Opposition to Turkey’s Ilisu Dam rises again

Turkey has revived plans for the vast Ilisu Dam. Maggie Ronayne explains why she’s still fighting construction on cultural and environmental grounds, while Neal Ascherson outlines the bitter dispute.

On August 5, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, laid the foundation stone for the vast Ilisu Dam project in southeastern Anatolia. In doing so, he revived one of the most bitterly contested dam projects in western Asia, which has drawn protests over the past few years not only from the local population but from ecologists, human-rights defenders and archaeologists all over the world.

The Ilisu Dam is to be built across the upper Tigris, which runs south from Turkey into Iraq and reaches the sea in the Persian Gulf. The region, watered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, once known as Mesopotamia, formed one of the most important centres of settlement and urban culture in early human history. Alterations to the flow of the Tigris will profoundly affect not only those living close to the dam but also the populations of Iraq, who — in the present chaos following the American and British invasion in 2003 — are in no position to make their objections felt. The dam is a key part of the South-East Anatolia Regional Development Project (GAP in its Turkish acronym). GAP is one of the biggest regional development projects in the world, involving 90 dams and 60 hydroelectric power plants on the Tigris, Euphrates and other rivers.

The population in the area of the dam is largely Kurdish. Armed conflict in the 1990s between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) led, among other tragic results, to the displacement of up to three million people from their homes. Women have been at the heart of the movement, demanding to return to villages they were forced to leave by Turkish security forces. But many of these villages are now in the area of the proposed Ilisu dam reservoir.

Maggie Ronayne, an Irish archaeologist who knows the region well, has been a leading figure in the international protest movement against the dam. In 2001, the British government proposed to offer export credit guarantees to British companies in the dam-building consortium, and issued an Environmental Impact Assessment Report. With her colleague Willy Kitchen, Ronayne responded with a devastating critique of the report which demolished it point by point. The following year, the British construction firm Balfour-Beatty pulled out of the Ilisu project, and the consortium collapsed.

Now, however, the Turkish government has returned to the project. A new consortium has been formed, and a revised environmental impact assessment has been prepared. Maggie Ronayne is reassembling the international, scientific and scholarly opposition which helped to halt Ilisu in 2002, at least for a time.

Neal Ascherson


Maggie Ronayne writes:

Ilisu is back, but the good news is that there’s a large and growing international movement opposing it. People may remember that, last time round, the affected communities and campaigners in Turkey and Europe forced the collapse of the consortium of companies then trying to build the dam. Archaeologists also contributed to that victory.

A new consortium came together a year and a half ago, including VA Tech (Austria), Alstom (Switzerland) and Züblin (Germany). They have now applied for export credit guarantees to their respective governments. These governments, all members of the European Union, are still considering an updated environmental impact assessment and a “resettlement action plan”, and it seems they will not make any decision until September.

The foundation-stone ceremony is unlikely to lead directly to the start of construction, especially as there is no European Union funding, and legal cases relating to the dam have not yet been settled. The action of prime minister Erdoğan appears designed to put pressure on the affected communities and on European governments, and also to give the governing party some political leverage within Turkey. Nevertheless, it is important not to let the occasion pass without protest.

The project has been the subject of local, national and international protest for many years because it is bound to have destructive impacts on many thousands of people, their environment, on internationally significant cultural heritage and on escalating war in the region. Ilisu, costing €1.8 billion, would flood over 300 square kilometres in the Kurdish region of Turkey, displacing up to 78,000 villagers. Local people would receive little or no benefit from the project. On the contrary, impacts of the dam would include more severe poverty, health problems, break-up of families and communities, environmental pollution, cutting off water-flow to downstream communities in Syria and Iraq, and wide-ranging cultural destruction.

As an archaeologist, I have investigated the new updated Environmental Impact Assessment, and in a review drawn up in consultation with affected women villagers and the international grassroots women’s network, Global Women’s Strike, I have shown that it is no basis for any project. It is not really an assessment at all, and has failed to collect the baseline data needed to make a professional decision on whether the dam should proceed.

