Turkish dam could hold trouble for Anatolia’s cultural heritage and for Iraq

Approximately 70% of Iraq’s water flows from neighbouring countries, including the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that originate in Turkey.
Sunday 09/06/2019
Trucks are seen on the banks of the Tigris River near Hasankeyf, last December. (AFP)
Controversial from the start. Trucks are seen on the banks of the Tigris River near Hasankeyf, last December. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Turkey is about to start filling a huge reservoir behind a dam on the Tigris River in south-eastern Anatolia, marking the final stage of a project that has raised controversy in Europe and could have consequences for Iraq.

The Ilisu Dam, about 30km north of the Turkish border with Syria, is part of a planned network of 22 dams on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers that Ankara has been developing to generate energy and provide water for irrigation in Turkey’s Kurdish region, one of the poorest areas of the country.

A prestige project for the Turkish government more than 20 years in the making, the 1,200-megawatt Ilisu Dam has been controversial from the start.

The project drew criticism from European countries that scrapped credit guarantees for their companies ten years ago, accusing Turkey of not doing enough to protect cultural sites in the Tigris Valley and of ignoring the rights of tens of thousands of people who had to leave their homes. Activists said the project would wreak havoc in the region. Iraq, which relies on Tigris water, also voiced concern.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, is determined to complete the dam. He announced in March that the process to collect water behind the dam would start June 10. The Ilisu Dam will add $260 million to the national economy every year, Erdogan said at a rally in the south-eastern provincial capital of Mardin. He added the dam would cost around $1.5 billion.

The project’s dimensions are enormous. The dam will be 135 metres high and 1.8km wide. The reservoir will cover more than 300 sq.km and hold more than 10 billion cubic metres of water. People from almost 200 villages and towns will have to move to new homes as the lake fills.

One focal point of criticism has been the fate of Hasankeyf, a 12,000-year-old town 30km upstream from the dam. Lauded as a cultural site of high importance, Hasankeyf has seen the Assyrians, Romans and Seljuks come and go but could soon be submerged by the new lake.

“It could happen as early as next April,” Ercan Ayboga, an activist from the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive (HYG), an interest group campaigning against the dam, said by telephone. A HYG statement said the project would spark “destruction, exploitation and conflict.”

Ankara rejects the accusation and argues that special care is being taken to save important buildings. Some ancient structures have been moved to a nearby area. The government also said new settlements built for people in the area offer a higher standard of living than the old homes.

Ayboga said protest rallies in Turkey, Western Europe as well as in Iraq and in the Kurdish-governed part of Syria would draw attention to the problems caused by the dam.

“Our immediate goal is to stop the project,” Ayboga said. Once work was suspended, talks between the government and other stakeholders could explore ways to find a consensus on “socio-economic development in the region.”

“We want to start a debate and, if that happens, Turkey may delay the project,” Ayboga said.

It would not be the first time. When Germany, Austria and Switzerland withdrew from the project in 2009, Turkey had to find domestic lenders to finance the dam. Lawsuits and attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant group fighting for Kurdish self-rule and seen as a terrorist organisation by Turkey and the West, led to further delays.

Last year, protests by Iraq led Turkey to stop water impoundment in Ilisu. Ankara agreed to stop filling the lake after it had already delayed the planned start by three months at the request of its southern neighbour. Around 70% of Iraq’s water flows from neighbouring countries, including the Tigris and Euphrates, which originate in Turkey.

Water shortages in Iraq have led Baghdad to take measures such as bans on rice planting that have driven farmers to leave their land. Basra province has seen months of street protests over the lack of drinking water.

Ankara insists that the water of the Ilisu Dam will not be used for irrigation but only for power generation, which means that the flow of water towards Iraq will not be reduced once the lake has been filled. “The water passing through the turbines has to flow back into the riverbed,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said on its website.

Turkey will hold water back from the Tigris to fill the lake but says it will leave enough water flowing for its neighbours.

Iraq has no immediate worries after plentiful winter rains made sure the country is heading into summer with overflowing reservoirs but the Ilisu project and dams and reservoirs in Iran mean that water flows into Iraq are dropping.

Baghdad is negotiating with both neighbours to reach water-sharing agreements but its position as a receiving country gives it little leverage.