that at one point the villagers
held protests every week. "It didn't accomplish
anything," he said. "In the end the dam is still
being built right now."
The government has kept the construction site, 16
kilometres downstream from Hasankeyf, under heavy
security. However, sources with access to the site,
who spoke to IPS on the condition of anonymity,
claim that the dam is already half completed.
There is still a chance that the United Nations
Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation
(UNESCO) might list the area as a World Heritage
site, effectively guaranteeing its protection.
To qualify for World Heritage status, a site must
meet one of 10 criteria for outstanding universal
value in an area of cultural or natural
significance. Hasankeyf, as the only site in the
world that meets nine of the 10 criteria, is an
exceptional candidate for inclusion.
Unfortunately, that fact alone is not enough to be
listed. "In order to be included as a World Heritage
site, the country in which the site is located must
submit an application to UNESCO. The Turkish
government has not done this," Engin explained.
A UNESCO delegation previously visited Hasankeyf
and, upon taking stock of the area, urged the
Turkish government to apply. The implication was
that if Turkey applied, Hasankeyf would be accepted.
"But the government does not want to protect this
area, so why would they apply? The dam project is
too important to the state," Engin pointed out.
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