My review shows how the dam threatens to destroy thousands of years of culture and heritage and its survival into the future — first of all by targeting women and all in their care. It highlights women’s opposition to cultural destruction by dams and war and their demands, yet notes that women have not been consulted properly or at all on this project. Their workload, already great and mostly unwaged, would increase enormously if they are displaced by the dam into conditions of even greater poverty. This would make it all the harder for them to care for everyone, which is why targeting women like this threatens the cultural destruction of the entire community. Ethnographic and ethno-archaeological proposals to “salvage” this culture are demeaning to the rural communities concerned, according to this review, and cannot possibly save culture. 

The review reports that thousands of sites from the beginnings of human history to the present day would be submerged by Ilisu’s reservoir, including potentially hundreds of large mounds dating from the Neolithic period (or New Stone Age, when agriculture first began) onwards. The time-scale, personnel and budgets outlined for salvage work in the Turkish government’s plans are gross underestimates; most forms of cultural heritage affected have not been taken into account at all. The plan just to excavate 40 mounds and parts of the historic town of Hasankeyf is entirely inadequate, and the proposal to move some mediaeval monuments to the upper town or to a cultural park, juxtaposing them with other monuments from different periods, is unacceptable — and inadvisable given the nature of the materials. It would be unacceptable even if local residents wanted it, and many do not. The cultural park plans for the new Hasankeyf have not been agreed with the residents, and there is no clear management plan in place or strategy for avoiding rampant tourist development.

Hasankeyf, photo by Bertilvidet

It remains illegal to flood Hasankeyf itself, as it is a protected site under Turkish cultural heritage law. It is currently the subject of legal proceedings in the European Court of Human Rights. From 60 to 80% of the reservoir area has not yet been surveyed for archaeological sites. Indeed, the very area where prime minister Erdoğan laid the foundation stone has not been surveyed at all, and it is therefore a breach of international law, including European Union directives, to proceed with any construction in the absence of archaeological survey and testing.

But survey and excavation to professional standards are not possible in this region, according to local archaeologists, because of the constraints on time, funding and personnel, and with war in the area escalating. The review reports that archaeologists from the area have mentioned the constraints imposed on them by the presence of landmines, by military control over what they do, and by the impossibility of maintaining professional ethics and standards due to the climate of repression in southeastern Turkey. This climate makes it more difficult to address the threatened destruction of the cultural heritage of Kurdish and Armenian people.

Moreover, work I’ve done over several years has indicated to me that graves, including mass graves of Kurdish people who were “disappeared” during the fighting in the 1990s, may well lie in the reservoir area. But restrictions imposed by the state make it impossible to investigate the graves professionally and independently.

In an open letter to the Turkish prime minister, I ask: “How can you proceed with the dam while all these cultural impacts remain uninvestigated and when professional opinion thinks that it is not possible to do so? In particular, it is not possible to investigate the impacts while you are prosecuting a war in the Kurdish region. Will not you and the other funders and backers of the dam be jointly guilty of covering up evidence of crimes committed in that war, and guilty of involvement in further serious cultural destruction in the Middle East?”

When the last consortium tried to build the Ilisu Dam, the World Archaeological Congress said that to go ahead would amount to “ethnic cleansing”. There is no reason to change that opinion today.


The Authors: Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. He was for many years a foreign correspondent for the (London) Observer. Among his books are The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo (1963; Granta, 1999), The Struggles for Poland (Random House, 1988), Black Sea (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996), and Stone Voices: the Search for Scotland (Granta, 2003).

Maggie Ronayne is a lecturer in archaeology at the National University of Ireland, Galway.  She is also coordinator in Ireland of the Global Women’s Strike, the international grassroots women’s network. She focuses on women’s cultural and other work as key to archaeology’s case against cultural destruction by war or development projects, and has published widely on the GAP dams. Email: [email protected]