May 3rd, 2012
03:48 PM ET

Flooding out terror? Turkey’s Ilisu dam project

Editor's Note: Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow and Altay Sedat Otun is a research intern at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

By Soner Cagaptay and Altay Sedat Otun - Special to CNN

You may have heard of dams being built for water management purposes or electricity production, but probably not one being built for counter-terrorism purposes. Turkey’s proposed Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River would satisfy just that end.

When Ankara completes the proposed construction on the dam in 2013, a large artificial reservoir would flood canyons across the rugged terrain of southeastern Turkey, thus effectively flooding out the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK) from the area and scoring a rare “hydro-victory” against terrorism.

The Ilisu Dam project is part of the government-funded Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), which traces its origins to the early days of the Turkish republic when plans to utilize the Euphrates and Tigris rivers for energy generation and irrigation were first developed. However, GAP it still awaiting completion. Major fighting between the PKK and the Turkish military has prevented completion of the project since the 1990s.

The PKK has enjoyed a great deal of sway in southeastern Turkey, using the mountainous terrain to their advantage in order to smuggle its members into Turkey from camps in Iraq. This area, which one of the authors visited, is pierced by canyons that run for tens of miles and are hundreds of feet deep. These canyons are almost impossible to properly monitor with a military force and form an effective land bridge between Iraq and Turkey that the PKK have used for decades.

In fact, it would not be exaggerated to describe these canyons as sort of a “PKK highway”; a member of the group can enter one of these canyons in Iraq and literally walk hundreds of miles deep into Turkish territory undetected.

Now this could all change: the large artificial lake to be created by the construction of the Ilisu dam would flood these canyons, blocking the “PKK highway.”

Perhaps not so fast. Soon after work on the dam began in 1997, however, the consortium of Swiss, German, and Austrian banks financing the dam began voicing their concerns with the project and withdrew their monetary support. In late 2008, the European members of the Ilisu Dam consortium put a six-month freeze on financing because the project “failed to meet World Bank standards for environmental and cultural protection.”

The World Bank raised concerns over the Ilisu dam project because it would flood the historic Tigris River town of Hasankeyf, which was once an important stop on the Silk Road connecting Asia to Europe. This town also serves as a source of income for the over 3,000 residents who depend on the 2 million tourists who visit the site every year.

Some Turkish activists have even tried for some years to have Hasankeyf added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list, but this would require the Ankara government's signature, which has been unattainable. Some Turks have also taken the issue to the courts and attempted to establish that Hasankeyf is protected by Turkish laws on the preservation of historical and cultural sites and therefore under the protection of the European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage due to Turkey's signatory status.

In order to alleviate concerns raised by the World Bank, its European Union partners, and the area's residents, the Turkish government has proposed moving 12 of Hasankeyf's 300 monuments to a newly created cultural park about a mile north of the city. Turkish government officials have also proposed the construction of Yeni (new) Hasankeyf in order to relocate the area's over 3,000 residents.

Ankara argues that the dam should be built for it would bring prosperity to the country’s poorest region; by providing water for otherwise dry but fertile lands along the Tigris. The Ilisu Dam would also prove to be an important source for domestic energy production. Due to a growing economy, Turkish energy consumption has risen by 46% since the year 2000. When complete, the Ilisu Dam will have a capacity of 1,200 MW, making it Turkey’s fourth largest dam in size, and second biggest in generative capacity. Yet, in all truth, the dam’s counter-terrorism potential appears perhaps far more useful and valuable to Ankara.

For Turkey, the construction of the Ilisu Dam will kill two birds with one stone. It will help develop the largely poverty stricken southeast corner of Turkey, generate cheap domestic energy, and most importantly cut off a vital land route used by the PKK between their bases in Iraq and Turkish city centers.

For its opponents, the dam is viewed as the ax that will sever the head of the historic town of Hasankeyf and displace thousands of Kurds in a region that is already dealing with rising ethnic tensions. What is yet to be seen, however, is whether Ankara will be successful in its attempt to relocate ancient monuments and properly relocate and compensate the civilian population that will be displaced as a result of the dam.

