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Rare Footage of Ilısu: The Dam That Will Flood Homes and History Across Southern Turkey

This spring and summer, National Geographic Young Explorer Julia Harte is traveling along the Tigris River from Southern Iraq to Southeastern Turkey, documenting ancient sites and modern communities along the river before they are transformed by the Ilısu Dam, an 11 billion-cubic-meter hydroelectric dam that will generate 2% of Turkey’s power.  

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Since it was first proposed by Turkey’s State Water Works in 1954, the Ilısu Dam has had a troubled history.

In 1982, the hydroelectric dam was incorporated into Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP): a regional development plan consisting of 19 hydroelectric plants and 22 dams. It was slated for construction on the Tigris River, in a village of a few hundred people.

But controversy soon erupted around the project. In addition to the village of Ilısu, the 10.4 billion-cubic-meter reservoir created by the dam would flood 400 kilometers of Tigris ecosystem, displace more than 25,000 people, and flood 300 archeological sites, including the 12,000-year-old town of Hasankeyf.

Preliminary work on the Ilısu Dam began in the 1990s, and construction commenced in 2006. Concerns about the dam’s impact on the region, however, induced European financiers to withdraw export credit guarantees from the project in the late 2000s.

Now funded solely by the Turkish government, work on the dam has continued and is expected to be complete by the end of 2014.

Photo by Julia Harte.

The Ilısu Dam’s 135 meter-high, 1,820 meter-long embankment is expected to be completed by the end of next year. Photo by Julia Harte.

Turkish and international organizations have estimated the effects that the dam will have on the region. But Turkey’s environmental advocacy groups point out that no comprehensive study of the dam’s future impact exists.

“We don’t have any environmental impact assessment,” says Dicle Tuba Kılıç, the Hasankeyf Campaign Coordinator for Doğa Derneği, Turkey’s Nature Foundation.

In early 2013, Turkey’s highest administrative court, the State Council, ordered work on the dam to halt until such a study had been carried out.

“That’s why the Turkish council argued that the construction should be stopped last January, but then the Turkish government, ministry just changed the regulation, so that now the Ilısu Dam does not need environmental impact assessment,” explains Kılıç.

Indeed, in a visit to the Ilısu Dam site in June this year, construction on the dam was observed to be proceeding at a normal pace. Once the dam structure is finished, the reservoir will take approximately three years to fill up.

As of June 2013, construction on the Ilısu Dam was proceeding busily. Photo by Julia Harte.

As of June 2013, construction on the Ilısu Dam was proceeding busily. Photo by Julia Harte.

The Ilısu Dam’s project manager, Mahmut Dundar, declined repeated requests for an interview, saying he could not get permission from his superiors to discuss the dam.

But an individual working on the dam who was familiar with its engineering aspects discussed his concerns about the project on condition of anonymity. “I personally have concerns about the rock’s durability,” he said, noting that marly limestone — the type of rock out of which the dam is being built — can erode quickly if it is repeatedly soaked in water and allowed to dry.

He also acknowledged the criticisms leveled by environmental and social advocacy groups: “I can completely understand why people are against the dam. Ecologists say this is one of the least environmentally friendly ways of generating energy, but there is always a price to pay.”

Government officials have said the 1,200-MW capacity Ilısu Dam is necessary for shoring up Turkey’s energy supply. Turkey has only three dams larger than Ilısu: the 1,330 MW-capacity Keban Dam, the 1,800 MW-capacity Karakaya Dam, and the 2,400 MW-capacity Atatürk Dam. The country’s total electricity generating capacity is just over 60,000 MW.

Photo by Julia Harte.

Up the hill from the town of Hasankeyf sits “New Hasankeyf”: the settlement to which the government is urging Hasankeyf’s residents to move after their town is flooded. Photo by Julia Harte.

Turkish authorities have defended the dam in part on grounds that it will improve the lives of thousands of villagers — even the ones whose homes are submerged by its reservoir.

