Turkey’s Ilisu Dam: Continuing Conflict over Culture and Environment

Let me start with a brief overview of what it is. Ilisu is the third biggest hydropower dam of the giant Southeast Anatolian Project (GAP in its Turkish acronym) which consists of 22 dams with 7500 MW capacity in total and aims at irrigation of over 1.6 million hectares of arable lands. GAP is a centrally designed development project over the predominantly Kurdish, multicultural Southeast territories in Turkey, bordering Syria and Iraq.[1]


Among many other issues over development, culture and environment, Ilisu in particular has been a major area of conflict between the locals and environmental groups against the dam and the state officials and their partners in construction and finance, insisting on its construction. Interests over Ilisu has been stiff, partly because many lessons has been learned from the prior big dams Karakaya, Atatürk and Birecik, inundating hundreds of villages, displacing thousands of people, destroying cultural heritages, thousands of hectares of fertile land and ecosystems. More important than that, because the Ilisu dam reservoir area included historical town of Hasankeyf, now proposed as a potential UNESCO World Heritage Site by Doga Dernegi (Nature Association) of Turkey.


A comprehensive anthropological / archeological survey of the area has been conducted by an Irish scholar, Maggie Ronayne in 2004. A quote from her summary statements reveals "the Ilisu Dam reservoir would destroy hundreds of ancient sites in the valley of the Upper Tigris and these could not possibly all be excavated and recorded in the time it would take to build a dam. This area may have international importance for the understanding of our earliest human origins and Neanderthal life, was one of the first areas in the world where communities domesticated plants and animals and has been a frontier zone of empires, including Romans and Assyrians."[2]


The first international Ilisu consortium was dismantled by the withdrawal of the British Balfour Beatty in year 2001, declaring that "commercial, social and environmental issues were unlikely to be resolved soon", in spite of strong backing from the British Prime Minister Tony Blair for the project. In response to pressures from campaigners, Arab league and may be by the influence of newly published World Bank sponsored report of World Commission on Dams, the British government had put forth four conditions for a support of 300 million sterling: Proper settlement program for 50 thousand displaced people, consultation with Syria and Iraq, archeology rescue plans for the 2000 year old city of Hasankeyf and preservation of the 100 thousand years of history in the region, and improvements including sewage works.[3]


Turkey was committed to Ilisu. After the dissolution of the first consortium, the State Hydraulic Works of Turkey (DSI), once a very powerful state enterprise, now the commissioner of environmentally devastating hydropower projects to private contractors, initiated a process to review the prior Ilisu Environmental Impact Assessment, rather than the Ilisu project itself.


Maggie Ronayne reviewed this update in 2006. She concluded that "the EIA Update is not an independent assessment of project impacts. It is forced to rely on data collected by the Turkish authorities … Much of the Update is not actually an assessment. It is lacking in the most basic data on potentially life-threatening impacts and very little fieldwork was done for it … It is superficial window-dressing of old information from the discredited 2001 assessment."[4]


Second Round in Ilisu: The German-Austrian-Swiss Consortium


After this update, DSI succeeded to assemble a second consortium to finance Ilisu constructions. This was initiated in 6th October of 2006 with the cooperation of Germany’s Euler Hermes Kreditversicherung, Austria’s Kontrollbank and Switzerland’s Exportrisikoversicherung, three European export credit agencies. Turkish government was so committed to this project that a groundbreaking ceremony was done by the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in August 2006, two months before the consortium was actually assembled. According to the mutual agreement between the government and the consortium, Turkey would fulfill a list of 153 tasks related to the environmental, cultural and social impacts of the project before, during and after the constructions and the consortium would release a credit of 534 million euros of the over 2 billion construction project. These 153 tasks were based on OECD and World Bank criteria on big dams.


According to the credible columnist Metin Münir of a major Turkish daily newspaper Milliyet, who intensively wrote on Ilisu in 2009, DSI particularly went for building a consortium rather than going to the treasury, because otherwise a public procurement would legally be enforced and avoid the construction works be delivered to the desired companies.[5] With the second consortium, Nurol and Cengiz, two national companies were appointed for Ilisu. Cengiz is known to be a champion of recent biddings in aluminum and sugar privatization in Turkey.


The role of Nurol and Cengiz were not limited to construction works. They were not less committed to the dam than the government and State Hydraulic Works (DSI). Orhan Cengiz, boss of Cengiz Contruction, publicly claimed that "this project will be accomplished in this or another way, and will reduce both Turkey’s security expenses and its future energy gap. Those who are against this project are do not want Turkey grow stronger in security and energy."[6] Cengiz seemed to know by heart Turkey’s policy of creating dam reservoirs on the mountain gateways being used by Kurdish militants on the Turkish Iraqi border.[7]


Ironically, Cengiz is from Rize, a town famous with its enchanting plateaus, valleys and rivers in Northeast Turkey, now being raped by construction companies authorized by DSI for building small hydropower projects in series. Now over two hundred small hydropower plants are under construction and many of them are projected over four hundred rivers. Ironically again, DSI is under the authority of the Ministry of Environment and the environmental professor Veysel Eroglu, the past director general of DSI is now the Minister of Environment. Over the past eight years, Eroglu has been a close ally to the prime minister and has been the chief person authorizing many environmentally blind small and large hydropower projects.


