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Environmental questions swirl around Turkey’s Ilisu dam project
Hasankeyf‘s villagers say the beauty of their home is most striking at first-light or at sundown, when the historic stone ruins are reflected crisply in the waters of the river Tigris.
This is a remote, sparsely populated and, for most of the year, scorchingly hot corner of southeast Anatolia, where people live in poverty and seclusion. Over the years, their anger at the construction of a huge dam which will see Hasankeyf subsumed by flood waters has turned into sad resignation and quiet despair.
Labelled “doomed” in tourist guidebooks, Hasankeyf manages to attract a certain number of earnest-minded visitors, eager to see the traces of successive ancient civilizations. Locals sell them what they can, while they can — beautiful goat-wool rugs or hand-carved wooden implements — for a pitifully small sum.
The Ilisu dam’s foreign backers look to have developed cold feet, stating the dam has failed to meet environmental and cultural safeguards and have ordered suspension of work while matters are investigated. But any withdrawal of their support is unlikely to prevent energy-hungry Turkey from constructing the dam and a power plant — part of its sweeping development plan for the laggard south-east.
Opposition to the dam stretches far beyond Anatolia. Environmentalists argue colossal dam projects such as Ilisu are a relic of the 1970s and have never proven their worth, causing catastrophic damage to the natural environment and harming the ecosystems of downstream states.
Others question the economic principles of the project — creating enormous power capacity in an area where there is little or no industry and to where firms may be reluctant to relocate.
The government has pledged to reconstruct the scattered villages which must make way for the water, and to transport historical Hasankeyf, once used by the Romans to ward off the Persians, to another suitable spot.
In a country dotted with spectacular ancient sites and where so many civilizations have left their mark, the fight to save historical ruins in-situ can often be a fruitless one.
Archaeologists raced against the clock to excavate the historical mosaics of Zeugma, also in eastern Turkey, in 2000 before it disappeared under flood waters.
Gazing at the tall stone supports of Hasankeyf’s once-mighty bridge, the fragile stone minaret of its medieval mosque and the intricate warren of tombs and caves which clings to the cliffs above the river, it is difficult to imagine how this could be recreated anywhere else.