Turkey Vows to Build Controversial Dam Despite Iraqi Complaints, Loss of European Support

tigris river diyarbakir turkey photo

The Tigris River winds its way through Diyarbakır, irrigating a small area of green agricultural land in a largely arid region.

In the height of summer, the "great river" Tigris looks more like a lazy stream as it passes beneath the 1,500-year-old black-basalt city walls of Diyarbakır, in southeastern Turkey. It's almost hard to believe the river is one of the key water sources for all of Mesopotamia, the region including parts of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq -- but easy to see how it has become the subject of so much dispute.

Last week, Austria, Germany, and Switzerland pulled the plug on funding for the Ilısu Dam, a 1,200-megawatt hydroelectric plant that Turkey wants to build on the Tigris River, saying that "Turkish plans to resettle towns and safeguard cultural treasures weren't 'sufficient' to meet World Bank standards."

'Never Should Have Been Debate'
"It's a good decision. It's just bad that it came so late. In truth there shouldn't even have been years of debate over loan guarantees for the dam project," the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung opined. "The government in Berlin cannot be allowed to let German businesses participate in projects abroad that would never be permitted in their own country."

The most controversial, or at least well-publicized, effect of building the dam would be the flooding of the ancient town of Hasankeyf, home to Assyrian, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman civilizations. The dam would also flood another 80 villages in the area, forcing the relocation of between 50,000 and 80,000 people in all, and destroy 400 square kilometers of river habitat for species such as the Euphrates soft-shell turtle.

Dams Worsening Iraqi Drought
Iraq had lobbied the European countries to withdraw their support, saying construction of the dam would "worsen an already dire shortage of water" desperately needed by the country's farmers, who are suffering through the second year of a major drought. River flows have been a cause of diplomatic strife between the two countries this summer, with Iraq asking Turkey to release more water from the rivers they share, saying its northern neighbor has been "choking the Euphrates with hydroelectric dams."

Turkish officials have countered that their Iraqi counterparts are "trying to use the country's water shortage as a political tool" in their upcoming election and that Iraq has to use water more efficiently.

The Euphrates and Tigris rivers support at least half of Iraq's annual grain production and provide most of the country's drinking water.

Turkey Determined To Build Dam
Despite the loss of $630 million in state export-loan guarantees from the three European countries -- whose criticism Turkey calls "political," the work of "foreign powers that do not want Turkey to become a regional power" -- the country has vowed to go forward on the $1.68 billion project with its own funds.

The Ilısu Dam is a centerpiece of the Turkish government's Southeastern Anatolia Project, or GAP, which will eventually include 22 dams and 19 power plants in the southeast part of the country that borders Syria and Iraq.

On a recent visit to Diyarbakır, the unofficial capital of the mainly Kurdish region, everyone wanted to know if the pair of Western travelers had seen Hasankeyf and what we thought about the project. They clearly took great pride in that city's history and expressed doubts that dams already built in other parts of the southeast -- purportedly to help boost the impoverished region's economy -- had done much to help ordinary people there.

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Turkey Vows to Build Controversial Dam Despite Iraqi Complaints, Loss of European Support
Austria, Germany, and Switzerland have pulled the plug on funding for a 1,200-megawatt hydroelectric plant that Turkey wants to build on the Tigris River, saying Turkish plans to resettle towns and safeguard cultural treasures are insufficient.

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