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Turkey: Water Dispute, Part 3: Dam Will Flood Ancient Crossroad

Turkey, Iraq and Syria are locked in a water-sharing dispute caused by Ankara's ambitious plans to develop its impoverished southeast. In part three of a four-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel visits a historic town which will be flooded as Ankara builds new dams on the Tigris.

Hasankeyf, Turkey; 14 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Abdurrahman Yigit is giving a visitor a tour of the past splendors of Hasankeyf, an ancient trading city on the banks of the Tigris in southeastern Turkey.

He is an employee of the mayor's office but also a lifelong resident of the town who loves it deeply. His hand sweeps across its horizon: from the green ribbon of the Tigris, to the town's perfectly preserved 15th-century minaret and, high above the scene, the ruined citadel which for centuries protected the population.

Then he begins to describe Hasankeyf at its height in the Middle Ages, when it was a crossroads between the lands of the Ottomans, Persians, and Arabs. Many of the buildings he mentions are still partially standing. Abdurrahman Yigit says:

"Here is the ancient complex. The university place is to the south. There's the [15th-century] Koc Mosque. There's the minaret of the [15th century] mosque of Sultan Suleyman. The [ancient] hospital is to the west, and there is an observatory, too. The other parts are the ancient market and city center to the southeast."

Everyone, from the Turkish government, to international groups, to the majority ethnic Kurd and Arab townspeople agree on two things about Hasankeyf. First, that it is a historical jewel. And second, that all of it but the high-standing citadel will disappear beneath the Tigris once Ankara begins constructing a planned dam, called Ilisu, a few kilometers down river.

The Ilisu Dam will be 130 meters high and the second largest in Turkey after the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates. The government says it will cost $2 billion and require seven years to build. But for now, the start date remains uncertain as Turkey searches for foreign investors to share the cost.

In Hasankeyf, Mayor Ahmet Erdoglu told RFE/RL that Ilisu dam will require that the some 6,000 people living in the town and again that many in nearby villages move to a new site. He said Ankara has announced no move date so far but plans to give the people a choice. They can start a new town nearby or move to the outskirts of the nearest big city, Batman.

"As I said, there is no certain decision about moving so far. But if the decision is declared to us by the government, we are going to create a moving commission made up of the people who are native to Hasankeyf and people who are members of the municipal commission and commissions of technical experts. We are going to either select a place nearby this town or near the regional center, Batman."

He says another option is for individuals to choose compensation and go to live anywhere in Turkey that they wish. But how much that compensation would be he does not know.

Turkish officials have followed the much the same formula with other habitations which have disappeared under GAP dam waters. The most similar is Halfeti, on the Euphrates, almost half of which was flooded in May by the newly built Birecik dam.

Some 1,500 of Halfeti's residents have moved to new government-built homes on the parched plains above the river's new water level. Nearby, the site of the ancient Roman city of Zeugma is due to vanish in November. There, archaeologists are working feverishly to rescue the sites rich mosaics and other artifacts.

Archaeologists are present in Hasankeyf, too, but mainly to catalogue what will be lost. The vice president for the GAP project, Kaya Yasenok, told RFE/RL in Ankara that the Turkish government has no plans or money to transfer any of the town's monuments to safety and instead will retrieve only small relics.

Several international organizations, including the London-based Friends of the Earth, have labeled the loss of Hasankeyf a tragedy. And they have started a campaign to prevent the construction of Ilisu dam. The opponents include some environmental and human rights groups which also object to the dam's forced relocation of people, saying the final number is likely to be double what Turkish officials say.

The campaign is focusing on preventing the lead British contractor of a consortium interested in building Ilisu from obtaining loan guarantees from London. That has given rise to heated debate in the British parliament over the merits of the dam -- a debate whose outcome remains uncertain.

Meanwhile, Ankara has said that whether foreign investment is found or not, it will complete Ilisu with the rest of the GAP project -- whose official end date is 2010.

That deadline has created a mini-boom in tourism to Hasanfkeyf, both by people within Turkey and foreigners who want to visit the town while they still can.

Mayor Ahmet Erdoglu says that this year has seen an average of 1,000 tourists a week. That, he says, is triple the number who came last year.

(Part 4 looks at international principles for solving water disputes.)