Since the early 2000s, a massive hydropower project in southeastern Turkey has been mired in controversy, moving forward in fits and starts. But as of this past July, construction is finally complete. As the dam and its reservoir become fully operational, the line between hydropower and state power will be washed away. This fall, the violence that followed a sudden, destabilizing withdrawal of US troops from nearby northern Syria captured the world’s attention as it cleared the path for Turkey’s military to dominate the Kurdish opposition.
Meanwhile, the water slowly rising behind the 442-foot-high, more-than-a-mile-wide wall of the Ilisu Dam across the Tigris River is a less overt sign of that same determination.
“This dam is a weapon against the lowlands,” said Ulrich Eichelmann, a German ecologist and conservationist and head of the Austrian NGO RiverWatch, over the phone from Vienna. “It was planned and is now being built in a way they can hold back the whole Tigris for a long time. If you see water as a weapon, dams are the new cannons. Iraq has the oil, Turkey has the water, and sometimes, it’s much better to have the water.”
The Tigris and Euphrates rivers, two of the three longest rivers in the Middle East after the Nile, both originate in Turkey. The Euphrates flows across Turkey, south through the heart of Syria, and into Iraq. Now, both of these storied, sacred, ancient rivers are drying up, and the (once) Fertile Crescent is giving way to arid, cracked ground.
To some extent, the culprit is climate change. More immediately, the fate and exploitation of these rivers lies with Turkey’s hydropower development and the 41-component project of which the Ilisu Dam is just one part: Dams on the Euphrates have reduced water flow into Syria by an estimated 40 percent in the past 40 years and into Iraq by nearly twice that. With the damming of the Tigris, the last lifeline to this region will also be in Turkey’s grip.
Downriver, the effects will be water shortage. The Mesopotamian Marshes in Iraq may turn to desert. This region, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, was drained during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980 and again by Saddam Hussein in a tactical maneuver to expose his enemies. After Hussein’s ouster, the dikes he had built were torn down in celebration, and the parts of the marshland ecosystem began to return to its previous, verdant state. With the Ilisu’s restricted water flow will come not only ecological repercussions but also a tactical advantage for enemies of the region’s inhabitants.
Upriver, the problem will be not too little water but an inundation. As with the creation of any major reservoir, bird and fish habitats will be wiped out and the regional climate will be altered. Ecosystems, residential areas, and archaeological sites will be submerged.
For the past few years, though, one loss has loomed particularly large: the 12,000-year-old settlement of Hasankeyf, a Kurdish heritage site with untold archaeological value, soon to be inundated by Ilisu’s artificial lake.
In the context of Turkey’s history of imperialism against the Kurds, the impact of this dam-building spree extends well beyond Kurdish Turkey to the entirety of Syria and Iraq. From there, the geopolitical repercussions ripple outward. More than progress, Ilisu is a play for power and domination.
After World War I, the Ottoman Empire broke into pieces. One became independently ruled Turkey; others were divided among Western superpowers, who made a provision to the Kurds—indigenous peoples of the stretch of Mesopotamia that stretches across parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Armenia—for an independent Kurdistan.
But when the boundaries of modern-day Turkey were drawn shortly thereafter in 1923, that provision was left out. The Kurds, now the minority in every country they inhabit, have been fighting for their homeland ever since. Violent friction between Kurdish separatist groups and Turkey over this question is ongoing.
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