The Ilisu Dam Project in Southern Turkey


M. Ronayne (Junior Representative for Northern Europe – National University of Ireland, Galway) maggie.ronayne@NUIGALWAY.IE

The Ilisu dam project on the river Tigris is a part of a wider Turkish dam development which has been ongoing for several years and looks set to continue for several more. This particular project is part of a hydro-electric scheme on which work will begin next year. It is so controversial that the World Bank has serious reservations about it and refuses to fund it. This is because the project will violate five of the World Bank’s environment and resettlement guidelines on eighteen counts. In addition, it looks set to violate a European convention on human rights and possibly a UN convention on preventing wars between states over shared water resources. It will drown a rich and complex archaeological heritage dating back to the Palaeolithic. This is, in fact, the region of Turkey which is least archaeologically investigated but said to provide some of the earliest evidence in the ‘fertile crescent’ for agriculture as well as forming part of Upper Mesopotamia. The historical site to be worst affected is be the medieval town of Hasankeyf, with its ornate minaret, castle, palaces and ruined bridge, which has been legally protected in Turkey since 1978.

Why is this the case? The situation in the region is complicated since it is also a locus of the war between Kurdish forces and the Turkish state. The resettlement referred to above concerns thousands of Kurdish people indigenous to the region, since 54 Kurdish villages and 15 towns will be flooded under the scheme. The organisation of the resettlement of these people has been a cause for concern. There is, alarmingly, no certain figure of how many will be re-located although it seems to be between 10,000 and 20,000 people. It is said that people are being given a choice to move to land elsewhere or cash to help them move into the cities. However, the main problem has been that, being Kurds, most do not have any title deeds to the land they have lived on, are tenants of large landowners or landless labourers and so will not be compensated by the state but forcibly removed. Kurds in Turkey have no real rights of citizenship unless (and sometimes even despite the fact) they submit to an ongoing policy of Turkification.

The problems of campaigners on this issue are added to by the fact that many people, both Turkish and Kurdish, cannot speak out for fear of reprisals.

It is true that Kurdish identity, politics and struggle are complex matters. It seems that there may be a few Kurds in the area in favour of the dam because they have been promised schools, roads, hospitals, proper bridges across the river, a tourist industry and construction jobs on the project. Many others are deeply distrustful of the promises, and the actuality, of such ‘development’. Although there has been no public consultation process and communication is difficult in what is an extremely tense, conflict-ridden area, it has emerged that many people being threatened with removal are opposed to the dam (Morris 1999:20, Rugman 1999:22). Overall, it would be fair to say that the building of the dam and the suppression of Kurdish people are linked. This has been explicitly asserted by several campaign groups in Europe which have been investigating the situation for some time, including Friends of the Earth and the Peace in Kurdistan committee [1]. It has also been the subject of a news report for Channel 4, a UK-based television channel and of other media interest (Channel 4 News, 7.00pm-8.00pm, 9-09-99, Rugman 1999: 22). It has also been reported that “Ankara says the scheme is the key to bringing the long-running Kurdish insurgency to an end” (Morris 1999:20).

The possibility of wider repercussions in the geo-politics of the area relate to two facts. First, the Kurdish people are spread over five states in the region and what happens in relation to the ‘Kurdish question’ in one state has effects in the others. Second, this dam is part of a wider regional development project called GAP or the South-East Anatolia Project. It includes 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power stations on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Turkey has, in fact, refused to sign the UN convention aimed at preventing wars between nations that share water resources (Juniper 1999). The Ilisu dam alone is only 40 miles from the Syrian and Iraqi borders. Fears have been expressed that the Turkish dams will limit the water supply downstream at certain times of the year (Morris 1999, 20). Although the Turkish government and the dam construction companies have moved to quell such fears, it seems likely that the project will add a further twist to international political tensions long existent in the whole region.

This will be a familiar story to many WAC members: the best way to suppress any social group is through literally removing access to their cultural property, including the land on which they live, and breaking up a series of social relationships by dispersing and relocating people. The international political and economic undercurrents of dam projects will also ring a bell, no doubt.

But why the sudden British interest in what a NATO ally is doing within its own borders? The British connection is that a UK construction company, Balfour Beatty, is part of an international consortium which wants to build the dam. Balfour Beatty was also the company responsible for the equally controversial Pergau dam in Malaysia. With the World Bank refusing to fund the Ilisu project, the Turkish government needs to find its funding elsewhere and has sought help from several countries. Balfour Beatty has asked the British government to help fund its part in the project through a scheme called Export Credit Guarantee. Basically, this means that the project is judged to be extremely ‘high risk’ and so, in order to bring in other funding, the British government may pronounce it ‘safe enough’ for other investors by acting as creditor to the tune of £140 million. The company has produced an Environmental Impact Assessment as a part of this process but refuses to release it, as does the British government, on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. Many consider it particularly problematic, in the light of the intervention of the UK government during the recent war in Kosovo on ‘humanitarian’ grounds, that the same government should consider funding such a scheme in Turkey. Recently, there has been a suggestion by Switzerland that an international commission be set up to monitor the re-settlement programme but so far, the Turkish government is hostile to this idea.

