Turkey's controversial dam project
The governments of Austria, Germany, Italy, Japan,
Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, Britain and the United States are
currently consider extending official export credits or
guarantees of about $850 million to the Ilisu hydropower project
Ilisu is at present the largest planned dam
project in Turkey. It is located on the Tigris river, 65 km
upstream of the Syrian and Iraqi borders and will cover 2,000
The project has been criticised by environmentalists, the
World Bank, Turkey's neighbours and the Arab League. The project
is extremely controversial for a variety of political, social,
environmental, economic and archaeological reasons. It appears to
violate five policy guidelines of the World Bank and core
provisions of the UN Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of
Since the 1970s, Turkey has been implementing the so-called
``Southeast Anatolia Project'' (Güneydogu Anadolu Projesi -
GAP) - a gigantic dam project developed for energy production and
irrigation. The Kurdish provinces of Gaziantep, Urfa, Adiyaman,
Malatya, Elazig, Tunceli, Diyarbakir, Mardin, Siirt, Batman and
Sirnak are the most affected. Altogether, 21 dams and 19
hydropower stations are planned. The whole project will cost and
estimated $32,000 million.
Work is underway or complete on 21 dams on the Tigris and
Euphrates rivers. Turkey says the dams will enable hundreds of
thousands of hectares of land to be irrigated, and generate
electricity for the underdeveloped and arid southeast of the
country. But the project is relatively expensive at a cost of
$1,300 per kw of electricity. No supply-side alternatives to
Ilisu have been considered, as the Turkish government is ready to
pay a high price for Ilisu because of its interest to control the
Kurdish population of Southeast Anatolia.
GAP dams such as Ataruk or Karakaya have so far displaced
100,000 people. Compensation has usually been tied to the
property of land or houses. Since most land in Southeast Anatolia
is concentrated in the hands of large landowners, many landless
families were not compensated at all.
The main goals of GAP are to increase regional income,
increase agricultural exports and secure the national energy
supply. An increase in income is to be predicted for those firms
involved (the British company Balfour Beatty being one of them)
the Turkish elite and the big landowners. Small farmers and
landless people will be forced to migrate to slums around the
The dam projects are also a highly important component in
Turkey's so-called ``low intensity warfare'' against the Kurds.
The resettlement of native people together with Turks from other
regions is planned to promote the assimilation of the Kurdish
population. The conflict dates back to the 1920s, when the
Turkish state initiated a policy of assimilation, banning the use
of the Kurdish language. Flooding their cities is a way to
destroy Kurdish history and in a region under virtual military
rule, a protest campaign against it is almost impossible.
The Ilisu reservoir will flood 52 villages and 15 small towns,
including Hasankeyf - a kurdish town with a population of 5,500
and the only town in Anatolia which has survived since the Middle
Ages without destruction. For the last 20 years, there has been
no investment in the town, because everyone knew that the dam
would destroy it, though it was awarded archaeological protection
by the Turkish government in 1978.
It was not until December 1999 that Turkish government
officials visited Hasankeyf to inform the population. The 20,000
affected people are not being consulted and the environmental
impact assessment of Ilisu was not made available to them or to
NGOs, only to the creditor banks and export-credit agencies.
From the environmental point of view, the dam will vastly
reduce the autopurification capacity of the Tigris, as solid
waste and wastewater of cities such as Diyarbakir and Batman and
Siirt are being dumped into this river. The Ilisu dam will also
infest the area with malaria and leishmaniosis.
The World Bank refused to participate in the project because
of fears it would increase the danger of cross-border conflict
with Turkey's neighbours to the south, Syria and Iraq
Turkey controls the Tigris and Euphrates headwaters which Iraq
and Syria depend on for fresh water. So far, Turkey has not been
prepared to negotiate a peaceful compromise regarding the
management of the rivers, but relies on its position of power on
the upstream part of the river to pressurise and blackmail the
In May 1997, the UN General Assembly approved the Convention
on the Non-Navigational Uses of Transboundary Waterways. This
convention attempts to prevent significant negative impacts of
projects on international waterways on other adjacent countries.
China and Burundi and Turkey were the only states to reject the
convention, more specifically in Turkey's case, those provisions
ruling the prior notification of adjacent nations about water
projects, the prevention of significant harm and the peaceful
resolution of international water conflicts.
The capacity of the reservoir will be sufficient for Turkey to
block any water flowing to Syria and Iraq for several months.
Both Baghdad and Damascus have complained about the amount of
water they have been getting since the completion of the first
Turkish dams at the beginning of the 1990s.
The finance package for Ilisu will be arranged by the Union
Bank of Switzerland (UBS). The World Bank declined to fund GAP in
1984 and will not become involved in Ilisu. Therefore, external
financing depends on coverage by official export credits of
guarantees. The Ilisu contractors have submitted applications for
coverage to the export credit agencies of several European Union
In the late 1980s, British company Balfour Beatty was involved
in the controversial Pergau dam project in Malaysia. The dam was
criticised as unsuitable on environmental grounds and because the
British aid package to build it was tied to Malaysia continuing
to buy arms from British weapons manufacturers.