DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Damned by a Dam


     Picture your home: your heirlooms, your most prized possessions, your family traditions, and all of the associated memories. A fire breaks out on your porch and you do everything within your power to put it out, but it’s no use. You’re forced to either abandon everything you hold dear or perish in the blaze, and as difficult as it may be, it’s obvious that the only logical option is the former. You regretfully leave the house, your livelihood engulfed in flames, only to see that your country’s government holds the torch.


     This is essentially what the people of Turkey’s Kurdish-majority provinces have faced for decades since the implementation of the Southeastern Anatolia Project (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi, GAP) in the early 1980s. The project calls for the construction of nearly two dozen hydroelectric dams in the region. The intent of these dams is to improve both the regional and national power economy, as well as irrigate surrounding areas, thus bolstering agricultural yield in the southeast. Every project comes with consequences, however, and the GAP is certainly no exception. But when those consequences begin to outnumber or even negate the benefits, perhaps the project should be called off. The GAP as a whole is arguably one such project, but its Ilisu Dam in particular is a shining example of failure.


     The dam is undergoing construction on the Tigris River just upstream from the city of Hasankeyf in the  Batman province. This city, with its history that spans over 12 millennia, is an archaeological site sacred to the local people, and the Ilisu puts it in significant danger. Following its completion, the dam would form a reservoir that would submerge the entire city, leaving only tops of the tallest structures to protrude from the water. Below the surface would be palaces, mosques, tombs, and the homes and lives of tens of thousands of people. Lifestyles, religious symbols, and graves of ancestors all would be desecrated without permission or empathy.


     While this is indeed devastating, eminent domain is a necessary right exercised by governments around the world, with public and private property being sacrificed to build highways, dams, and the like. More than 12,000 years of history from nine separate civilizations seems quite a high price to pay for a dam, but the Turkish government does not show too great a concern for the loss of these artifacts or the effect it will have on the people. Repeated examples of negligence in the Ilisu project could potentially be chalked up to poor planning or simply the nature of politics, but the Kurdish locals suspect more sinister motives are at play, and this suspicion is not unwarranted.


    The Kurds are an ethnic group so distinct from neighboring cultures that the region of Kurdistan, which spans four nations, has become internationally recognized. Because of this drastic societal difference, the Kurdish people have pushed for sovereignty since times as early as the 1920s. This power struggle was, and is to this day, largely in southeastern Turkey, as this region holds the largest population of Kurds (about 18 million). The Turkish government strongly opposes this secession for obvious reasons, so the Kurdish quest for autonomy has been defined by its violent conflicts with Turkish forces. The brunt of these conflicts began in the late 1970s and have included assassinations by both sides, massacres of Kurdish civilians, and Kurdish terror-attacks on Turkish government buildings. As expected, these clashes have resulted in a bitter enmity between the Kurds and Turks. This dark, yet recent history of the two groups makes the idea of malicious intent in projects like the Ilisu Dam not so far-fetched.


     But are the locals just being paranoid? After all, the region is not 100% Kurdish and the affected residents are receiving compensation for their lost property, so—as unfortunate as the situation may be—is it really reflective of injustice? The Kurds would certainly say so, and upon closer inspection of the Ilisu project and its plans, you just may agree with them.


     Turkey has a relatively small GDP per capita, ranked 69th in the world as of 2015, making massive infrastructure projects like the Ilisu Dam difficult to afford. For this reason, Turkey sought funding from banks and European governments, which was initially granted. Nearly all of the project’s backers, however, rescinded their support following the drafting of a Resettlement Action Plan and Environmental Impact Assessment for the dam in 2001. The project was revitalized in 2005 when other companies agreed to back it, but once again, the vast majority of these supporters would withdraw from the project entirely. The government lost this second-wave, per se, of aid in 2009, when analysis of the project showed that it did not meet required World Bank standards, specifically with “shortcomings in the resettlement of the project-affected persons, as well as the ill-prepared relocation of Hasankeyf’s monuments.” Repeated withdrawal due to glaring issues regarding the fate of a region’s people and culture should be as good an indication as any for abandonment of the project, but evidently this will not stop Turkey from building its dams.


