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Damning the dams

Blocking Turkey's Ilisu Dam project won't benefit the Kurds.

Andrew Cox

Topics Politics

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The Ilisu Dam in Turkey is one of the most controversial development projects in the world.

It is part of the $32billion South-Eastern Anatolia Project (known as GAP after its Turkish name, Guneydogu Anadolu Projesi) – a network of 22 dams and 19 power plants being built by European and US companies for the Turkish government’s State Hydraulics Works Department (DSI). Ilisu is being built in the Kurdish area of south-east Turkey, on the river Tigris (1).

Western environmentalists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) claim the dam will cause huge problems – most seriously the displacement of Kurds, whose towns and villages may be flooded and demolished to make way for the dam. The Ilisu Dam Report 2000, commissioned by the Kurdish Human Rights Project UK, estimated that as many as 78,000 Kurds could be displaced, without adequate plans for resettlement and compensation (2).

The 78,000 figure comes from a confidential report leaked in September 2000 on the construction problems facing the Ilisu Dam, carried out by Dr Ayse Kudat, a senior development officer at the World Bank. Kudat was commissioned by European export credit agencies to survey Turkey’s ‘resettlement plans’. She couldn’t get access to some Kurdish areas as a result of Turkey’s ongoing military operations against the Kurds – but on basis of the information she was able to gather, she estimated that the likely figure for displacement would be between 47,000 and 78,000 people (two to three times higher than previous estimates).

Kudat also charged that the Turkish authorities had shown a distinct lack of concern for those forced to move, had failed to consult them, and had not monitored the social impact of building the dam. She pointed out that the Ilisu catchment already contained thousands of people displaced from previous GAP projects, who had not been properly settled or compensated for losing their homes (3).

Since 1984, the Turkish state has been at war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting for Kurdish independence. Over 30,000 people have died in the conflict (4). Turkey refuses to recognise the ‘ethnicity’ of its Kurdish population and continues to ban the Kurdish language. New constitutional proposals in October 2001 suggested allowing freedom for Kurds to broadcast and speak their language – but broadcasts can still be banned if they are judged to threaten ‘national security’ (5). The plight of the stateless Kurds – whose lands fall inside the territories of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Armenia – has drawn much international sympathy, particularly from human rights organisations in western Europe.

In 1999, the Ilisu Dam Campaign (IDC) was set up in Britain to oppose the granting of export credit guarantees by the British government to the construction company Balfour Beatty, which had an interest in the dam (6). IDC has continually drawn attention to Ilisu’s potential impact on human rights and the environment by lobbying MPs and companies involved in the dam.

IDC and other pressure groups successfully stalled construction. They bought shares in Balfour Beatty to put pressure on the company ‘from within’. Balfour Beatty withdrew its £200million Ilisu Dam contract in November 2001, following ‘a thorough and extensive evaluation of the commercial, environmental and social issues inherent in the project’ (7).

Other firms that have left the project include Impregilo (Italy) and Skanska (Sweden). There was a further blow when Switzerland’s largest bank, UBS, withdrew in February 2002, over unresolved ‘social and environmental’ issues (8). The only European firm still involved in the project is the Austrian company VA Tech.

Turkey itself suffered a severe economic crisis in 2001 – leading to job losses, the devaluation of the Turkish lira, plummeting value of public savings, the closure of unprofitable public services and demonstrations against the government. It was granted a $16billion loan by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), on the condition that further ‘economic reforms’ and austerity measures were passed (9).

In 2001, Turkish power consumption had grown by an annual eight percent, far more quickly than the national economy and greatly outpacing the country’s ageing energy infrastructure. Periodic blackouts and power shortages are common, and the government says the sector needs $4 to $4.5billion in annual investment just to keep up with demand (10).

What many of the anti-dam campaigners seem to miss is that the GAP project would greatly increase Turkey’s energy production and agricultural productivity. According to the Ilisu Dam Report 2000: ‘the project will eventually increase vegetable production by 40 percent, cotton by 300 percent, barley by 40 percent and wheat by 100 percent. Around the Ataturk Dam (11), the region has been transformed into one of the most important centres of cotton production in Turkey. Overall, it is claimed that the GAP will generate 3.8million jobs and raise per capita income in the region by 209 percent.’ (12)

For a developing country like Turkey, with its spiralling inflation and rising power consumption, the GAP project could represent an important step forward. But Western critics of the Ilisu dam seem keen to condemn Turkey to more basic forms of generating energy. According to Hannah Griffiths of Friends of the Earth: ‘Turkey is ideally placed to exploit its solar energy potential. It doesn’t need centralised generators, but mini-power stations on the roofs of homes and other buildings. They could feed current into the grid by day, and the users could take electricity from it when the sunlight wasn’t enough to meet their needs.’

The international consultative body the World Commission on Dams (which was disbanded at the end of 2001) criticised dam constructions worldwide for allegedly increasing the transmission of ‘greenhouse gases’ like carbon dioxide and methane, caused by rotting vegetation under the water. The commission suggested finding alternative ways of meeting people’s needs – through the use of renewable energy, recycling, better irrigation, and reducing water losses (13).

But however ‘imaginative’ solar and wind power schemes may seem, it’s highly unlikely that such schemes would generate anywhere near the level of energy that Turkey needs.

Turkey, a nation with many social, political and economic problems, aspires to the kind of living standards enjoyed in western Europe. But achieving those standards will require energy levels that match Turkey’s size and economic growth rate.

Turkey and the Kurds may be historic enemies – but both are being short-changed by the anti-dam campaigns. Turkey should not be forced to hold a begging bowl to the IMF, or to lower its energy horizons just because many in the West disapprove of large-scale energy development. And Kurds deserve more than being cast in the role of loveable and hapless victims championed by environmentalists and NGOs. How will the Kurds benefit from a campaign that defends their right to live in under-developed, poorly-equipped areas, while seeking to put a stop to further development?

Read on:

Big projects, small minds, by Dominic Standish

Dam campaigns, by Kirk Leech

(1) The Ilisu Dam Report 2000: The Ilisu Dam, the World Commission on Dams and Export Credit Reform. The Final Report of a Fact-Finding Mission to the Ilisu Dam Region, 9-16 October 2000

(2) The Ilisu Dam Report 2000

(3) Turkish dam ‘robs 70,000 of their homes’, Guardian, 7 September 2000

(4) The Ilisu Dam Report 2000

(5) Mixed reactions to Turkey’s reforms, BBC News, 5 October 2001

(6) Turkish Dam gets UK support, BBC News, 1 March 1999

(7) Balfour abandons Turkish dam project, BBC News, 13 November 2001

(8) Swiss bank quits Turkish dam project, BBC News, 27 February 2002

(9) IMF hands over Turkey loan, BBC News, 16 April 2002

(10) Dam failure piles on economic woe, BBC News, 13 November 2001

(11) Ataturk Dam

(12) The Ilisu Dam Report 2000

(13) No dam but plenty of energy, BBC News, 14 November 2001

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Topics Politics

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