The intermingling of DSI and Nurol-Cengiz is remarkable. Referring to Metin Münir’s columns in Milliyet, DSI first established a Project Implementation Unit, responsible for monitoring the 153 tasks referred in the mutual agreement. Then DSI commissioned the contractors Nurol and Cengiz for preparing the action plan for the realization of these 153 tasks and Nurol contracted a subsidiary company called ENCON to 25 million euros for the very same purpose. Everything was structured to serve the interests of the construction companies, says Metin Münir. Furthermore, ENCON established the project information offices, and had its three experts in the DSI’s project implementation unit.[8]


In October 2008, the creditors suspended their credits, because DSI did not fulfill its commitments. During the one year negotiations over the action plan, the partner of the creditors was Nurol and ENCON. Ilisu was already a bull in a china shop. Again, quoting from Metin Münir, ten kilometers of Mardin-Dargeçit highway was expanded and service roads were constructed on private property, without confiscation.[9]


Eventually, the second consortium withdrew its 534 million euros support on 7th July of 2009, arguing that the Ilisu dam was far from fulfilling the conditions of environmental protection and cultural conservation. However, Turkish government again, did not stop. Prime Minister Erdogan is following the tradition of criminalizing everyone and every activist defending Hasankeyf’s cultural heritage against Ilisu Dam, for providing support to the Kurdish separatists and the armed Kurdish militants of PKK. Erdogan is a self proclaimed environmentalist, finest of all, whose mantra is not "Water Flows Turk Gazes" but "Water Flows Turk Accomplishes".[10] For the environmental professor Eroglu, it is not the gap between Ilisu and the OECD /WB standards on culture and environment which stopped the consortium, but the "slipperiness of the three creditor states, Germany, Austria and Switzerland".[11]


Will the Third Round be Turkish Creditors’: Not Yet Settled Role of Garanti and Akbank


The two consortiums over the last ten years has been fizzle and now an international support alike looks highly unlikely with the current status of Ilisu Dam project. Government stubborn on its dam policy now turns its face to local creditors and there are rumors about Garanti, Akbank and Halkbank, three major local banks with multinational partners, indicating that they may have already promised the loan to the government.[12] Construction starts are planned by the winter season ends.


What can make the unqualified Ilisu adequately attractive for the national banks? Is the OECD /WB criteria attended by international consortiums are of no importance for the local creditors? One possibility is, because Turkish national laws is not in harmony with the international criteria settled by the World Commission on Dams (WCD) process of the World Bank, that Turkey is not a part of, government can pursue its interests with local funding without much interference from outside powerful forces. One can also assume that the national financial system can be much more open to the manipulations and intimidations of the government.


On the other hand, the role of Garanti and Akbank will be particularly noteworthy if they cooperate in Ilisu because these two banks try to keep a green and socially responsible public image. Just reading their web pages, one can encounter declarations on socially responsible and environmentally friendly corporate attitude.


Garanti is the chief sponsor of WWF Turkey and is the winner of WWF Turkey’s 2008 award for its continuing support on wildlife conservation. It coauthored the booklet "101 to do for Mitigating Climate Change" with WWF and hosted Al Gore in Turkey for his climate change lectures. Garanti gives support to monthly wildlife magazine Green Atlas, broadcasts Green Belt on NTV owned by its own corporate group Dogus. Moreover, Garanti invites its customers to green consumption by offering them a credit card Green Bonus, allegedly printed on degradable polymer, communicating with its costumers on recycled papers and turning a share of its profit to WWF Turkey.


Akbank is not less socially responsible. It is a signatory to the UN Global Compact, meaning Akbank is committed to human rights, environmental protection and accountable management in its highest universal standards. Sir Nicholas Stern, the author of the Stern Report on the Economics of Climate change to the British Treasury sits in Akbank’s advisory board.


There are many things to say on whether corporations or consumerism can be green or not. However the issue here is if Garanti and Akbank are keen and eager to build on their socially and environmentally responsible attitude, they should know that it is not possible unless they stand off any support for Ilisu’s construction.




[1] For a recent update see, GAP Action Plan (GAP Eylem Plani), May, 2008, with a preface of Prime Minister of Turkey. For a review of water development projects, see Olcay Akyildiz, GAP Water Resources (GAP Su Kaynaklari), GAP Regional Development Administraiton, January 1997, Ankara.


[2] Maggie Ronayne, The Cultural And Environmental Impact of Large Dams in Southeast Turkey, Fact-Finding Mission Report, National University of Ireland, Galway and Kurdish Human Rights Project, February, 2005, p. 13.


[3] Paul Brown, (environmental correspondent of The Guardian), 14 November 2001.


[4] Maggie Ronayne, Department of Archeology, National University of Ireland, Galway, Ireland, July 2006.


[5] Metin Münir’s column in Milliyet, 10th of July, 2009.


[6] Milliyet’s news on 27th of July 2009.


[7] According to the information provided by the Chamber of Geological Engineers’ Diyarbair Office, for the sake of border security, Turkey is building eleven small reservoirs on the streams neighboring the Iraqi border.


[8] Metin Münir’s columns in Milliyet, between 19th to 21st of August, 2009.


[9] Metin Münir’s column in Milliyet, 22nd of August, 2009.


[10] Erdogan’s speech in Mardin, reported in Milliyet on 16th of October 2009.


[11] Eroglu’s statement reported in Milliyet on 31st of December 2009.


[12] Milliyet’s news on 3rd of January 2010.

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