Hasankeyf’s district governor, Ceyhun Dilşad Taşkın, says the town’s 2,900 residents will be happier in a new village that Turkey’s state housing authority is building on a nearby ridge. “Hasankeyf will be transformed into a very modern city in the new settlement site,” says Taşkın. “With restaurants, accommodation facilities, and so forth, it will have much better opportunities than it has today.”

Some of Hasankeyf’s monuments will be moved to higher ground, according to Taşkın, who adds that tourism will boom after the dam opens: “In the underwater area, we’ll preserve some artifacts that can’t be moved and we’ll create a center for tourism that can host diving activities and water sports. It will become a very important region for tourism.”

Local authorities have already begun holding touristic activities in Hasankeyf that don’t involve the town’s history.

In mid-May, two stunt cyclists performed for an hour on a sandlot set up in front of the Tigris River. Several hundred Hasankeyf residents and tourists watched as the cyclists soared past the ancient monuments on the other shore, dressed in flashy costumes and waving at the crowd.

Stunt cyclists perform in front of the Tigris River, with the ancient town of Hasankeyf as their backdrop. Photo by Julia Harte.

Stunt cyclists perform in front of the Tigris River, with the ancient town of Hasankeyf as their backdrop. Photo by Julia Harte.

Many residents of Hasankeyf are skeptical that their town will attract more tourists once its historical caves, mosques, churches, tombs, and valleys have been flooded.

Murat Sevinç worked at the dam site from 2010 to 2012. “I don’t want my city, my village, to be lost for a project that will last fifty years,” says Sevinç. “We’re talking about 11,000 years of history. If they want to improve our economy, let’s let the world know about our historical riches.”

Sevinç has concerns about the dam’s construction — especially the concrete casing around the structure, which he helped build. “They wait only one hour, then add too much water,” Sevinç explains. “Now, do I think that’s stable? No. They claim it will last for fifty years, but I would be surprised if it even lasts thirty, because they’re adding too much water to the concrete.

Why did Sevinç work on a project he so fervently opposes? It’s a sign of the lack of economic opportunity in Hasankeyf and the surrounding region — a region that has also been the setting for a three-decade civil war between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerilla army.

“If there weren’t so few job opportunities [here], nobody would want to work on something that was going to submerge his home under water,” says Sevinç.

Hasankeyf residents stand side by side with international activists in front of the Ilısu Dam construction site to protest the flooding of their town. Photo by Julia Harte.

Hasankeyf residents stand side by side with international activists in front of the Ilısu Dam construction site to protest the flooding of their town. Photo by Julia Harte.

Some say Turkey’s energy appetite could be satisfied in less disruptive ways.

“We believe that we have to produce energy in our houses,” says Doğa Derneği’s Kılıç. “We don’t need big centers to produce energy, actually. We independently can produce our energy by sun, by wind, by also small streams, without destroying our rivers.”

Kılıç brought a delegation of Turkish and international activists to the site of the Ilısu Dam in mid-May to protest the project. Hasankeyf residents stood side by side with visitors from indigenous groups fighting dams in Brazil’s Amazon region, Chile, and Kenya, holding banners and posters of Hasankeyf’s most iconic monuments.

“If Turkey builds out the projects that are planned within this part of Mesopotamia, to say nothing of what I understand to be 1500 dams in the nation that are planned, it will stack up among one of the most dammed nations during the next generation,” says Jason Rainey, executive director of Rivers International, who was among the delegation.

Locals who live in the path of Turkey’s dams have little say in this future. But they will be most affected by it.

Most Hasankeyf residents oppose the Ilısu Dam -- but some are  Photo by Julia Harte.

Most Hasankeyf residents are unwilling to abandon their town. Photo by Julia Harte.

 

This project is also made possible by a Dick Goldensohn Fund grant from the Center for Investigative Reporting.