The above information was all outlined at a briefing meeting which I recently attended on the Ilisu dam project, hosted by Jeremy Corbyn who is a UK Member of Parliament and vice-chair of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group. The speakers included representatives of the Peace in Kurdistan Committee, Friends of the Earth, The United Kurdish Committee – UK and The Corner House. Much more than the brief outline above was discussed at the meeting but two points seem particularly relevant to WAC.

The speaker from The Corner House (a small independent research consultancy), Nick Hillyard, has been researching and tracking dam projects for about 20 years. From this work he was able to say that there was not a single dam development project which had not inadequately prepared its re-settlement programme, caused forced removals and refused proper public consultation. The Three Gorges dam in China, for instance, will displace two million people. He went on to outline the relationship between this history and the profit motive which is at the heart of all of these projects. This profit motive is also the reason why very few dam projects have been stopped, even when there is strong resistance to them. However, he did suggest that alliances between non-profit environmental and cultural organisations to oppose these kinds of projects could be very useful. This involves lobbying for the rights of indigenous people and against the destruction of cultural property in such circumstances. WAC has been strong on these issues in the past, and so this would seem to be a case where it could be of some use.

The destruction of archaeological heritage was also raised at the meeting. In particular, it was noted that there seemed to be a somewhat loose application of heritage and planning law in cases where the Turkish state itself was involved in development. This is, of course, not a complaint peculiar to Turkey. However, one person who had worked in planning in Turkey suggested that it had been common practice to re-zone for development areas which had previously had planning restrictions imposed because of archaeological or environmental interest. It is true that Hasankeyf is one such place, previously protected and now marked out for destruction but there is very little substantiated information on whether this kind of process occurs regularly.

There are numbers of archaeological rescue projects in the region to be flooded, some involving international teams, which have already begun or are about to get under way. In particular, excavations have been underway for the last couple of years at Hasankeyf itself. It should be stressed that these rescue projects are not related in any way to the Kurdish issue but are about the rescuing of what is said to be world or Turkish heritage. Those with access to the internet can look up the website of the salvage project [2] for more detailed descriptions (Archaeological Salvage Project n.d.). In brief, a protocol was signed in 1998 by a research centre, the Turkish cultural ministry and the State Hydraulic Works for an archaeological salvage project of the Ilisu and Carchemish dam resevoirs, similar to agreements on previous dams. It included the proviso that the State Hydraulic Works would provide partial expenses for the project, that both Turkish and foreign scholars would be invited to take part and that field trips would be arranged to enable teams to select the sites on which they would work. All of this has taken place. However, as with previous dam projects in the region, it would seem that, owing to funding difficulties, time and personnel constraints, only a tiny percentage of the archaeology will be investigated.

What can WAC do on this issue? It would be useful, first of all, for WAC to obtain and disseminate more information on the archaeological rescue projects in the region and the particular problems which they are encountering [3] (3). WAC would seem well placed to investigate whether there is any foundation to the claims that the application of heritage and planning law in this case and in others, has been irregular. WAC can also, for instance, act in lobbying the UK government on this matter. Importantly however, I propose that WAC should adopt a resolution on the Ilisu dam project at its next meeting, in order to draw attention to the concerns outlined in this report.


Archaeological Salvage Project. Ilisu and Carchemish Dams. n.d

Juniper, T. 1999. The Ilisu Dam. The Guardian 3 July 1999.

Morris, C. 1999. Standing Against the Rising Tigris. The Guardian 17 July 1999:20.

Rugman, J. 1999. Turkish Dam Tests Cook’s Ethical Vow. The Guardian 8 August 1999:22.

Channel 4 News. Report on the Ilisu Dam Project. 9 August 1999, 7.00 –8.00pm.

EDITOR’S NOTE Abstracted from the Society for American Archaeology’s (SAA) Government Affairs Program update for June 2000 (original text copyright; see also ‘News’ at the end of this issue).

US-ICOMOS brought to the SAA’s attention the impending destruction of the major archaeological site of Zeugma by the rising waters of a dam being built by the Turkish government. SAA President Keith Kintigh wrote to the Turkish government expressing the Association’s concern about the likely loss of large numbers of important archaeological sites in the Turkey as a result of hydroelectric and other construction projects. Kintigh stated that “although we realize that the situation is somewhat different in a nation developing as rapidly as Turkey is today, we want you to know that there are models of how to balance development and preservation, methods and technology to enable heritage sites to be studied quickly and cost-effectively, and advice and expertise available to assist you in this endeavor.” He concluded by urging the Turkish authorities to work with the international archaeological community to find ways of mitigating the impact of development on our shared heritage.
[1] The Patrons of the Peace in Kurdistan Committee are Lord Avebury, Harold Pinter, Noam Chomsky and Arthur Miller.

[2]Thanks to Tim Champion for drawing the existence of this site to my attention

[3] Anyone with information, or who is interested in working on the issue, should contact the writer at Department of Archaeology, National University of Ireland, Galway, Republic of Ireland