Turkey. When Dams Threaten World Heritage Sites

COP22 From Rhetoric to Action · As the Turkish population is preoccupied with an intense political agenda, the historic town of Hasankeyf and the Dicle (Tigris) Valley keep fighting the Ilısu dam to survive. The dam threatens populations, Islamic heritage in Turkey, and a world heritage site in Iraq.


In 1954, a massive project spanning Turkey, Iran and Syria emerged as part of efforts to improve soil and water resources in the Dicle Valley: the Ilısu dam. Sixty years later, civil society organisations are still resisting it. Ilısu dam could destroy a historical legacy of 11,500 years, the city of Hasankeyf, founded 9,500 years ago, the only place in the world that meets nine out of 10 cultural and natural heritage criteria of the UNESCO; as well as the Dicle Valley down to the Iraqi Marshlands. The construction would also flood scores of villages, displace over 80,000 people and create ecological destruction in the Dicle valley as far as the Iraqi border. Downstream, it would drain Iraqi Marshlands, destroying 670,000 of arable land. The process has been moving forward without the public being informed and completely lacks transparency.

No environmental impact assessment

The project includes a dam and a hydroelectric power plant, which should contribute 400 million dollars to the economy according to the Turkish Ministry of Forestry and Water Affairs. However the data on the volumetric flow rate of the Dicle River dates back to the 1980s. Today, the river can reach only 70 % of its past capacity at the maximum, and it is hard to imagine the trend reversing as droughts are more frequent.

The project was exempted from an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), as were the infrastructure and superstructure necessary to the project. All exemption decisions were taken to court, however the construction of the dam went ahead.

A crucial issue remaining is the uncertainty regarding the removal of 30 separate historical structures from the site. Europa Nostra, which is Europe’s leading cultural heritage entity, along with the European Investment Bank, selected Hasankeyf for the 2016 list of “The 7 Most Endangered,” among other endangered monuments and sites across Europe. In fact, the 20 th article of the Turkish Law on Protection of Cultural and Natural Assets states “Immovable cultural assets must be protected where they are located,” but is not being complied with. However, negotiations between Iraq, Syria and Turkey only concentrated on the quantity of water, not the impacts of the project.

Faced with this situation, civil society organisations launched the “Save the Tigris and the Iraqi Marshes Campaign” in 2012—partner organisation of the CCFD-Terre solidaire—to raise international awareness of the potential danger of the Ilısu dam through the UNESCO and World Heritage Committee (WHC). The movement has become international with the inclusion of European, Iranian NGOs, alongside Turkish and Iraqi counterparts1. It aims to unite struggles between Iraq—where people will be “without water”—and Turkey where people will be “under water”—and promote water management alternatives at the regional level, to transform water into a tool for peace as opposed to a factor of conflict.

Relentlessly, STC conducts advocacy work, training and awareness building meetings and campaigns on the impacts of large dams, in particular on biodiversity, human and natural life as well as the climate, at the local and international level, in Iraq, Turkey and relevant UN spaces.

Turkish activist Ercan Ayboğa, from the Hasankeyf Survival Initiative and coordinator of Save the Tigris and the Iraqi Marshes Campaign, explains the current situation : “it is difficult to get credible information regarding the process, as the area is surrounded by military outposts and check points. In recent years, the construction of Ilısu Dam was interrupted three times due to conflicts in the area or workers leaving work. The construction of the dam’s body has been completed and covered with concrete. However, the main problem is the hydroelectric power plant. Officials said it would be finalised in two years, but from what we know, it is still not finished. In order to hold back water, the construction must be finished. And even before that, the process of transporting historical structures should begin.” To this day, there is no clarity on whether or not the historic structures will, or could be transported. Yet, the university teacher Adnan Çevik’s study “Hasankeyf: Medeniyetlerin Buluştuğu Kent” (Hasankeyf: The City Where Civilisations Meet) shows how the city and its surroundings constituted one of the first Islamic capitals in Anatolia, and the location from which Islam spread throughout the region.

One of the first Islamic cities of Anatolia

Many exceptional Islamic sites risk destruction in Hasankeyf. Among these are mosques and “külliyes” (social complexes centring on a mosque) inherited from the Artuqid and Ayyubid dynasties, Sultan Süleyman’s 600-year-old mosque and tomb, the Divriği Ulu Mosque, unique in Anatolia, and the Ulu, Kızlar and Koç mosques, renown for their architecture and ornament art. Three churches are also threatened.

Iraqi Marshlands, on the other hand, is home to Ur and Sumer, birthplace of civilisation (7,000 years ago). Indigenous people, the Marsh Arabs, still live there and maintain a thousand-year-old traditions. Iraqi Marshlands also constitute a unique ecosystem, in a region as big as Lebanon. The area was registered on the World Heritage List (WHL) at the 40 th session of the World Heritage Committee (WHC) meeting in July 2016, as a result of the campaign led by Iraqi civil society.

Faced with such great dangers, how can we explain the Turkish government’s insistence? Hasankeyf could easily and rapidly be turned into an open-air museum thanks to amazing structures it has been home to, represents the social and cultural memory of the land, in line with the government’s rhetoric of “protecting our ancestors’ heritage”. The economic irrationality of the dam has been demonstrated in an Oxford study based on 245 dams. The research shows the costs of massive dams usually end up exceeding their budget projections, anticipated benefits are usually overestimated and create extreme debt, particularly in developing countries. Building such a dam in Mesopotamia-an area likely to sustain the most severe impacts of global warming-could increase droughts in the region and diminish the water flow of both rivers. Furthermore, the government’s first attempt to secure international funds for the dam has backfired, as an international campaign targeting German and Austrian financial institutions contributed to their exit from the project. These institutions never properly answered Turkish authorities’ environmental impact queries. Despite this first showdown, two Turkish banks, namely Akbank and Garanti, offered loans for the dam construction which is to be carried out by a consortium composed of Cengiz Construction and Nurol Construction, two companies which have close ties to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP government.

An indifferent Turkish governement

Political commentators have also argued that dams under construction in eastern Anatolia, including Ilısu, aim to prevent military operations of Turkish insurrectionary forces and harm the Kurdish population.

And so the Save the Tigris and Iraqi Marshes campaign carries on, working to enforce international conventions and putting pressure on the Turkish as well as the Iraqi government to stop the construction of the dam. So far the governmental response in Iraq was polite but inconclusive, as leaders in the country are entirely focused on ongoing military activities, and consider the dam a secondary topic at best. In Turkey the response was clearly dismissive. Ayboğa underlines the new practices of the government since the state of emergency following the July 15 military coup attempt, that make civil action almost impossible: “This situation makes it difficult to launch calls for action and organise protests. We, as a small group of activists in the region, continue our struggle against the dam but there are less and less actions.” Organising is also difficult in a devastated Iraq.

The Iraqi marshes and the city of Hasankey are rooted in the multi-millennial history of mankind. Aside from its cultural identity, architectural design and beauty, Hasankeyf has special importance for the Muslim world. It is thus stunning to think how a human legacy of 11,500 years could be sacrificed for the sake of a dam with a life span of just 50 or 60 years, under the most religious government in the Republic of Turkey’s history...

1The members of the STC platform are: Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative (ICSSI), Iraqi People’s Campaign to Save the Tigris, Tammuz Organisation for Social Development, All Mesalla, Iraqi Social Forum, Ma’aluma (Information Centre), Humat Dijla, Waterkeepers Iraq.