Rivers for life

Damocracy Istanbul Turkish ReviewAkgün Ilhan, Turkish Review, 1 November 2013, In association with the member organizations of the Damocracy movement, Doga Derneği (Turkey partner of BirdLife International) held an international conference in İstanbul on May 18, 2013, focusing on the socio-ecological impacts of large dams. The Damocracy movement emerged from the problematization of two particular hydraulic projects; the Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River in the Amazon basin (Brazil) and the Ilısu Dam on the Tigris in Mesopotamia (Turkey). The involvement of international organizations working on rivers and water rights issues such as International Rivers, Amazon Watch and River Watch, shows that this movement has a holistic understanding of the problem that embraces all rivers and peoples defending them from all around the world.

Regarding dammed rivers, the president of Doga Dernegi, Güven Eken, argued that the Xingu and the Tigris rivers — like all rivers — share the same destiny. “If we say OK to losing one river to dams, then we accept losing the others,” said Eken. In his eyes, protection of rivers should start with getting rid of the virtual dams that block human thinking in the first place. He made his position clear: “Saying no to dams is the one and only way to succeed in protecting our rivers.”

However, Ulrich Eichelmann from River Watch (Austria) suggested adopting a different strategy to resolve the problem. He suggested that creating “no-go areas” for particular rivers, in which neither hydraulic nor other types of developmental infrastructure is permitted, might be a more realistic solution than Eken’s “one for all, all for one” approach. Moving from his experience in Europe, Eichelmann remarked the rally in the popularity of dam constructions all around the world, triggered by China’s arrival onto the scene in the 2000s and the global hydro-lobby’s promotion of dam construction as a way of mitigating climate change. “We are facing a dam tsunami” said Eichelmann, concluding that 5,000 large dams all around the world are either under construction or planned.

Indeed, this is the case in the US as Jason Rainey, the executive director of International Rivers, stated. The US is the most dammed country in the world, with only one river in California remaining undammed. However, China has become the new champion of dam building league. “The picture is getting darker” said Rainey, giving an example from India where more than 400 dams have been built in a single river basin — the Ganges. Rainey’s noted that the US has had to demolish around a thousand of its dams, and that other countries, instead of making the same mistakes, should learn from the US experience.

However, other participants suggested that states resist learning from each others’ mistakes. Christian Poirier from Amazon Watch (Brazil) claimed that Brazil is following the same path as the US, as illustrated by the state’s insistence on construction of the Belo Monte dam. He described the project as the gateway to the destruction of the Amazonian ecosystems.

Kayapo chief Megaron Txucarramae and his daughter Mayalu come from one of the indigenous communities affected by the Belo Monte project. As they took the floor at the conference, they expressed their strong will to maintain their traditional way of life. The chief explained that achieving this depends entirely on the protection of indigenous territories, in which their culture is embedded. Then Moira Millan, Mapuche leader from Patagonia (Argentina), said the following, exemplifying the contrast between indigenous and “modern” cultures in terms of their relationships with nature: “Mapu in our language means earth. And che means people. Mapuche means people of earth. We speak Mapudungun which means the language of earth. That is why we, Mapuches, cannot live separated from our territory and earth. We believe that if one element disappears from nature, then a part of our culture disappears too.”


Dr. Azzam Alwash, president of Nature Iraq, also spoke of the human relationship with nature, water in particular. Since the 1960s water has been the most powerful instrument of development for the young modern states of Mesopotamia (Turkey, Syria and Iraq) — and often used by these states against each other. Alwash stated that the increasing number of dams built on the Euphrates and Tigris by these countries has created devastating effects on the downstream communities, the Marsh Arabs among them (these included efforts by Saddam Hussein within Iraq to dry up the marshes they inhabited). “However, the marshes are the cradle of the civilization and, therefore, belong to the entire world, rather than Iraq,” Alwash underlined. The Mesopotamian Marshes have been rescued by the “Eden Again” project led by Alwash, but now the Ilısu Dam project poses a threat to this unique place. The issue of water in the Middle East should go beyond the discourse regarding who owns it, according to him, and start focusing on cooperation between states and among peoples within states.

Akgün İlhan (author of this review), coordinator for the Right to Water Campaign (Turkey), evaluated dams within the framework of “right to water.” From İlhan’s perspective, the damming of a river is a violation of beings’ right to meet their water needs. “This violation is taking place everywhere, and that is why the concept of right to water has great potential to bring together every element of our planet” said İlhan. She argued that as long as rivers flow free, every being has access to water and that guarantees the continuation of life.

Joshua Angelei from the Friends of Lake Turkana (Kenya) underlined the importance of public participation in protecting rivers and lakes. Lake Turkana is the world’s largest permanent desert lake and also its largest alkaline lake. Some 90 percent of the water in the lake comes from the Omo River, a transboundary river between Ethiopia and Kenya. Around 700,000 people’s lives depend primarily on the Omo and the Turkana basins. Nonetheless plans to dam the Omo in order to generate electricity continue. “The ones that will suffer are the people,” said Angelei, “therefore they are the ones to protect the lake”.

The highlight of the conference came from Mapuche leader Millan. On being asked about legal struggle and laws protecting nature, Millan said the following: “The only law is nature’s law. Companies, states and individuals can escape from human-made law, but nothing can escape nature’s law. If we are serious about defending our rivers, we should keep this in mind”.




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