Then, the Ilisu Dam project could enter the annals of counter-terrorism as the first case of using water to defeat terrorism.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Soner Cagaptay and Altay Sedat Otun.

soundoff (47 Responses)
  1. j. von hettlingen

    This Ilisu Dam project "could enter the annals of counter-terrorism as the first case of using water to defeat terrorism". It's also a weapon of cultural mass destruction. Hasankeyf has been protected under Turkish law since 1978, but the area has been largely inaccessible because of years of conflict between government troops and Kurdish separatist forces. The ancient town is a cultural heritage, thought to date back to 10-12,000 years and bear evidence of Assyrian, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk Turk and Ottoman civilisations. There are thousands of sites yet to be discovered there. Ankara should spare this town and let the people stay there.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Reply
    • George Patton

      Here's more proof that these cursed Turks have never changed from the way they were since before the First Crusade! Now they're going to flood the Kurds out of existence so that they can keep tight control over the southeastern part of that country. And all this too with the blessings of the right-wing thugs in Washington!!! How revolting this is!

      May 3, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Reply
      • deniz boro

        How very inspiring. Good to you

        May 4, 2012 at 3:51 am |
  2. Travis

    These same Turks slaughtered well over 1.8 million Armenians back in 1915 and yet few people today talk about. Just because these barbarians carry out orders from Washington D.C., that does not make them decent people. In fact, Pope Urban II called the First Crusade over the atrocities the Turks were perpetrating on the Christians who were living under their rule after the Battle of Manziekert in 1071. This goes to show just how amoral our leaders in Washington have become!!!

    May 3, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Reply
    • Prometheus

      Intelligently spoken.

      May 3, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Reply
      • gok

        Greek? Kurd? Armenian? When will you realize it doesnt matter what your puny Nations say or do whatsoever in the grand scheme of things. The Turkic nation is greater the you fleas a thousandfold and your jealousy is as obvious as your failure as a race. TUrkuler susmaz.

        May 13, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • BoBo

      Are you guys calling me a Barbarian?! If you are the you are both Racist thugs and i am going to suek you unless you both apologize! I know your details very well 😉

      May 6, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Reply
  3. deniz boro

    What an interesting point of view, spending millions of bucks just to flood the vermin out. Rather than bringing posperity to the region of neglected citizens. People of the region craves for work, education, medicine and a decent living. These basic rights can not be provided to these people because of PKK actions. And PKK can easily lure these people promising I know not what. GAP is an immense project aiming to irrigate and improve an area of land equal to Irland, and some delays and faults may be expected. Hasankeyf, a truely valuable historical treasure is one of these. But the approach of this article is quite interesting when one considers that PKK may be capable of learning to swim or use a boat 🙂

    May 3, 2012 at 11:29 pm | Reply
    • jean alexander steffen careaga

      actually its both counter-terrorism and for local prosperity, read the hole article

      May 4, 2012 at 1:59 am | Reply
      • deniz boro

        Not just read, jean. It is not up to me to point out sarcasm. It is a well written article. To my version it points out groups which are not pleased with such an improvement. To you it may point out something else. But remember that to most power groups a land of such size-almost a country- can be lucritive.

        May 4, 2012 at 3:41 am |
  4. deniz boro

    Meanwhile I must also remind that the waters of Dicle and Firat was always a point of discussion between Syria and Turkey.When you come to think of it all Mesopotamia was watered by rivers born and fed in Turkey. There was this problem back in the innitiation of the GAP Project... What would happen IF Turkey decides to use its water resources?This is not much different than any UP THE RIVER/DOWN THE RIVER conflict. However this time it is extra-country....İnvolving many other INTEREST GROUPS.

    May 4, 2012 at 4:38 am | Reply
    • gok

      water for oil. get it?

      May 13, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Reply
  5. deniz boro

    By the way Hasankeyf could have been saved...and it was worth saving. It's being flooded is a disgrace for humanity.

    May 4, 2012 at 7:26 am | Reply
  6. Joseph McCarthy

    What makes my blood boil here is the fact that back in 1988 when either the Iraqis or Iranans killed over 5000 Kurds in northern Iraq by gassing them from the air, the right-wing news media went ballistic. But yet the Turks are carrying out the same atrocites in both eastern Turkey and northern Iraq, now the right-wing news media remains stone silent over it. This they evidently don't want us to know about!

