Keeping Hasankeyf Alive: Against the Ilisu Dam

Hasankeyf Dayanisma Kampi Akgün İlhan
We don’t have luxury here but we aren’t hungry either. Besides we live in the most beautiful place on earth. I wouldn’t go anywhere else even if they paid me millions[1].

An inhabitant of the town of Hasankeyf


The Ilisu Dam project is one of the most controversial ones in Turkey. Even though planned in the 1960s, the actual construction started in 2009. The dam is an integral part of the largest regional development project in Turkey named as the South-eastern Anatolia Project (GAP). As the name suggests, GAP is located in the South-eastern region of Turkey. There are three important aspects of GAP[2]. First, this region is heavily populated by the Kurds and there has been an on-going war between the Turkish army and the Kurdish rebels for over decades. Second, GAP consists of dozens of large dams and Hydro-electric Power Plants (HEPP) on the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers which limit, to a great extent, the water flow that the downstream countries Iraq and Syria receive. Third, as the global water crisis discourse becomes more popular, the large water multi-nationals have developed an increasing interest in the water resources of the Middle East; a region having already serious water shortage. When these dimensions are considered, the complexity of the Ilisu case and the grand obstacles in front of the social movement against this project becomes clear.

The Ilisu Dam as an integral part of the GAP

The history of the Ilisu project goes back to the 1960s. It was planned within GAP, which was originally designed as a regional hydraulic plan consisting of twenty-two dams on the Euphrates and the Tigris basins for the irrigation of 1.76 million ha of land in the South-eastern Anatolia Region of Turkey and nineteen hydro-electricity power plants. GAP, over the years, went through some significant changes. First, in 1986, it was transformed into a regional development project by the State Planning Organisation (DPT). The overall aim was to transform the GAP region into an export centre of agricultural production for Turkey. Second, in 2000, GAP went through additional modifications in line with the changes in global thinking about the notion of sustainable development[3].

The Ilisu Dam

The Ilisu Dam

The objectives and aims were redefined according to the new global definitions of ‘sustainability’. However, the core aim of the project was kept as “increasing the overall productivity and the welfare of locals through utilisation of natural resources in the most efficient ways possible” ( In fact, this shift was a reply to three parallel and inter-related developments taking place at the domestic (the South-eastern region of Turkey), the regional (the Middle East) and the global (neo-liberal developments such as the creation of the global water market) scales.

Developments related to GAP and the Ilisu Dam

As GAP was launched, it provoked growing anxiety among the downstream countries Syria and Iraq. When completed, the planned large dams on the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers would capture a considerable portion of water flow that Syria and Iraq entirely depend on. The two countries, too, constructed of a series of uncoordinated hydraulic projects on the Tigris and the Euphrates in the 1960s and 1970s. In their eyes, GAP was the Turkish State’s control instrument over the downstream countries of the Middle East where water scarcity is already a severe problem. This would foster the existing power asymmetry between the upstream and the downstream countries.

The mega project also received considerable opposition at the domestic level from the Kurdish front in Turkey. The GAP area is located entirely in the South-eastern part of Turkey, which is dominantly populated by the Kurds. The Turkish State promoted GAP as a great potential for creating job opportunities for locals and bringing socio-economic development into the Kurdish region. This would, according to the State, solve the on-going conflict between the Turkish military forces and the Kurdish separatists. Despite this, the opposition has only grown during the years. The riparian countries Syria and Iraq also supported the Kurdish argument that defined GAP as the Turkish State’s instrument for assimilation and control of the Kurdish population in the GAP region.

1990s were, at the same time, the years when the growing hegemony of market-led development in the water domain brought new opportunities for the construction of the Ilısu project. As Warner  indicates “although water management was traditionally a local, regional or at best a national concern, in the 1990s, some large French, British and American water companies extended their limits worldwide and negotiated contracts in developing countries”[4]. Warner adds that these companies formed successful alliances with construction companies and investment banks to avoid any kind of business risks (international capital alliance) and states that follow the hegemony of the global market economy. Turkey did not have the national finance to complete GAP alone. As Turkey privatized the water sector in the very same years, the water giants of the world entered into the Turkish water domain. Meanwhile, Syria and Iraq became closer to the West and the global market economy through governmental changes by the beginning of the 21st century. These countries have gradually become more cooperative with Turkey in the management of the Euphrates-Tigris basin[5].