     The Turkish government, however, vows to compensate the residents of the affected areas with sufficient funds for new land and/or housing, but the definition of “resident” differs depending on who is asked. An official statement by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that “Hasankeyf, a small town, is the only one affected… A comprehensive programme of settlement and compensation is planned. The total number of people who will have to be resettled is around 15,000. This means about two thousand families.” This resettlement plan, designated by a May, 2015 declaration, does not take into account any of the fifty or more villages that may also be partially or entirely flooded by the dam, or any of the large nomadic population in the region. Other estimates give numbers for affected residents as high as 78,000. If, indeed, this number is greater than the government expects and it fails to reimburse affected populations, it would be in direct violation of United Nations’ law. In fact, the declaration is already in violation of this law, which strictly prohibits monetary reimbursement of any kind to “replace real compensation in the form of land and common property resources.”


     Regardless of the legality of the compensation, even those who are being offered government subsidies are not getting nearly enough to cover the cost of new housing. Offers were given on a family basis rather than to the individual, meaning that larger families would have to split the subsidy. Additionally, the amount allotted is not proportional to quantity of family members, but instead is based on land area owned.


     One Hasankeyf man, Murat, describes in an interview with the organization Corporate Watch what he says is a fairly common situation for a resident in the resettlement program:


 “We will get 90,000 lira maximum. 550 lira per square metre… I have eight brothers. The money must be divided between everyone. So if I take 10,000 lira, what can I do? The new homes cost us 150,000 lira. How can I buy this? There are no jobs.”


     Murat and many like him will forced to either take out loans and go into debt for what is generally considered lesser housing in New Hasankeyf, or they will move away from their families to apartments in larger Turkish cities, like Istanbul. If the Ilisu Dam is finished as is planned, Hasankeyf residents will not only lose the culture in the lost artifacts of the site, but they may be forced to abandon their culture due to assimilation as well.


      This negligence of the government towards its Kurdish population may be discriminatory, or perhaps it is merely insufficiently planned and funded. But either way, why should it concern us? Well as it turns out, even for US citizens, this issue is more than just a question of ethics or moral ambiguity for those who promote social justice and equality. In America’s seemingly eternal fight with the terrorist group ISIS, a Kurdish militia known as the YPG has been a long-standing ally. Kurdish forces are supported by and even fight alongside the US military, and as of July 2015, Turkey had announced it would aid in the fight against the Islamic State as well. Despite this, Turkish forces have continued to launch attacks against the very groups that are most crucial in stopping the advance of ISIS, the Kurds. The YPG has succeeded in liberating multiple ISIS controlled cities, yet as recent as April 26, 2017,  Turkish forces have fired upon these Kurdish soldiers and show no intent to cease attacks. In defense of Turkey, the majority of its conflicts are with the PKK, another Kurdish group that is widely recognized by nations around the world, including the US, as a terrorist group. On the other hand, one radical group does not give Turkey the rights to oppress and use force against an entire ethnic group. But the airstrikes and dam projects continue, posing a constant physical and cultural threat to the Kurdish people as a whole.


     As the Ilisu nears completion with each passing day, it seems unlikely that this means of Kurdish oppression can be stopped. It is not too late, however. Hasankeyf’s placement on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites would grant it and all of its inhabitants protection from any physical threats, such as impending dam reservoirs. In order to qualify for this list, a site “must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria.” Hasankeyf more than achieves this, with its diverse history that spans millennia leading it to fulfill an impressive nine of these ten criteria. Kurdish human rights activists and those in the archaeological community realize this fact, and are in near constant protest of the dam’s construction while they push for the rightful addition of Hasankeyf to the list of World Heritage sites. Even abroad, every person who is made aware of this situation and decides to speak out about it will put more pressure on the Turkish government, and—with any luck—will force them to reconsider their destructive plans. To some this effort may seem hopeless, but to quote President Barack Obama, “A change is brought about because ordinary people do extraordinary things.”

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.