    May 4, 2012 at 9:02 am | Reply
    • Marine5484

      Thank you, Joseph. You nailed it good!

      May 4, 2012 at 10:53 am | Reply
      • BoBo

        I cant write what I am thinking for your comment Snr Marine eiro... One thing that YOU certainly nailed is How ignorant you and Joseph are.. Talking about stuff you know nothing about in reality except what you have read in this piece of news... Is this how the USA went to war in Iraq, reading the news on CNN website?!! You guys are making me laugh today ROFL

        May 6, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • ibrahimotun

      When the Kurds in Iraq and Iran were being gassed and killed by their own brutal regimes, it was again Tukey who opened her arms to them and took in thousands of refrugees. It was not the US, Europe nor the Arab kingdoms. Check your facts.

      May 4, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Reply
      • deniz boro

        If the Turks ever used gass or any other chemical weapon against PKK, I would be surprised. But can you please clerify the type of gass used. Could it be the type of gass the Bush family was searching for in Iraq? Or some kind of gass caused by indigestion as you may well know Joseph?

        May 6, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • BoBo

      Joseph, YOU my friend are full of crap... Deniz Boro cleared the air for you... USA can go to WAR in Iraq and Afghanistan to fight terrorism 1000s of miles away from the USA and Turkey, according to your theory, can not fight terrorism in its own borders!!! Where is your logic or is it just hot air that you are blowing from your well rounded backside?!! PS Do you know how many historical sites have been destroyed by the US bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan?!

      May 6, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        I bet that the right-wing thugs in Washington are very happy to see people like you take up for them on this web page. None of this takes away the fact that the Kurds deserve their independence and right to set up their own homeland just like the Israelis did back in 1948! And don't forget that Saladin who led the successful Muslin onslaught on Jerusalem back in 1187 was himself a Kurd!!!

        May 6, 2012 at 11:00 pm |
    • Colette Dunn

      Eliquently and accurrately spoken my friend.

      September 25, 2012 at 9:22 am | Reply
  7. Chase Winter

    The dam would probably create more PKK fighters than it would prevent using the terrain. The picture painted here is overly simplified. PKK is not just in the mountains - and if you want to see mountains go to Hakkari - but also in cities and other mountainous regions in the country. It's also not only a fighting force, the HPG, but is political group with support from half of Turkey's Kurds. So the problem isn't going to be solved with a dam because there are many dimensions to the Kurdish issue - economic, social, cultural, political, terrorism, legal, regional, etc.

    Hasankeyf is a very unique cultural treasure and destroying it will probably reinforce the perception of Kurdish nationalist that the state has a policy of denial (inkar) and destroying Kurdish culture.

    I'm also not so sure the other dam projects have had much of an economic impact. There are serious environmental concerns. Also, did you know the water privatization law that allows rivers to be privatized? That's a serious problem as well.

    In short, not a good idea to build this dam.

    May 4, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      I agree with you Chase, more than you know. The PKK is today the Kurdish equivalent of our own Continental Army, led by George Washington back in the 1770's and 80's in this country! Then again, the Turks have always been rather barbarious as history so points out!

      May 4, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Reply
      • George Patton

        Very well put, Joseph. I too get quite offended when some ignoramus here calls the Kurdish PKK "terrorists"! It's a bad reflexion on our founding fathers like you said above!!!

        May 6, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
    • deniz boro

      When did Hasankeyf ever came to represent Kurdish origin. Do you mean to say that the roots of Kurds went back to the Hellens and Romans? 🙂 Than they should ask for land from Italy or Greece and not Turkey 🙂

      May 6, 2012 at 9:43 am | Reply
      • BoBo

        These 3 1d10t5, especially Joseph & Patton are both racist Turk haters as they have not posted anythingnintelligent or created any productive argument.. As for Winter's post, it's based on his very little or non-existent knowledge of about Modern Turkey... They keep referencing stuff that is not written in any history books or based on any historical facts... They now link PKK terrorists to the Kurdish people which is like saying Osama Bin Laden and his followers represnt the Arab nations... These guys are plain and simple racists.. Full stop

        May 6, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Come on BoBo, just why do you think Pope Urban II called the First Crusade back in 1095 in Clermont, France? It was because of the atrocities committed by the Turks against the Christians who were living under their rule after they conquered Roman territory after the 1071 battle at Manzekert. Moreover, Pope Urban II was a very honorable and just man!

