In Turkey, a power play will leave ancient towns underwater

The nation’s plan to control its most precious resource includes a controversial dam that will drown some of its history.

PHOTOGRAPH BY MATHIAS DEPARDON, INSTITUTE

 

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The ancient town of Hasankeyf sits on the bank of the Tigris River. The Ilısu Dam will cause the river to rise some 200 feet, submerging this modern café, the ruins of the 900-year-old bridge behind it, and Neolithic caves (in the background).

PHOTOGRAPH BY MATHIAS DEPARDON, INSTITUTE

 

This story appears in the November 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Hasankeyf is a 12,000-year-old village carved into a plateau flanking the Tigris River. It looks like something out of a surreal fairy tale. Overlooking the town are caves crafted by Neolithic pioneers and the ruins of a citadel as old as the Byzantines. The settlement bears traces of the Romans. It’s the site of significant medieval Islamic architecture, including a bridge across the Tigris that established it as an important outpost along the Silk Road. Marco Polo may have crossed there on his way to China.

Hasankeyf is also an active town in southeastern Turkey, with markets and gardens and mosques and cafés—a place with a palpable feeling of historical continuity and survival.

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Atatürk Dam is Turkey’s largest. Named after Kemal Atatürk, the country’s founder, the dam was built on the Euphrates River in the 1980s as part of Turkey’s sweeping Southeastern Anatolia Project to generate electricity, bolster the region’s economy, and irrigate rural areas.

 

Yet in 2006 the Turkish government officially began work on a giant dam across the Tigris River that will lead to the drowning of an estimated 80 percent of Hasankeyf and the displacement of its 3,000 residents, as well as many other people. The dam—the Ilısu—is now almost complete, and the flooding could start anytime in the next year.

Why would a country demolish one of its most mythic places? To improve the lives of the local people through modernization, the government says. But the massive project benefits the Turkish state too. Turkey has no native oil or natural gas sources. What it does have is water.

In the early decades of the 20th century, the Turkish Republic engaged in a series of state-driven modernization projects intended to develop its economy. The southeastern region—its inhabitants relatively poor, undereducated, and minority Kurds, Arabs, and Assyrians—was largely left out. In the 1970s the government proposed a remedy: a colossal dam project that would bring reliable electricity to the southeast and irrigate the farmlands. The Turkish government would build 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants across the Tigris and Euphrates river network, as well as roads, bridges, and other forms of infrastructure. The plan was dubbed the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP, as the acronym goes in Turkish).

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In Halfeti, located on the reservoir created by the Birecik Dam, tourists dine at Fırat Yüzer floating restaurant. People come to the lake to visit the town’s submerged remains and other flooded villages nearby, but water also covers the region’s fertile fields.

The GAP soon became controversial. Syria and Iraq, downstream from Turkey, protested that Turkey could deprive them of much needed water. In 1984 the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant separatist group—terrorists, according to Turkey and the United States—revolted against perceived injustices committed by the Turkish state, turning the southeast into a war zone. Meanwhile, European banks withdrew funding and the World Bank denied loans because of ongoing multinational disagreements, inadequate environmental assessments, and concerns about the scope of resettlement and cultural heritage protection. Even within the Turkish government, enthusiasm for the GAP as a national pride project began to fade, according to Hilal Elver, who advised the Ministry of Environment in the 1990s and is now the UN Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on the right to food.

WHERE THE

WATER WILL RISE

The Ilısu Dam is one of the largest of

the now 29 planned dams that form

the backbone of a decades-long

infrastructure project in Turkey. When

the dam is finished, 2.7 trillion gallons

of water are expected to flood up to

120 square miles of land along the

Tigris River, including the village of

Hasankeyf, an ancient Silk Road

trading post still rich with antiquities

and historical significance.

EUROPE

ASIA

TURKEY

AFRICA

IRAQ

TURKEY

Dam project area

ILISU DAM

Hasankeyf

Direction

of view

Tigris

SYRIA

IRAN

IRAQ

Tigris-Euphrates

river basin

Persian

Gulf

100 mi

100 km

POLITICAL FALLOUT

Turkey lacks the oil and gas resources of

neighboring Syria and Iraq, but it does have

water. Iraqis, facing recent serious droughts,

worry about Turkey’s ability to block more

water from the Tigris.

