Turkey Goes Rogue on Ilisu

Protest against Ilisu Dam (Stop Ilisu)You have to hand it to the European governments. They really try to avoid open conflicts with their friends. Even as it becomes clear that Turkey will not fulfill the social and environmental conditions under which it accepted export credits for the Ilisu Dam from Austria, Germany and Switzerland, the funders are looking for an exit strategy which allows all parties to save face. Yet the Turkish authorities do not seem to be interested in a diplomatic solution. They have started a campaign of repression and expropriation against the affected communities. If the conflict over Ilisu continues at this pace, the funders may soon be beyond face-saving.

As we have reported earlier, the export credit agencies on October 8 gave Turkey a deadline for complying with the social, environmental and cultural conditions of the Ilisu contract. On December 11, the day before the deadline expired, the director of the Austrian export credit agency OeKB confirmed on television that the conditions had not been met, and the country’s Foreign Minister made it clear that Austria would pull out of Ilisu in this case.

That was then. When the Austrian, German and Swiss export credit agencies met in Vienna on December 12, they found another provision in their contract that required them to give the dam authorities a last chance of 180 days to live up to their obligations. (The contract is confidential, and we have not seen it.) Rumor has it that the agencies had no hope that Turkey would actually do this, but were trying to find a way to terminate funding for the project without anybody losing face.

The Turkish government seems to have concluded that it will lose the funding for Ilisu sooner or later, and is not interested in playing along with diplomatic niceties. It has ramped up its campaign against project opponents and affected people, and is riding roughshod over its contract with the export credit agencies. On November 30, the Turkish President authorized the expropriation of more than 20 affected villages under an emergency rule which only applies if national security is at stake. (If completed, the dam will displace up to 70,000 people.) A few days later, the Turkish environmental organization Doga Dernegi documented with pictures that project construction on the Tigris has already begun. (See an image of the construction site below.) Both steps are stark violations of Turkey’s contract with the export credit agencies.

The Turkish government is also tightening the screw on the project opponents. On December 4, Turkish security forces arrested Ipek Tasli, a coordinator of the Keep Hasankeyf Alive Initiative, after she took pictures of the construction site. She and her driver were accused of disseminating propaganda on behalf of a terrorist organization, but were released the following day. On December 17, Veysel Eroglu, Turkey’s Minister for Environment (and formerly responsible for Ilisu at the dam building authority DSI) assailed project opponents as “separatists” at a press conference. In this ultra-nationalist country this is code language for terrorists. Ironically, Turkey will host the fifth World Water Forum in Istanbul in March 2009 under the motto of “Bridging Divides for Water.” Civil society representatives who plan to attend this event (including three of us from International Rivers) better be prepared.

We hope the export credit agencies will stop this embarrassing charade before the final (final?) deadline of 180 days has passed, and will avoid further complicity in the unfolding social and environmental disaster on the Tigris.

According to today's Frankfurter Rundschau, Erich Stather, secretary of state in Germany's development ministry (BMZ), indeed protested sharply against Turkey's ramped-up campaign against the dam-affected communities. Stather said that Germany felt betrayed and had suspended the guarantees for Ilisu. The BMZ official called the deadline of 180 days a formality and said he saw "no chance" for the dam to be built with German support. "We don't let them play games with us," Stather commented.

The big question is what will happen if and when the European funders pull out of Ilisu. My compatriot Urs Müller of Maggia AG, a Swiss engineering company involved in the project, and other industry representatives predict that the dam will be completed with Chinese support. Yet unlike in the case of the Yusufeli Dam, the Turkish authorities have never tried to blackmail the Western funders by pulling the Chinese card. Even though Turkey is one of the most important dam-building countries, China has so far only built two relatively small hydropower projects there – Adiguzel (62 megawatts) and Karacaoren (47 megawatts).

Turkish Officials Touring Dam Project
Turkish Officials Touring Dam Project
The Turkish government claims that if the European funders pull out, it will complete the project with its own resources. Yet Turkey does not have a hydropower industry which could build projects of the size and complexity of the 1,200 megawatts, Euro 1.2 billion Ilisu Dam. It will need to import the necessary generators and turbines from abroad. The country is in a severe financial crisis, is negotiating a tough agreement with the IMF, and will not be able to complete Ilisu without foreign funding.

Turkey will hold local elections in 2009. Ulrich Eichelmann of Austria’s ECA-Watch suspects that the government will continue its heavy-handed campaign on Ilisu until the elections are over, and may quietly let the project die after this. So the role of the European funders is crucial. For now, they are still involved in the project. The best way for them to save face is to exit the project, and to make clear that their economic and political relations with Turkey overall will depend on the respect for human rights in projects such as Ilisu, for which they share responsibility.

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. His blog, Wet, Wild and Wonky, appears at www.internationalrivers.org/en/blog/peter-bosshard