        May 6, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
      • deniz boro

        Heredotus says the Armenians was a column of the Phoenicians once removed off cource. They were one of those races listed as many Ionian, Skytian, Trakian, Phrigian etc peoples back in 450 BC

        May 22, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
  8. Halabja

    What an irony! Saddam dired up the Marshes to stop Shia resistance and now Erdogan floods Hasankaif! can some one tells the difference between these two minds? This is the stupidity of Turkish state! In stead of addressing the grievances of the Kurdish people in Kurdistan-Turkey, it would build dam to destroy the culture and civilization that we buit thousands of years ago. Building this dam is just a proof that Turks dont belong this part of the world. No one destroys his own home and culture, except others. If the Turks had the sense of belonging to this place, they would have at least respected Hasankaif for its history and sophistication. I, as a Kurd even dont consider Hasankayf just as ours, but it belongs to the whole humanity and its the duty of the word to protect this site.

    May 4, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Reply
    • gok

      sure you can speak have Kurdish only schools and political offices. NOT

      May 13, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Reply
      • Colette Dunn

        But very simply, how is it acceptable to flood ANYBODY's villages or towns which are their homes? It matters not if you be Kurdish, Turkish, British, American or from Mars, it is wrong! These are peoples homes, lands, cultures. Your just tampering with basic human rights!!

        September 25, 2012 at 9:37 am |
  9. Jacobi

    Does Turkey understands two nation theory ? If in doubt, call Pakistan.

    May 4, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Reply
  10. Fred

    But is it counter-terrorism if it is THEIR country? And how funny the turks oppose Jews living in their country when they occupy the Kurds' nation. Oh Turkey, Turkey, Turkey.... while you're add it, return Constantinople to the Greeks.

    May 6, 2012 at 12:05 am | Reply
    • deniz boro

      Fred, Turkey was one of the safe harbors for the Jews throughout history. Check out your facts.

      May 6, 2012 at 9:44 am | Reply
  11. deniz boro

    This discussion has lost substance and content. So I will take my leave to let the rest enjoy having some good time.

    May 6, 2012 at 9:48 am | Reply
  12. deniz boro

    A last word in a sense of reference. You may, in your descretion decide on the ways and means of terrorism: "after work on the dam began in 1997, however, the consortium of Swiss, German, and Austrian banks financing the dam began voicing their concerns with the project and withdrew their monetary support. In late 2008, the European members of the Ilisu Dam consortium put a six-month freeze on financing because the project “failed to meet World Bank standards for environmental and cultural protection.”

    The World Bank raised concerns over the Ilisu dam project because it would flood the historic Tigris River town of Hasankeyf, which was once an important stop on the Silk Road connecting Asia to Europe. This town also serves as a source of income for the over 3,000 residents who depend on the 2 million tourists who visit the site every year"

    May 6, 2012 at 11:26 am | Reply

    turkey has fair ellection but iran dont

    May 6, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Reply
  14. Cemal

    Kurds, don't worry. Keep breeding and sending your kids to Istanbul. Now there are 2 million Kurds in Istanbul! Hahaha. Guess the scorched earth policy of the 80's worked, right?

    Many liberal Turks agree that Turkey should have just given that land to the Kurds years ago. Now they are going to face a demographic problem like Israel. The Kurds are not like the Armenians, there are too many of them.

    Turkey WAS a safe haven for minorities for centuries. WAS. Not anymore.

    May 7, 2012 at 9:20 am | Reply
    • gok

      We will always outnumber them threefold and out courage them 1 thousand fold, no worries lad.

      May 13, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Reply
    • deniz boro

      Camal. It so happens that I am 50/50 Kurdish. I do value the characteristic traits of Kurds. But in this old world where so many generations travers the known world, who does actually know his/her family tree*

      May 28, 2012 at 8:06 am | Reply
  15. Rawezh

    I hope we can do something about it as Kurds!

    July 15, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Reply

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