Lessons from the Campaign to Protect Hasankeyf

by Susanne Wong
Monday, September 15, 2008

Hands Off Hasankeyf
Hands Off Hasankeyf
Credit: Doga Dernegi
Activists from Turkey and Europe have waged an inspiring campaign to stop the Ilisu Dam, scoring major victories a few years ago. Yet the Turkish government continues to press on, and says construction will start in the next few months, with the help of European export credit agencies and companies. Despite the forward charge, Ilisu has been waylaid by conditions from lenders to try to address some of the worst impacts raised by NGOs. We caught up with Ercan Ayboga of the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive for his insights on the campaign.

WRR: Why are you personally drawn to this campaign?
I have always been interested in water issues. That's why I studied water resources and hydrology. But I never agreed with the idea to build big dams, to channelize rivers and deplete our water resources.

This campaign is crucial for Kurdish and Turkish society. If we are successful, we can help change water and energy policy in Turkey. We hope to build a network of people fighting dams across the country and to raise the public consciousness so that dams and other destructive projects are not built.

WRR: What lessons have you learned from trying to stop European investors and companies from building the dam?

EA: We had direct discussions with representatives from the export credit agencies (ECAs) and European governments about the Ilisu project. We explained in detail why we demanded that they should not give Export Credit Guarantees for the project. They could not refute our arguments and basically agreed with our concerns.

But then they said it is better for European companies to do the project rather than Chinese companies. It is true that China is building dams worldwide, but that is not a valid excuse to back this very flawed project. The European ECAs said they could guarantee abiding by many international standards, particularly on resettlement and water quality of the planned reservoir. We refused that argument categorically. They went on to develop a project Terms of Reference that included 153 conditions on social and environmental issues that must be met before they approve the Ilisu project. The European governments are telling us what is good for us, and it is patronizing and typical of the treatment we poorer Southern countries have experienced for hundreds of years.

The European governments do not want to miss out on the hydropower and dam market in Turkey. Turkey is one of the main dam builders in the world and plans to build at least 540 hydroelectric power plants. That means there will be projects to build for several decades.

WRR: What are the goals of the campaign?
EA: The short-term goal is to hinder the start of dam construction, which is planned to start in the next few months. To accomplish this, we are trying to spread our campaign to all affected Kurdish regions and also to the entire country. We are also working closely with several European NGOs to pressure the European export credit agencies to withdraw their financial support for the project. We know that in the long term a strong campaign in Turkey is critical. The protests by affected people must be at the center of all efforts. But emphasizing the importance of protecting the antique city of Hasankeyf to the public of Turkey is critical because it an important part of the rich history and cultural heritage of our region.

This campaign is crucial to develop social consciousness about cultural heritage, ecology and the sustainable socioeconomic development of the people of our region. We must have development which does not displace people and which protects our cultural heritage and ecology. Achieving this is important not only for our region but for the entire country because there are many other dam projects which threaten cultural heritage and ecology. That's why we are working very closely with the campaign against the Yortanli Dam in Izmir province, which threatens the archaeological site of Allianoi.

WRR: What are the major challenges you face in the campaign now?

EA: The major challenge is to increase the awareness of affected people, build faith that their resistance has a chance to be successful and activate them. They must be the propagators of the campaign.

The 10,000 year old town of Hasankeyf will be flooded if Ilisu Dam is built.
The 10,000 year old town of Hasankeyf will be flooded if Ilisu Dam is built.
The second challenge is to lead a strong, strategic and long-term campaign that also has international dimensions. This has not happened in our region concerning environmental or social issues. Due to the unsolved Kurdish question and conflict and the civil war in the 1990s, this was impossible. There was much suppression by Turkish security forces.

Another challenge is the general prejudices of many parts of Turkish society against the Kurdish people. That's why the major Turkish press, Turkish organizations and Turkish artists do not support our campaign significantly. In the past two to three years, the Turkish press has written reasonably about the Ilisu project, but that is not enough to be successful against the Turkish government. However, since the Nature Organization (Doga Dernegi) started a campaign against the Ilisu Dam, the Turkish public has started paying more attention.

WRR: An Iraqi expert recently said the Ilisu Dam will dramatically reduce the Tigris River's flow, depriving the city of Mosul of about half of its summer water supply. Can you talk about the impacts of the dam on Iraq?
EA: The Ilisu reservoir and other planned reservoirs will be able to store the entire annual flow of the Tigris from Turkey to Iraq. Iraq relies on water from the Tigris River for irrigation and for drinking supply for cities like Mosul and Baghdad.

International convention and law requires that Turkey consult with Syria and Iraq, negotiate and come to an agreement before implementing any large projects on the Tigris River. Such an agreement is still missing.

Turkey and Iraq are situated in a politically unstable region. Even in times of peace, allowing a state to wield power over water increases tensions between neighbouring countries.