When covering Turkey’s complex relationship with its Kurdish minority, Western media outlets have tended to focus on the military activities in southeastern Anatolia against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
The reality is much more complex, however. For nearly 40 years Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) has been on the drawing boards as a multi-billion-dollar project designed to develop the water resources in the southeastern portion of the country, home to most of Turkey’s Kurds and historically the country’s most impoverished region.
One of GAP’s centerpiece projects, the $1.8 billion Ilisu dam, to be built along the upper stretches of the Tigris River, is now under threat from foreign creditors. In March 2007 Austrian, German, and Swiss export credit agencies (ECAs) provisionally extended credit to underwrite a portion of the Ilisu project According to a German Foreign Trade and Investment Scheme spokesman, Berlin’s more than $154.4 million in export guarantees, including the Ilisu dam, are now being subjected to a “critical review” (Der Spiegel, March 24). Bank Austria – Creditanstalt is also wavering in its previously unconditional support for the project (Wiener Zeitung, March 14).
The action follows the publication of a new report by a commission of international experts hired by European governments sponsoring the GAP and Ilisu projects. The report alleges that Ankara has failed to fulfill most of the 153 criteria that had been established as prerequisites for the project to receive German government-backed export guarantees. The agreement stipulated that the standards were to be met by the end of last year (Die Presse, March 19).
Among the more contentious findings of the report were that the Ilisu project lacked sufficient environmental guarantees and failed to protect the ancient settlement of Hasankeyf, established millennia before Christ’s birth, while the dam’s reservoir would force the resettlement of nearly 55,000 residents, mostly Kurds, from the affected areas.
Christine Eberlein of the Berne Declaration, a Swiss nongovernmental organization, stated that the experts’ conclusion showed that the project was “a fiasco” (Nachriten, March 14). On March 4, nearly 100 protesters from the affected region gathered in Ankara to protest construction of the dam, delivering letters with 1,500 signatures to the German, Austrian, and Swiss embassies, demanding that the three states cease their support of the project. In a sophisticated display of public relations that plays on European fears of uncontrolled immigration, the signatories warned they would be forced to seek asylum abroad after their homes were flooded. Eberlein observed, “The protest held by the residents to bring attention to the situation as well as their announcement that they will seek asylum shows the tremendous consequences of the project and clearly indicates the responsibilities of the three countries involved, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Expect more protests” (Today’s Zaman, March 7).
Turkey’s General Directorate of the State Hydraulic Works disputes the allegations and has posted a number of environmental impact reports about the Ilisu dam project on its website (https://www.dsi.gov.tr/).
Whatever funding setbacks may develop over Ilisu and other projects, it seems unlikely that the Turkish government will be deterred from fulfilling the GAP project. GAP, now estimated to have a $32 billion price tag, consists of Ilisu and 21 other dams, along with 19 hydroelectric plants with a total 7,476 megawatt installed capacity. The resulting water reservoirs will be used to irrigate more than 6,500 square miles of arable land, enriching the lives of the more than nine million inhabitants of southeastern Anatolia.
The Turkish government projects that the 19 hydroelectric GAP projects in southeastern Anatolia will directly and indirectly create 3.8 million additional jobs (www.ilisu-wasserkraftwerk.com). It is more than a little ironic that, after decades of struggling with Kurdish guerrilla movements, an economic project designed to better their living conditions would be stymied by European bureaucratic red tape. Poverty breeds despair, which in turn breeds extremism.
Archaeological preservation and resettlement are both issues that can be addressed by increased funding, not less; thus Europe would do well to consider the benefits of supporting Turkish economic initiatives in one of the country’s most impoverished regions rather than throwing further fiscal roadblocks in the way of its development.