MASSIVE RESERVOIR

The reservoir created by the Ilısu Dam is

designed to stretch about 250 miles,

inundating 300 archaeological sites and

dozens of villages and small towns. At capacity,

the reservoir would put Hasankeyf under

roughly 90 feet of water and would displace

or affect tens of thousands of people and

the ecosystems of hundreds of species.

SCALE VARIES IN THIS PERSPECTIVE.

LENGTH OF TIGRIS RIVER BETWEEN

HASANKEYF AND ILISU DAM IS

APPROXIMATELY 50 MILES

(80 KILOMETERS).

N

River channel

Area to be flooded

Affected settlement

Sit Mountain

4,626 ft

1,410 m

ILISU

DAM

CONTROVERSIAL PROJECT

Local and international protests over the

environmental, historical, and human impacts

of the dam slowed construction. Nearly

complete as of July 2018, the dam—443 feet

high and more than a mile wide—cost some

$1.5 billion to build. It’s expected to produce

nearly as much power as the Hoover Dam, one

of the largest dams in the U.S.

N

Yama Hills

New

Hasankeyf

Hasankeyf

Sunken treasures will

include human-built

caves—some dating to

the Neolithic era—medieval

Islamic architecture, and

modern-day communities.

New

Hasankeyf

N

0.3 mi

0.3 km

Hasankeyf

LOST CITY

Hasankeyf is among the world’s oldest

inhabited settlements, with a history dating

back 12,000 years. A plan to relocate residents to a “New Hasankeyf” on the opposite bank of the Tigris has been met with sustained resistance by locals and the international community.

RYAN MORRIS, NGM STAFF

SOURCES: REPUBLIC OF TURKEY MINISTRY OF

DEVELOPMENT, SOUTHEASTERN ANATOLIA PROJECT

REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT ADMINISTRATION; ILISU

CONSORTIUM; DIGITALGLOBE VIA GOOGLE EARTH

WHERE THE WATER WILL RISE

TURKEY

The Ilısu Dam is one of the largest of the now 29 planned dams that form the backbone of a decades-long infrastructure project in Turkey. When the dam is finished, 2.7 trillion gallons of water are expected to flood up to 120 square miles of land along the Tigris River, including the village of Hasankeyf, an ancient Silk Road trading post still rich with antiquities and historical significance.

Dam project area

ILISU DAM

Hasankeyf

Direction

of view

MASSIVE RESERVOIR

Tigris

The reservoir created by the Ilısu Dam is designed to stretch about 250 miles, inundating 300 archaeologi- cal sites and dozens of villages and small towns. At capacity, the reservoir would put Hasankeyf under roughly 90 feet of water and would displace or affect tens of thousands of people and the ecosystems of hundreds of species.

SYRIA

IRAN

EUROPE

ASIA

TURKEY

AFRICA

IRAQ

IRAQ

Tigris-Euphrates

river basin

100 mi

SCALE VARIES IN THIS PERSPECTIVE.

LENGTH OF TIGRIS RIVER BETWEEN

HASANKEYF AND ILISU DAM IS

APPROXIMATELY 50 MILES

(80 KILOMETERS).

Persian

Gulf

100 km

POLITICAL FALLOUT

Turkey lacks the oil and gas resources of neighboring Syria and Iraq, but it does have water. Iraqis, facing recent serious droughts, worry about Turkey’s ability to block more water from the Tigris.

N

Karakaş Mountains

River channel

Area to be flooded

Affected settlement

Sit Mountain

4,626 ft

1,410 m

ILISU

DAM

Yama Hills

Sunken treasures will

include human-built

caves—some dating to

the Neolithic era—medieval

Islamic architecture, and

modern-day communities.

New

Hasankeyf

Hasankeyf

New

Hasankeyf

N

0.3 mi

0.3 km

LOST CITY

CONTROVERSIAL PROJECT

Hasankeyf

Local and international protests over the environmental, historical, and human impacts of the dam slowed construction. Nearly complete as of July 2018, the dam—443 feet high and more than a mile wide—cost some $1.5 billion to build. It’s expected to produce nearly as much power as the Hoover Dam, one of the largest dams in the U.S.

Hasankeyf is among the world’s oldest inhabited settlements, with a history dating back 12,000 years. A plan to relocate residents to a “New Hasankeyf” on the opposite bank of the Tigris has been met with sustained resistance by locals and the international community.

