Turkey: Hydro dam threatens ancient settlement

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ISTANBUL — Ali Abdullah Tatus’ voice reverberated across the narrow valley, its cliff studded with gaping black holes — the remnants of homes carved from the limestone thousands of years ago.

A wiry figure with vivid blue eyes and a sharply hooked nose, Tatus finished his song with a short bow.

“This spot has perfect acoustics,” said Tatus, who grew up in one of the caves that make up Hasankeyf, an ancient town on the banks of the Tigris River in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast.

Built on a series of cliffs lining the Tigris River, archaeologists believe Hasankeyf, which dates back some 10,000 years, may be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world. The site is one of the only places in the world that satisfies nine of UNESCO’s 10 criteria for its World Heritage List.

But despite its historical and cultural importance, Hasankeyf might soon be buried beneath a torrent of water. Fifty miles downstream, the construction of the Ilisu Dam, Turkey’s largest hydroelectric project, has already begun. Officials expect the 1,200-megawatt dam to be completed by 2013.

“If this succeeds, our history, our way of life, it will all be drowned,” Tatus said, pointing out the projected waterline — about halfway up the spire of a 15th-century minaret.

The dam is also causing officials in neighboring Syria and Iraq to bristle. With borders just 40 miles from the dam, they worry that the project would give Turkey greater control over water supplies. Their concerns are grave — in 1992, the CIA identified the struggle for water between Turkey and Syria as the most likely cause of war in the region.

Already Baghdad and Damascus want Turkey, where the source of the Tigris and Euphrates is located, to increase the flow of water passing through its network of dams. Construction of the Ilisu would only tighten Turkey’s control over what is fast becoming one of the world’s most valuable resources.

But despite it all, plans for the dam’s construction are on schedule.

Hasankeyf has acted as a fortress for the Romans and Byzantines, and a capital for the Artukids. During the Middle Ages it emerged as an important commercial center along the Silk Road and Marco Polo is rumored to have crossed the old Tigris bridge, of which only the foundation remains today. All in all, more than 20 cultures have called the site home, with the Ottomans bequeathing it to modern Turkey.

Yet less than five years after declaring Hasankeyf a “first degree” site for archeological conservation — a status that, in theory, provides the site with legal protection — Ankara approved plans for the Ilisu Dam.

Turkish officials argue that the dam will bring power and irrigation to the region, and, eventually, money from tourism based around water sports. On the other side of the line are those who believe that the historical richness of Hasankeyf will, through the promotion of sustainable tourism, bring greater benefit to the region in the long term.

“Just look at what has happened to other dams that have been built here,” said Ipek Tasli, coordinator for the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive, an organization advocating the development of alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar power, as an alternative to the dam. “There is a lot of unhappiness surrounding these projects.”

Groups such as Talsi's are concerned over what they see as inadequate plans for resettling and compensating the estimated 50,00 to 78,000 people who would be displaced by the waters.

All these costs, its turns out, are too high for some. Last summer, German, Swiss and Austrian backers withdrew $610 million in pledged credit after independent assessments found that the project failed to meet World Bank standards for environmental and cultural preservation.

It was the second time the Ilisu project has lost international backing. A British-led consortium abandoned funding for the project in 2001 amid local and international protest.

With the project in limbo, the Turkish government has worked to appease critics, making plans to move 12 of the town’s 300 monuments to a cultural park about a mile north of the city. Then, this January, three Turkish banks stepped in, pledging between $430 million and $500 million toward the estimated $1.7 billion cost of the dam.

For most, however, the efforts to preserve the site fall short. Preservationists worry the monuments could be damaged if moved and, since so much of the area has yet to be excavated, experts can only guess at what treasures might still lie underground.

“If this is done there will be no going back. This is what makes me mad,” Tatus said. “We are sitting on 11,000 years of history and suddenly that will be gone.”