The official announcement of the Ilisu Dam project

In line with these developments, the long-held armed dispute since 1984 between the Turkish army and the Kurdish guerrillas had not only drained the Turkey’s national financial resources, but also created economic instability in this region. These conditions discouraged any kind of economic investment in the region. Besides, GAP had already received too much criticism at international platforms such as being rejected by the World Bank, which resulted in significant delays. The delays had only raised the cost of the projects within the GAP. Turkey did not have the finance to construct the Ilısu Dam. Therefore, it was decided in 1997 that the project would be carried out by the interested European companies[6]. Since the project would be in an actual war zone, great risks were at stake. And this economical and political instability would be taken care of by the Export Credit Agencies (ECA).

The social movement against the Ilısu project emerged immediately after the official announcement of the project (1997). Some town councils, NGOs and Diyarbakir branch of the Union Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB) came together to establish the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive. The name of the Initiative came from the ancient town of Hasankeyf, which would be inundated by the opposed Ilisu Dam if its construction was completed. The Initiative was formed as a justice seeking platform taking into account primarily the Kurdish problem rather than environmental impacts of the proposed project. It built alliance at the international level with the Kurdish Human Rights Project (KHRP), Rivernet, International Rivers, Friends of the Earth and Export Credit Campaign (ECC). The key actors of the movement held an international campaign that targeted attention of the public and the decision-making units of the consortium countries. They held protest actions so that the multi-nationals and finance organizations within the consortium would withdraw from the Ilısu project. The campaign became successful in 2001 and became internationally recognised in the global environmental justice circles. However, the Ilisu project re-emerged in 2004 with a different consortium. It was understood that without a strong grassroots movement, the project would only be delayed, not eradicated.

Hasankeyf as the symbol of movement against the Ilisu Dam

Hasankeyf has not only some important archaeological sites, but also an uninterrupted living history. It is an important symbol for the Kurds. What makes the social movement against the Ilısu Dam particularly interesting is the way it made use of this symbol for starting a regional scale mobilisation. As the actors of the movement built multi-level alliances with global organizations, Hasankeyf evolved into a symbol of world heritage. For the first time in Turkey, a social movement received such international recognition. In this way, the movement sets an example for not only others in Turkey, but also the ones in Syria and Iraq, which both have large Kurdish population and share the Euphrates-Tigris Basin with Turkey.

The recent history of Hasankeyf

The recent history of Hasankeyf holds a mirror to what the locals had to go through. In the 1960s, people of Hasankeyf who had been living, for thousands of years, in the human made caves carved into the rocks were resettled by force. The President of Turkey, Cevdet Sunay, was on a field trip in Hasankeyf. On seeing people living in caves, he ordered the construction of “modern houses” for these people. Living in caves was perceived by him as the failure of the Turkish State in combating poverty. The construction of the 40 m2 government houses started immediately. During this process, many historical structures in the town were destroyed under the heavy bulldozers. When the houses were built, people refused to leave their caves. To overcome this problem, a gendarme station was built to force people to live in the new houses. During decades, some went back to their old caves but the gendarmes enforced them to move back to the new houses. When asked, people indicate that buildings are poorly isolated. They say that the government houses are cold in winter and hot in summer. The caves, on the hand, were naturally much better isolated.

The caves of Hasankeyf

The caves of Hasankeyf

In the late 1970s, the area was declared as a first grade archaeological protection zone (1978) by the Turkish Ministry of Culture. However, ironically it helped nothing but inviting uncontrolled excavations and looting of the historical artefacts due to lack of protective measures. Only a certain type of tourism was permitted. Any construction and the use of old caves for accommodating tourists were strictly prohibited. Economic activities were limited with running either a restaurant or a souvenir shop. In addition, decades-old rumours about a dam that would flood Hasankeyf left the inhabitants helpless, hopeless and tired.  Finally, in 1997, the project was officially pronounced for the first time[7].

Uniting against the Ilisu Dam

The Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive was established after the official declaration of the Ilisu project. The main strategy was to build pressure on the governments of the contractor countries and public so that, the consortium members would withdraw from the project.  As a result of an international anti-dam campaign with the Forest & the European Union Resource Network (FERN), Cornerhouse and the KHRP, all contractors withdrew from the project (2001). However, in 2004, the project re-emerged with new contractors from Austria, Germany and Switzerland. With the experience of the first campaign, the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive started the second campaign in the new contractor countries. It allied with organizations based in these countries; World Economy, Ecology and Development (WEED) from Germany, Berne Declaration from Switzerland and the Austrian ECA-Watch.

