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Middle East: Water Dispute, Part 2: Turkey Looks To GAP To Develop Southeast

Turkey, Iraq and Syria are locked in a water-sharing dispute caused by Ankara's ambitious plans to develop its impoverished southeast. In part two of a four-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel takes an in-depth look at the size and scope of the development project.

Ankara, 14 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Everything is ambitious about Turkey's Southeast Anatolia Project, known as GAP.

The project comprises a network of 21 dams across the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to supply irrigation water and electricity to develop the country's arid southeast. The region is as big as Austria and much of it is desperately poor.

Turkish officials say Ankara is counting on GAP to bring the southeast -- and its Kurdish majority -- into the Turkish mainstream. And they cite a whole checklist of reasons which make developing the region one of Turkey's top priorities.

The most urgent problem is the region's restiveness, which flared into a 15-year guerilla war between Ankara and the Turkish-Kurd separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). That violence -- in which some 30,000 people died -- only subsided last year with Ankara's capture of PKK chief Abdullah Ocalan.

At the same time, millions of people have migrated from the region into the slums of Turkey's western cities, fleeing the unrest and seeking work. And because the impoverished region's population growth rate is 2.4 percent -- almost twice Turkey's national average -- there is an endless supply of more migrants who could follow.

Kaya Yasenok , the vice president of GAP, says that Ankara hopes the project will stabilize the southeast and reverse its outmigration by giving the region a viable economy.

Speaking in his Ankara office, Yasenok told RFE/RL that GAP aims to double the amount of irrigated land in the southeast. And he said the irrigation will enable farmers to move from traditional dry-climate crops like wheat and barley to more profitable products such as cotton, fruits and vegetables.

He also said that power generated by GAP's 17 hydroelectric plants will create textile, canning and other agro-based industries, attracting the service sector. The planners hope such employment opportunities will draw migrants back to the region.

Turkey estimates the cost of the project -- launched in 1981 -- at some $32 billion. And it already is reported to have achieved some success. The centerpiece Ataturk dam, completed on the Euphrates in 1993, has tripled crop yields on nearby plains and caused land values and income there to rise.

Yet when the project will be fully completed is uncertain. Today, it is about half finished, with most of the funds coming from Turkey's own national budget. But last year's earthquake -- and the cost of reconstruction -- caused Ankara to push back GAP's completion date from 2005 to 2010. And the government now is increasingly looking for outside investment to help finance the remaining dams.

So far, getting that outside investment has proved challenging. Some investors have been scared away by GAP's central role in the water dispute between Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Others -- such as a consortium considering building GAP's main Ilisu dam on the Tigris -- are opposed by Western environmental and human rights groups, which object to relocating nearby residents.

To help build international support, Ankara has worked hard over the years to redefine GAP's image from being high-tech engineering project to being a comprehensive program in sustainable human development. Kaya Yasenok says:

"This was originally considered as a water development project, an engineering project. But we are not talking anymore about the size of the dams, we are talking about the people in that area [and] how much their standard of life has been increased. External funding sources think that the important part is to generate something for the people. So, previously they were hesitating, [but] now they are directly making contributions."

The image change has won support for GAP from several UN and EU agencies. They are working with Turkish authorities to create centers in the southeast to promote literacy and basic job skills, particularly among women.

But whether GAP can solve the deep social and economic problems behind the recent unrest in the Kurdish southeast is an open question. Ankara's relocating of some three million people from rural areas to cities during the fighting has contributed to mass unemployment in the region. And in the countryside, peasants continue to suffer from local feudal landowning practices which keep most of them in poverty.

Amhet Turan Demir is the chairman of HADEP, Turkey's only legal Kurdish political party. In his office above a noisy street in Ankara, he told RFE/RL that he considers GAP a mixed blessing.

"We don't think the GAP project will completely meet the needs of the people in the region. Maybe it can increase productivity in the region a little but in the long term we see that it is to the disadvantage of the local population."

He continued:

"This project will have an unpleasant reality of bringing great difficulties to local small farmers because the state is looking to big economic organizations to increase the region's productivity. We believe that will mean the end of small farmers."

Demir says that large Turkish corporations are using local companies to buy up tracts of GAP's newly irrigated land. And he worries that as corporations use mechanization to harvest new crops like cotton, small farmers will lose their livelihood.

GAP officials reject such criticisms, saying peasants in the southeast are involved as partners in the development effort. But they agree the government still must convince parts of the population to support the project. A recent GAP-commissioned survey showed 20 percent of all household heads had doubts it will benefit them.

Meanwhile, conditions in the southeast remain tense despite Ankara's clear victory over the PKK. Emergency rule, which is gradually being lifted in the region, remains in force in four provinces.

The military rule is the legacy of the guerilla war, in which Ankara spent three times the cost of the GAP project -- or some $100 billion -- to finally quell the PKK.

(Part 3 will look at the controversy over GAP's plan to build a major new dam on the Tigris.)