Gathering Along the Upper Tigris River

Jason Rainey

I’m heading to the Tigris River next week with a bundle of recent news articles under my arm that sets the context for an upcoming international gathering of river defenders in Turkey.

Last week the New York Times reported on China reviving dam construction on the Nu River, one of Asia’s last unregulated rivers, which flows through China’s biodiversity hotspot in Yunnan Province and the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage site (before draining the Burma/Thailand border under the name Salween River). In the illuminating and well-researched article, Chinese environmentalist Wang Yongchen’s question has been ringing in my ears: “Why can’t China have just one river that isn’t destroyed by humans?”

Just One River!

Last week the Washington Post reported that the World Bank is making a major push to finance mega-scale hydropower dams (they call them “transformational projects”) on the Congo and Zambezi rivers, in the Himalaya and elsewhere. Reflecting on the past decade, whereby the World Bank avoided lending to destructive dam projects that failed to meet their social and environmental safeguards, World Bank VP Rachel Kyte lamented that the Bank’s reduction in big dam investments “was the wrong message.”

The Wrong Message?

Last week the occupation of the Belo Monte Dam site by indigenous peoples and others threatened by this monster dam in the heart of the Amazon escalated. A Brazilian judge ruled that the military could be deployed to forcibly remove those occupying the dam site. Reporters were barred from the area, but our Amazon Program Director Brent Milliken is in close contact with the river defenders and has forwarded photos of the militarization of the dam site that we’ve posted online. Last month Bianca Jagger posted a thorough expostulation of the militarization of Brazil’s dam sites in a blog that originally appeared in the Huffington Post, where she asks, “Is Brazil returning to the bad old days?”

The Bad Old Days….

It’s with this news and these mantras that I travel to Turkey to participate in the International Rivers Conference in Istanbul. I appreciate the cross-branding with our organization, yet must credit our partners at Birdlife International-Turkey (Doga Dernegi) for hosting and organizing the two-day conference. After plenary talks and a strategy session with partners from India, Kenya, Bolivia, Iraq, Europe and elsewhere, we’ll journey to the Upper Tigris River.

Hasankeyf, Tigris River, Turkey
Hasankeyf, Tigris River, Turkey

Doga Dernegi has been a leading group fighting the proposed Ilisu Dam on the Tigris, which threatens to flood the ancient city of Hasankeyf, an historic crossroads about 40 miles upstream from the borders with Syria and Iraq. At the invitation of our friends at Doga Dernegi, I’ll be traveling to Hasankeyf to meet with dam-threatened people and hear directly about what’s at stake and how international pressure can best leverage their efforts to stop the Ilisu Dam and spare this city and reach of the Tigris River that qualifies for both cultural and ecological World Heritage status. 

The delegation will also be screening Todd Southgate’s excellent film, Damocracy, which was released on Earth Day this year. For a deep, crisp, and visually compelling dive into what’s at stake in Mesopotamia and the Amazon, this 30 minutes film is a must-see.

Somewhere along my journey I hope to piece together the big dam news of the past week, too. The planet – and the people inhabiting it – can’t afford to retreat to the “bad old days” of authoritarian rule and militarism in determining future energy investments. 

Trying to square climate destabilization with an attack on rivers is more than “a wrong message”; it signals a flawed analysis of the root causes of planetary destabilization and distracts from the real solutions needed to promote community resilience and shared prosperity in the world. 

And, as more and more nations find themselves posing the question, “Just one river?” will that also serve as a rally slogan to unite movements and demonstrate that we’re all in this together? As I prepare for my trip to Mesopotamia and the chaos that’s enveloped the peoples of the Tigris and Euphrates, I’ll hold fast to Yongchen’s query and remain mindful of the simplicity and truth of a chant we sing each autumn during the Maidu Calling Back the Salmon Ceremony on the Yuba: One Earth, One People, One River.  

That will be my first message to the people I meet on this journey. I’d welcome the chance to carry a message to the people of Hasankeyf from other River People throughout the world. To send a message of solidarity, support or inspiration, leave a comment in the field below and include your home rivershed and country. I’ll be sure to pass it along. And I’ll report back through this blog next week. Stay tuned, more river news to come.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013