RYAN MORRIS, NGM STAFF

SOURCES: REPUBLIC OF TURKEY MINISTRY OF DEVELOPMENT, SOUTHEASTERN ANATOLIA PROJECT REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT ADMINISTRATION; ILISU CONSORTIUM; DIGITALGLOBE VIA GOOGLE EARTH

Indeed, by the 2000s it had become clear that the dam projects weren’t succeeding in their ostensible purpose. “They mismanaged the water, and it didn’t bring development and it didn’t bring peace,” said Elver, noting that the PKK and the government are still fighting. Today electricity generated by 13 of 19 completed dams is mostly used elsewhere. Salination, a direct result of introducing water to poorly drained salty lands, has ruined precious farms. Income from the dams hasn’t trickled down to local municipalities or people. Thousands have been displaced. Most received monetary compensation and housing but not enough to replace long-held livelihoods.

The Ilısu Dam may be one of the GAP’s most destructive projects yet. It’s set to flood not only Hasankeyf but also 250 miles of river ecosystem, 300 archaeological sites, and dozens of towns and villages. Some of the artifacts will be moved to safer ground, but the dam will displace about 15,000 people and affect tens of thousands more. Ercan Ayboğa, an environmental engineer and spokesperson for the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive, says the number might be close to 100,000. “It’s a huge project imposed on the people of the region by the Turkish government,” Ayboğa said. It “has no benefits for the local population except profits for some companies and big landowners.”

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This image of the Ilısu Dam construction site was made in 2014. Although the dam is mostly complete now, the date when it will go into operation is still undetermined.

So why does the Turkish government press on? After all, other countries, including the U.S., are reconsidering the benefits and risks of dam projects and even removing some dams to restore natural water flow and river habitats. And there are less destructive ways to generate electricity, such as solar power.

Many believe that the government’s goal is simply to control this natural resource, for Turkey’s domestic needs and for its security. Case in point: When the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan, found shelter in Syria, one of Turkey’s bargaining chips to get him back was that it could shut off the country’s water supply. Water “can be used as a weapon against Iraq and Syria,” said John Crofoot, an American part-time resident and founder of Hasankeyf Matters. “It’s leverage.”

This past spring Iraq’s drought worsened, and the Tigris trickled to dangerous lows. The Iraqi government lobbied against the Turkish plan to start filling the reservoir created by the Ilısu Dam in June. The Turks acquiesced. Fatih Yıldız, the Turkish ambassador to Iraq, told critics, “We have shown once again that we can put our neighbor’s needs ahead of our own.” But for decades the government’s attitude has basically remained the same: Iraq has oil, but Turkey has water—and it can do with that what it pleases.

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A memorial to the dozens of workers who died during construction of the Atatürk Dam in the 1980s decorates a café plaza overlooking the dam.
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A herd of cattle follows the Tigris River near the town of Hasankeyf. Water from the Ilısu Dam reservoir will eventually cover much of their grazing land and force many local farmers out of business.
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Savaşan village in the district of Halfeti offers a glimpse of Hasankeyf’s future. In 2000 the village was submerged, along with eight others, by the Birecik Dam. Despite the project’s promise of helping agriculture, the farmland belonging to the people of Halfeti now lies largely beneath the water. Tour boats pass by a drowned mosque, but tourism hasn’t yet made up for the community’s economic loss.

People in Hasankeyf protested in March, after government officials served the merchants who worked in the historic bazaar with eviction papers and told them to start moving to new commercial properties in New Hasankeyf, a series of bland, mostly uninhabited buildings on a nearby plain. The merchants argued that their businesses couldn’t be supported by a ghost town. The eviction, they said, violated their human right to work. They prevailed, if only temporarily.

In the years since the dam construction began, the people have been living in a vague, agonizing limbo, not knowing when they will have to leave their homes. The last anyone heard, the government was going to start filling the reservoir in July. That didn’t happen. So the people wait, and live. It’s as if the longer Hasankeyf is not flooded, the easier it is to believe that it never will be.

Editor’s note
While on assignment for this story, French photographer Mathias Depardon was arrested by Turkish police and imprisoned for 32 days. He was not formally charged, and no reason was given for his eventual release. Although Depardon had lived in Turkey for five years, he was banned from the country for at least 12 months. Before the arrest, he had shot more than a hundred rolls of film—all were recovered and sent to National Geographic.

Suzy Hansen
is a writer living in Istanbul. Her first book, Notes on a Foreign Country, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
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