People protest the planned construction of a dam in Turkey's İkizdere Valley.
Turkish environmentalists cheered earlier this month when a cultural and natural heritage protection board declared a valley in the Black Sea province of Rize a protected zone, thwarting the construction of 22 hydroelectric power plants planned for the region. The decision, though, drew the ire of top government officials -- including the country's environment minister -- and a new law was quickly drafted that, if passed, would give jurisdiction over such areas to a new board likely to take a dim view of actually protecting "protected zones."
The decision to protect Rize's İkizdere Valley didn't even totally rule out the possibility of dams being built in the area; it just ensured that any construction would have to be done legally and in a way that would not harm the heavily forested region's natural environment. "If people get the required permission from the state, new construction will be allowed," said Professor Hasan Taşçı, the head of a group that lobbied for the protected status.Turkish Government Pushing Hydropower
But that apparently wasn't good enough for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who denied claims that a river in the valley had dried up when experimental production began at the Cevizlik Hydroelectric Power Station and said the heritage protection board was "blocking our path."
Erdoğan's government has been working to boost electricity production through hydropower across the country, an effort that has come under an increasing amount of criticism from citizens -- and from the international community. While most dam projects in Turkey remain local issues, the ongoing plans to build the Ilısu Dam in the ancient city of Hasankeyf have drawn widespread condemnation for the number of local residents who would be displaced and the historical heritage that would be lost.
Ancient Roman Baths at Allianoi at Risk
The second-century Roman baths at Allianoi, a city in western Turkey, have recently become a kind of "new Hasankeyf," with international media reporting critically on the Turkish government's plans to build a dam that would flood the ancient ruins. Environment Minister Veysel Eroğlu has defended the decision, saying that the already excavated ruins are things that "can be found anywhere" and criticizing Turkish pop star Tarkan, who has been involved in efforts to save both Allianoi and Hasankeyf. "Tarkan should mind his own business. Do I sing songs?" Eroğlu had said.
The decision in the İkizdere Valley seemed to provide hope that dam construction could at least be slowed down enough for the potential environmental and social consequences to be more fully examined. But the new law the government has proposed has environmentalists more worried than ever. If passed, it would be a "death sentence for Anatolia," said Güven Eken, the head of Doğa Derneği (Nature Association), using another name for the majority of Turkey that lies on the Asian continent.
Environment Minister or Dam-Builder-in-Chief?
According to the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review, the draft law would "revoke the existing statuses of protected zones and transfer authority over these areas to a to-be-founded 'National Biological Diversity Board.' The new board would be headed by the Environment Ministry secretary and include 14 bureaucrats, four academics and two representatives of nongovernmental organizations to be selected by the ministry.... and would be tasked with determining whether [registered protected areas] should keep their protected status."
Having the Environment Ministry in charge of natural areas seems logical, of course, but Environment Minister Eroğlu, who called the cancellation of the İkizdere projects "madness," too often still seems to working at his former job: as head of the state hydraulic works, which is responsible for supervising dam building.
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