Opinions about the Ilısu Dam project in Hasankeyf remain fiercely divided after more than half a century. The Turkish government claims the long-stalled project will generate hydroelectric power and bring development to an impoverished region. But critics say it will irrevocably destroy a cultural and environmental heritage that dates back more than 10,000 years.
Debate over a controversial dam in Southeast Turkey has been raging for more than 50 years, but residents of the ancient and threatened town of Hasankeyf show no signs of giving up the fight.
“In the last four years, more tourists have started coming to Hasankeyf. They like it here and it is nice for us to be able to share our culture,” said Semra Argun, a local woman who, along with her husband and family, runs the only motel in town. “If the dam is constructed we will lose everything – our homes, this history and even the graves of those we have lost will go under the water.”
According to Argun, most of the local population is strongly against the construction of the Ilısu Dam, a project the government has been pushing hard despite international criticism of the plans, which would displace some 50,000 people from the area and wipe out a cultural and environmental heritage that dates back more than 10,000 years.
The last few days have brought fresh efforts to raise awareness about the area’s plight. Locals, government officials and foreign delegations took part Saturday in a “Keep Hasankeyf Alive” march from Kesmeköprü village to Hasankeyf village, organized by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP. Austrians, Danes, Germans, Italians, Kurds and Turks all gathered on the banks of the Tigris River, where saplings were planted as symbols of hope and defiance against the proposed state project.
Members of the public and local government officials also gathered Tuesday in the city center of the southeastern province of Batman to mark World Water Day and demonstrate their firm stance against the construction of the Ilısu Dam. The event included a performance of traditional Kurdish music by the Bahar Culture Center theater troupe and was attended by the popular eco-warrior and anti-nuclear activist Osman Abi, a.k.a. the “Turkish Don Quixote.”
The British government withdrew from the dam project in 2001 over the results of a report commissioned by then-Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers. Key European backers Germany, Denmark and Austria pulled out in 2006 and 2009, leaving the Turkish government to push single-handedly for a project that it describes as “sustainable development.” The dam has also been criticized by Iraq and Syria, which say it will restrict already-scarce water flows to neighboring countries.
[HH] Tourism development hindered
The Turkish government claims the Ilısu Dam will generate much-needed hydroelectric power for the country and bring development to an impoverished region, but local residents of Hasankeyf say they have been prohibited from developing the area in a lower-impact way.
For the last 63 years, residents of the area where the dam is planned have been denied permission to repair their homes on the grounds that they risked ruining a historical site, said BDP Batman branch head Rıdvan Ayhan. Since that same historical site is the one that would be submerged under the waters of the dam, Ayhan believes the prohibition has been just another way for the government to try and push people out of the area.
Hasankeyf and Batman residents also see the recent clampdown on the tourism sector in the area as yet another attempt by the government to diminish economic opportunities in the area, forcing people to migrate elsewhere in search of better standards of living. The area around Hasankeyf’s 4th-century castle was closed to the public in July 2010 after part of the cliff face collapsed, killing an elderly man. The castle is scheduled to reopen April 15, but the BDP’s Ayhan expressed skepticism about the new conditions proposed by the government.
“They want to charge people to go up and see the castle. Hasankeyf belongs to everyone; people shouldn’t have to pay to see it,” he said. “Instead, we should be allowed to develop the tourism sector, providing people who are unemployed with jobs.”
In the last five years, the oil-rich province of Batman has slowly started to set its sights on developing its tourism sector. Yet according to Emin Bulut of the Tourism and Promotion Association, strict government restrictions have impeded the sector’s growth in Hasankeyf. Two camping sites were opened last year, but Bulut said if more money was invested in developing tourism in the area, Hasankeyf would have the potential to generate more income than the dam while preserving the environment, culture and local settlements.
“Before the rockslide in July and access to the castle was forbidden, locals used to sell traditional clothes, instruments, rugs and bags and cook food [for visitors],” Bulut said. “When a stone falls in Cappadocia the government doesn’t bat an eyelid. The area is cleaned up and things go on as they did before. Here it is different. The government looks at this region differently than Cappadocia – it wants to exploit the water and petrol resources and destroy this cultural center, which belongs to all of humankind, along with the biodiversity endemic to this area.”
Bulut added that they had applied three months ago for government compensation for some of the craftsmen and shop owners in Hasankeyf whose businesses were affected when access to the castle was blocked last summer.
Archaeologists also hope for a reprieve for the area, which includes traces of Syriac, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk Turk and Ottoman civilizations. According to Dr. Oluş Arık, professor of medieval archaeology and art history at Çanakkale University, a minimum of 50 years would be needed in order to carry out a thorough excavation of a site as large and historically significant as Hasankeyf.
[HH] An ulterior motive?
Residents fear the long-delayed project will finally be carried out if the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, returns to power with the June general elections. Local Kurdish government officials are suspicious about the government’s “real motivations” in building the dam, with some saying the state’s claim that it would bring development to the region is an empty gesture masking an ulterior motive: restricting the movement of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, and generating profit from the sale of water.
According to Dr. Tevfik Emre Şerifoğlu, an archaeologist at Çanakkale University, however, Hasankeyf can also be seen as an exaggerated symbol of anti-government sentiment among locals. He said such feelings had endured for many years and stemmed from the social tragedy in the 1990s when most of the villages along the Tigris were emptied as part of the “fight against terrorism” program.
“The Ilısu Dam is a much smaller project compared to the huge dams they have built on the Euphrates. Imagine how many villages were left under water when that artificial lake filled the valleys to the north of Şanlıurfa,” he said. “Why didn’t anyway say a word? Some people did, a small minority, but these were not as strong as today’s anti-Ilısu campaigns.”
These campaigns have drawn international media attention and brought together over the past decade a coalition of academics, local government officials, foreign nongovernmental organizations and environmental activists united against the dam’s construction.
“The worst affected will be women and children, who are the least consulted about its impacts,” Maggie Ronayne, an archaeology lecturer at the National University of Galway, Ireland, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in an interview. “Women in Hasankeyf and in the [other] villages affected, as the main caregivers for their families and communities, will bear the brunt of the dam’s effects and will somehow have to work for the survival of their loved ones in the unbearable conditions that will result.”
According to Ronayne, who has been researching Hasankeyf since 1999, the cultural, ecological and human consequences of the dam project would only compound the problems faced by communities in Southeast Turkey, which include “a long-running military conflict and continuing militarization in the region.”