Turkish Dam Boom Threatens Anatolian Rivers

Dr. Güven Eken
Thursday, June 7, 2012

In recent years, dam building in Turkey has increased by leaps and bounds. River ecosystems and associated communities are under immense threat, and dams are one of the most hotly debated issues in Turkey. No legal measures have been taken to protect the irreplaceable natural and cultural assets of Anatolia from the impacts of these dam projects.

As it currently stands, the government of Turkey plans to construct 1,738 dams and hydroelectric power plants by 2023. Nearly 2,000 water supply dams are also underway. There is serious concern that in a few years, there will be virtually no healthy rivers systems left in Turkey. There are neither environmental nor sociological impact assessments of these projects at the basin or country level.

Green dots are proposed and existing dams; pink shows protected areas.

Dams are the biggest threat to Key Biodiversity Areas in Turkey: 185 out of 305 of these areas are threatened by dams. More than 100 endemic plants could go extinct or are at risk. Numerous bird, amphibian and mammal species in Turkey will disappear or go through sharp declines as a result of this epidemic of dams.

Civil society movements all over Turkey have initiated campaigns to stop the dam projects and increase public pressure on decision makers. So far, at least 120 lawsuits have been filed against dams. Of these, courts have given decisions for 100 cases until now, and they have decided the stay of execution or cancellation of 93 of them.

“Stop Ilısu, Save Hasankeyf” Campaign

The planned construction of the massive Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River in Southeast Turkey is the largest of the dam projects in Turkey, and one of the world’s most controversial dam projects. Despite widespread opposition, the Turkish government is proceeding with construction of Ilisu, which would inundate more than 310 square kilometers of ancient Mesopotamia (an area equivalent to the size of  EU member state Malta). The dam would have a life span of less than 100 years, but leave a lasting legacy of enormous cultural, humanitarian and ecological repercussions.

The 12,000-year-old historic town of Hasankeyf would disappear, along with hundreds of cultural and archaeological sites. Tens of thousands of people would be displaced and important habitats for globally and regionally threatened species would be destroyed. The dam would also affect other important habitats and communities who live and rely on the Tigris River, which flows through Mesopotamia all the way to the marshes of Basra in Iraq. Globally endangered species that will be affected by Ilısu include the Egyptian Vulture, Euphrates Soft-shelled Turtle, and the Leopard (Mesopotamian) Barbel.

The Ilisu Dam would flood an area so rich in its cultural and natural heritage that it meets nine out of 10 UNESCO World Heritage Site criteria. It is the only place in the world to come that close to UNESCO’s requirements, according to a report published by Istanbul University Professor Zeynep Ahunbay, who is also President of the International Council on Monuments and Sites – Turkey, which evaluates nominations for World Heritage status.

The NGO Doga Dernegi has campaigned since 2005 to stop the Ilisu Dam project, proposing a list of alternative solutions to the dam and demanding the government nominate Hasankeyf and the Tigris Valley as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. To this end, we have been closely working with residents and local stakeholders, academics and experts, national and local NGOs, international organizations such as ECA Watch, and the Keep Hasankeyf Alive Initiative.

Our campaigns have resulted in the withdrawal of three European credit agencies from the project in 2009. Never before has an existing export guarantee been cancelled due to ecological, social or cultural concerns. Yet, since the withdrawal of the European funding, the Turkish authorities have declared that the project would go ahead with Turkish funds.

Doga Dernegi’s demands continue to gain strength, and now count on the support of over 100,000 people who signed onto the campaign’s petition. Acclaimed authors and artists have also endorsed our campaign to save Hasankeyf and the Tigris Valley. They include world renowned authors Yasar Kemal and Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk, and acclaimed musicians Tarkan and Sezen Aksu.

The possible cancellation of the long-debated Ilisu Dam will also affect the fate of other rivers in Turkey and elsewhere. In order to harness more international support for the Hasankeyf campaign and the wider river network, we aim to connect the Hasankeyf and Belo Monte (Brazil) campaigns through an international joint initiative. Our focus is debunking the myth of dams as clean energy by demonstrating the planned destruction of the Amazon basin and Mesopotamia.