The focus of the second campaign was the legal and ethical aspects of the proposed dam project. The project did not meet the 153 requirements which were obligatory to be officially started. According to the Committee on Culture, Science and Education (CCSE) (2006: 4-5) the requirements about income restoration, counter-risk measures, improvement plans and impoverishment of fifty-five thousand people to be affected by the project were not addressed. Even after two years in 2008 there was no significant progress regarding these requirements. In the Joint Call to Halt Ilısu Dam (2008) which the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive sent to the decision-making units in the contractor countries, it was indicated that a project like this would never been accepted in any EU country. Corrupted network of interests between multi-nationals, ECAs and governments were underlined in the Joint Call.

The Ilısu project was also taken to the National Court on a number of occasions, none of which has resulted yet.  ECA-Watch announced that the project lacked all legal requirements but it still was not rejected. This was the perfect example to how ECAs finance such dam projects which had neither resettlement plans nor environmental assessment. ECAs operate under no common environmental standards which results in some of them profiting by financing destructive dam projects that others refuse to accept, which results in environmental and social “race to the bottom”[8].

Among the many protests and symbolic actions organized by the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive, one was particularly meaningful. Around hundred inhabitants of the Hasankeyf went to Ankara, the capital of Turkey, on the 4th of March 2008, to apply for a symbolic political asylum at the embassies of three contractor countries: Austria, Germany and Switzerland. These protesters, in their letters written to the ambassadors of the three countries, indicated that if the Ilisu Dam was built, their families would have no place to live. Under these circumstances, they should be given the right to immigrate to those countries which were principally responsible for the construction of the Dam.

The Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive also published technical informative and fact-finding reports on the socio-ecological impacts of the Ilisu project. Ercan Ayboga, the spokesman of the Initiative, indicates that the official reports did not reflect the real situation in Hasankeyf. Locals were afraid of expressing their real opinions[9]. Ayboga also argues that the public opinion about the project changed drastically in the very recent years and this was not reflected in the old reports. In 1997, according to Ayboga, the majority was in favor of it simply because they had no hope in winning against the State and were expecting reasonable compensation. However, as they witnessed social-ecological impacts of other dam projects in the GAP area such as in the case of the Birecik Dam[10], they gradually changed opinion[11].

What happened on the 15th of April 2008 in a consultation meeting in Hasankeyf sets an example to what Ercan Ayboga indicates. The meeting was for the public hearing on resettlement in Hasankeyf. It was announced that the people of Hasankeyf who choose to move to the new resettlement site would have to pay 73 thousand TL[12] which would be set off against the amount that a family would get for their old house in Hasankeyf as compensation. People would, then, start paying the amount that remains after five years in a period of fifteen years. The Major of Hasankeyf indicated that the price of the houses in Hasankeyf was estimated to be between only 20 and 30 thousand TL[13]. This would mean that people of Hasankeyf would be in debt to the Turkish State if they choose to move to the new resettlement site. As the compensation money which consists of the price of their current houses in Hasankeyf would be much less than the price of the houses of the new resettlement site, they would have to pay back the rest in twenty years.

On the 10th of December 2008 fifty activists from “Stop Ilisu Campaign” in Vienna occupied Kontrollbank, which was the main financial supporter of the Ilisu Dam project. Following this event, the ECAs in the proposed project, Euler Hermes Kreditversicherung from Germany, Kontrollbank of Austria and Swiss Schweizerische Exportrisikoversicherung, gave the Turkish officials 180 days to submit evidence that they were complying with the 153 requirements on environmental protection, resettlement of villages, protection of cultural heritage, and resource management with neighbouring states. As Turkey did not fulfil any of these requirements, the three ECAs indicated in a joint press release issued on the 7th of July 2009 that they withdrew from the project. Shortly after, in another joint press release[14] issued on the same day, the three banks[15] financing the project also stated – in line with the decision of the ECAs – that the export credit granted by the three banks for the construction of the Ilısu Dam would no longer be available.

Hasankeyf Solidarity Camp, October 2012

Hasankeyf Solidarity Camp, October 2012

This was the second victory, which also meant that Turkey would have to finance the proposed project with internal sources. The Minister of Forestry and Environment, Veysel Eroğlu, on a number of occasions, declared that they would build the Dam despite all obstacles. The Ilisu Dam became a “project of honour” for the Turkish State which becomes clear in the words of Eroğlu[16]: “We do not need their money. We will construct this dam at any cost”. Since 2009 the construction goes on with the financial support of Turkish banks; Garanti Bankası and Akbank. However, it is maybe incorrect to call these entirely Turkish as in 2011 a Basque bank called BBVA bought a 24.9% of Garanti Bankası.

