Recent reports quoting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as announcing $12 billion in new investments in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey have been greeted with considerable skepticism inside the country.
Erdogan is currently provisionally scheduled to visit southeastern Turkey on April 6. On March 10 Metin Metiner, who spent several years working as an advisor to the prime minister, told the daily Sabah that Erdogan would take the opportunity of his visit to the region to announce a package of economic, cultural, and political measures for Turkey’s Kurdish minority (Sabah, March 10).
On March 12 the New York Times quoted Erdogan as saying in an interview the previous day that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was planning to invest $12 billion in “a new economic effort” to create jobs and draw young men away from the militancy of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The paper reported him as saying that the government would use the money to build two large dams and a system of water canals and to complete paved roads. In addition, Erdogan reportedly promised that the AKP would assign one channel of the state-owned Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) to the minority languages used by the population of southeast Turkey, including Kurdish, Arabic, and Farsi (New York Times, March 12).
In fact, none of these initiatives are new. TRT already includes a few hours of broadcasts in minority languages. On February 17, during a visit to Germany, Erdogan declared that TRT would dedicate an entire channel to Kurdish, Arabic, and Farsi. There is no question that there is a demand in southeastern Turkey for broadcasting in Kurdish. Many houses in the poorest areas have satellite dishes on their roofs, which are assumed to be used for Kurdish channels beamed into Turkey from outside the country, such as by the pro-PKK Roj TV. But the real demand is for independent Kurdish stations, not a state channel that would be regarded as a vehicle for state propaganda (Radikal, March 13).
Erdogan’s proposals have already been dismissed by the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP).
“The basis of the Kurdish problem is the attempt to create a nation based on a single language, a single religion and a single ethnicity,” said Selahattin Demirtas, the head of the DTP parliamentary party. “Broadcasting in Kurdish on TRT won’t solve the Kurdish problem. What is needed is a change in mentality” (Radikal, Milliyet, Hurriyet, March 13).
It is unclear whether, in his interview with the New York Times, Erdogan was being disingenuous in presenting the promised $12 billion as a new initiative or whether the reporters were unaware of the project’s background and thus assumed it was a new initiative. In fact, the dams, water canals, and roads form part of what is known as the Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP), which was first formulated in the 1970s and began to be implemented in the early 1980s.
GAP is an irrigation and hydroelectric power project covering nine provinces of southeastern Turkey in the basins of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. GAP has always been politically controversial, not least because it reduces the quantity and quality of the water flowing to downstream countries such as Syria and Iraq. Opposition to GAP was one of the main reasons for Syrian support for the PKK during its first insurgency in 1984-99. During the early 1990s, the PKK even attacked some GAP facilities in southeast Turkey.
GAP was originally expected to cost $32 billion and to have been completed by 2010. At its heart lies a system of 22 dams, 19 hydraulic power plants, and the irrigation of 17,000 square kilometers (approximately 6,500 square miles) of land. GAP is currently only two-thirds complete, and a shortage of funds has meant that it is running well behind schedule. The dams, irrigation channels, and paved roads mentioned by Erdogan are all part of the uncompleted project. The two dams, which are at Ilisu and Silvan, are currently provisionally scheduled to be built by 2013. However, Turkey is unlikely to be able to finance them completely from its own resources. Nor, in the prevailing economic climate, is there a great appetite in the foreign investment community for the funding of large-scale infrastructure projects in developing countries.
One only has to fly over the region to see the effect of GAP on agriculture in the Tigris and Euphrates basins, transforming large tracts of what was previously semi-arid land into cultivated fields. In areas such as the Harran plain, annual yields of cotton, wheat, barley, and lentils have tripled. However, GAP has had a greater impact on agricultural productivity than on employment. Even though it has undoubtedly created jobs in local service industries, GAP’s overall impact on employment in southeast Turkey has been minor.
As well as being the poorest region in Turkey, the southeast also has the highest rate of population increase. Even in some of the richest areas in the GAP region, the pace of job creation has lagged behind the growth in available workforce. In most of the cities of southeast Turkey the unemployment rate is double or triple the 9.9% average in the country as a whole. Among young people in the cities of southeastern Turkey, unemployment often reaches 50-60%. There is no reason to suppose that, even if they can be completed, the Ilisu and Silvan dams and their associated irrigation systems will have a major impact on employment in the region.
The political controversy over GAP has not been restricted to Turkey’s foreign relations. The filling of the dams that have already been completed necessitated the forced evacuation of a large number of villages. Some of the displaced villagers received free housing in nearby towns. Others did not. None were provided with an alternative livelihood. The filling of the dams also inundated numerous archaeological sites. When it is completed, the Ilisu dam will inundate most of the ancient city of Hasankeyf, whose history goes back 10,000 years.
Many Kurds already resent not only the displacements resulting from GAP, but also what they regard as the resulting destruction of their heritage through the filling of the dams, which are also used to produce electricity for the rest of the country.
It is also difficult to see how the completion of a project that was originally formulated in the 1970s will be interpreted as demonstrating the AKP’s commitment to the region. Perhaps more significant, although it is impossible to be sure of the precise impact of the two-thirds of GAP that has been completed to date on recruitment to the PKK, what is certain is that it has not prevented it. Whatever else the PKK and other militant organizations in southeast Turkey – which is also the main recruiting ground for violent Islamist groups – may be short of, it is not recruits.