Sponsored in part by

Protests Grow Over Plan For More Turkish Dams

When it's finished, perhaps in the next decade, it is expected to bring life-giving water to a region about the size of Austria. Turkey's controversial US $32 billion Southeast Anatolia Project - a massive plan calling for 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric plants strung along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers - is also intended to provide almost one-quarter of that country's electric power.

Eye in the Sky

But issues unrelated to irrigation and electricity are raising anxieties among an odd collection of international political bedfellows drawn together by their various concerns about GAP - as the project is known by its Turkish initials. Opponents include Turkey's downstream neighbors Syria and Iraq - along with local and foreign environmentalists, human rights activists, and even archaeologists and art historians worried about the flooding of ancient cultural sites.

Bowing to growing public pressure, Great Britain recently put a hold on its plans to help finance the next major component of the project, the proposed Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River. Some groups are insisting that Turkey consult with Syria and Iraq - both of which have had hostile relations with Turkey - about the use of the waters.

Last month an alliance of 14 human rights and environmentalist groups appealed to the U.S. Export-Import Bank and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to halt any further discussion of plans to support the Ilisu Dam.

Even some companies that stand to be enriched by the construction work have begun getting cold feet. In August the Swedish firm Skanska announced that it was pulling out of an international consortium of contractors that have been designated for the work in order to protect its environmental reputation.

Turkey's government is giving every indication that it intends to proceed despite these setbacks. The project is expected to give the pro-western country an enormous strategic advantage in a chronically thirsty part of the world. Many experts predict that during the 21st century, whoever controls the water supply in the Near East will dominate to a great extent economic and political events, possibly even the production of oil by water-reliant members of OPEC.

"The next war in the Near East will not be about politics, but over water," former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali once warned an American think tank. "Washington does not take this threat seriously because everything in the U.S. relates to oil."


The concerns of Syria and Iraq focus primarily on their reliance on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers for water. The rivers, which flow through Turkey, are being systematically dammed up by GAP activities. Turkish officials have said repeatedly that they will not restrict flows once their reservoirs are filled; but the two downstream countries fear they will be subject to blackmail by Turkey whenever their national policies conflict.

Citing international law requiring agreement of downstream countries to dam projects, Iraq has threatened to bring Turkey - which does not recognize this law - before an international tribunal.

Earlier this year a chorus of protest arose when rising water in a new reservoir behind the recently completed Birecik Dam threatened to inundate the site of the 2,000-year-old Roman city of Zeugma, including its collection of long-buried mosaics and other stunning examples of imperial Roman artwork. The filling operation was briefly suspended during a frantic effort to salvage some of the most important known artifacts, and then resumed. The project also has destroyed pistachio fields and other orchards and has affected an estimated 30,000 people - mostly members of Turkey's Kurdish minority - in 44 villages. Some 6,500 residents have been forcibly resettled.

The Birecik Dam is the third dam on the Euphrates, following the Karakaya and Ataturk Dams. The proposed Ilisu Dam would obliterate 52 villages and 15 small towns along the Tigris. Among these is the modern 5,500-person settlement of Hasankeyf - which lies in at the bottom of a limestone cliff below the ruins of its medieval predecessor, a nationally recognized cultural heritage site. Artifacts that consumed by the rising water include a bridge built by a local 12th-century chieftain, a mosque built by a sultan, and a royal tomb.

In human terms, more troubling to many than the loss of cultural and historical areas is the effect that GAP is having on the hard-pressed Kurds, who happen to be the majority in the areas designated for flooding. Kurdish guerrillas in southeastern Turkey have been waging a war for independence since 1984. Some critics see GAP as playing a helpful role in the government's efforts to suppress them.


London-based Kurdish human rights lawyer Kerim Yildiz is spearheading an international campaign to block the Ilisu Dam, taking aim at what is possibly its most vulnerable spot: its need for large amounts of money. Appealing to several western governments that along with Japan have been asked to provide export credits or guarantees of about US $850 million, Yildiz argues that "if anyone supports this dam it will contribute to the violation of human rights and international law."

Critics say the Ilisu Dam will require the forced resettlement of as many as 34,000 local people - mostly Kurds - and could negatively effect the lives of 78,000.

Yildiz' allies include several prominent environmental groups, including London-based Friends of the Earth. They maintain that with tons of untreated solid waste and wastewater of major cities already being dumped into the Tigris, the new reservoir would vastly reduce the ability of the river to cleanse itself naturally. They also argue that besides displacing thousands of Kurds, the reservoir would bring malaria and other waterborne diseases to those who remain in the area.

"The Ilisu project will wreak environmental and social havoc and wreck the lives of thousands of Kurds," says Friends of the Earth policy director Tony Juniper. He called British government support for the project a "direct intervention in a war zone."

The Turkish government has answered critics at every step of the way, promising to conduct new environmental impact studies, to install wastewater treatment plants, laboratories, and to launch health education programs in the affected areas.

Government officials say that if international financing is cut off, Turkey will find a way to continue. They cite interest from several unnamed construction companies in participating if the others were to join Sweden's Skanska in backing out.

"Turkey wants to realize the project either with these firms in some way, on credit or on its own," says State Waterworks Authority General Manager Dogan Altinbilek. "We want to complete this project, not waste our efforts."

Eye in the Sky is a weekly series that brings you the story behind the headlines using satellite imagery, remote sensing, aerial photography, and maps. This feature is developed by National Geographic News with the sponsorship of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) and Earth-Info. Check out maps and imagery at

 Related Websites

More Information
• Turkey controls the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers - which form the "Fertile Crescent," the birthplace of some of the world's earliest civilizations.
• The Southeastern Anatolia Project, known by its Turkish initials of GAP, is one of the biggest development projects of its kind in the world. It envisions 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric plants along the two rivers.
• Completed in 1986, the centerpiece of the project - the Ataturk Dam and Hydroelectric Power Plant on the Euphrates River - is the world's ninth-largest rock-filled dam.
• The president of Turkey, Suleyman Demirel, is by profession a water engineer.

More Information

The gargantuan Southeast Anatolia Project, known by its Turkish initials as GAP, traces its origins to the formative period after the birth of the modern Republic of Turkey in 1923. Recognizing the importance of water resources to the new nation, founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1936 directed the establishment of the Electric Works Studies Agency to develop the potential of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and their tributaries for generating power.

A succession of government agencies followed, coming up with ever grander schemes for harnessing energy. In 1977, ongoing studies of the lower Euphrates and Tigris basins were combined under the current title of Southeast Anatolia Project.


Southeastern Turkey is heavily populated by Kurds, a traditionally nomadic ethnic group that lacks a nation, but is spread over southeastern Turkey, western Iraq, and Iran. This is the group most likely to be affected by the dams envisioned by the Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP). Thousands of Kurds have already been forced to abandon their homes in the region because of rising reservoir waters.

Critics depict GAP as an example of government indifference toward the Kurds at best, and at worst as part of Turkey's strategy in its 16-year war with Kurdish Moslem separatists. That struggle escalated after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds crossed the border into Turkey after their unsuccessful uprising against Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

In the sometimes topsy-turvy world of Middle East politics, the country in the region that can be counted on for support of GAP is Israel, which during the past two decades has formed a strong partnership with Turkey. The two countries are studying ways of sending some of Turkey's abundant water supplies to water-starved Israel by tankers, pipelines or other means.