What awaits Hasankeyf now? 

In fact, the ancient town of Hasankeyf is only one of the 200 towns and villages in the Tigris Valley which will be inundated if the construction of the Ilisu Dam is completed. What awaits Hasankeyf is what awaits the Tigris Valley, our past and our future. An important part of the dam is completed.  The construction of the new resettlement for the Ilisu village, where the Dam is being built, is already completed. The one for the locals of Hasankeyf is about to finish. In fact, these two were the only “privileged” ones among the 200 town and villages, which will have a new resettlement place. The rest of the 55 thousand people will be left nowhere to go, with no compensation.

The injustice taking place in the Tigris Valley is not limited with people of the region. Hasankeyf is a unique place in which the border between nature and culture diminishes. The beautiful steep rocks in which tens of thousands years old human caves carved, the remaining ancient structures from different civilizations, endemic species (e.g. the Tigris Turtle) and a living culture with an uninterrupted history of some 12 thousand years are all meshed in Hasankeyf. We owe the right to see Hasankeyf to our future generations.

Having no hope of overcoming the Turkish Government’s insistence on building this dam, the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive launched, in March 2012, an international petition campaign[17] with three civil society organizations operating in Mesopotamia; Iraq Civil Society Solidarity Initiative (ICSSI), Civil Development Organization (CDO) from Iraq-KRG and the Centre for Sustainable Development (CENESTA) from Iran. The petition is for building pressure on the UNESCO World Heritage Committee so that the town of Hasankeyf and the Tigris Valley is accepted as a World Heritage Site. The campaign is supported by over 90 organizations from all over the world.

What awaits Hasankeyf depends on not only the people of Hasankeyf, but also us. It is our past and future at stake. The case of Ilisu gives us the opportunity think about the actual meaning of development. How far can we develop while we keep on destroying people, other living beings and our children’s right to enjoy cultural and natural heritage such as Hasankeyf? Or how can we complain but do nothing to change it, while we see this destruction happening in front of our eyes? Let’s think… Let’s do something… Let’s sign the petition at least…

End notes:

[1] Unstructured inteview with the locals of Hasankeyf – July, 2008.

[2] Akgun Ilhan (2009). Social Movements In Sustainability Transitions: Identity, Social Learning & Power in the Spanish and Turkish Water Domains. PhD Thesis Dissertation, Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA)  Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB).

[3] Aysegul Kibaroglu (2007). Politics of water resources in the Nile, Jordan and Tigris-Euphrates: Three rivers, three narratives. Perceptions: Journal of International Affairs 12, 143-164.

[4] Jeroen Warner (2008). Contested hydrohegemony: Hydraulic control and security in Turkey. Water Alternatives 1(2), 271-288.

[5] The conflict between the riparian countries Turkey, Iraq and Syria changed towards conciliation after 1998. Turkey and Syria built technical cooperation on water management and training and expertise exercise of 2002. In 2005 Euphrates-Tigris Initiative for Cooperation (ETIC) was established. In the recent years, the three riparian countries have been holding negotiations of a joint water institute.

[6] The Swiss Sulzer Hydro (the main contractor), Swiss ABB, and British Balfour Beatty were among these companies.

[7] Interview with Abdulvahap Kusen, the Mayor of Hasankeyf – July, 2008.

[8] Doug Norlen, et. al. (2002). Unusual suspects: Unearthing the shadowy world of export Credit Agencies. ECA Watch.

[9] Interview with Ercan Ayboga – March,2008.

[10] The Birecik Dam – another integral project of GAP – was completed in 2000. As most of the inhabitants of the flooded areas had no title to land, they received no compensation. 18 villages were evacuated by military force, some villages were misinformed about the inundation levels and some others were submerged partially without warning. The ones that received compensation were given new houses in bad conditions in the slums.

[11] Interview with Ercan Ayboga – May, 2009.

[12] Turkish Lira.

[13] Hasankeyf Initiative (2008). Report of the public hearing on resettlement in Hasankeyf by Hasankeyf Initiative.…/report__public_hearing_hasankeyf_15-04-2008.pdf

[14] BankTrack

[15] Société Générale, UniCredit and DekaBank.

[16] Interview with Veysel Eroğlu published in Ekonomik Ayrıntı 01.07.2009


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