A global day of action on September 14 drew attention to the Turkish government’s controversial Ilisu dam project on the Tigris River in Turkish Kurdistan. The dam is already being filled and if completed would flood the 12,000-year-old town of Hasankeyf, 199 villages and 136km of the Tigris River valley.
The Turkish government has announced that Hasankeyf will be closed to the public from October 8.
"Up to 100,000 people would lose their livelihoods and end up in big cities in poverty,” Ismet Tashtan, co-chair of the Democratic Kurdish Community Centre of New South Wales (DKCCNSW) told Green Left Weekly at a silent vigil in Sydney on September 13.
“This is part of the Turkish state’s war on the Kurdish people. They want to destroy our culture and destroy Kurdish people’s collective history."
The Tigris is the last big free-flowing river in the region and is home to many endemic and threatened species. If completed, the Ilisu project would also significantly degrade the rich biodiversity of the river's ecosystem.
The dam reservoir would also exacerbate the effects of the climate crisis, which has been experienced seriously in the Middle East for 20 years.
“It is not just Kurdish culture that is threatened,” electrical engineer Heja Turkmen, also at the Sydney vigil, told GLW. “It is the history of the people of Mesopotamia, it is world history."
Hasankeyf is a unique natural open-air museum of uninterrupted human settlement in the Tigris Valley, with traces of 20 cultures and more than 550 monuments.
Experts have declared Hasankeyf the twin of Göbeklitepe, one of the oldest human settlements 220 km to the east, a discovery that led to a new understanding of human history.
Although Hasankeyf and the surrounding Tigris Valley fulfill nine out of the 10 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) criteria for world heritage listing (meeting just one is supposed to be sufficient), the UN remains silent.
The Turkish government’s plan to “relocate” seven of the many hundreds of monuments in the valley is an attempt to deceive the public, and has no cultural value. There are about 300 incompletely excavated archaeological sites that will be flooded if the project goes ahead.
The dam project is also being carried out in an area of intense military conflict between the Turkish military and Kurdish guerrillas, which the project can only intensify. The displacement of tens of thousands of people is also part of the Turkish state’s ongoing policy of “assimilation" of the Kurdish population.
The catastrophic social, cultural and ecological impacts would also be experienced in the downstream stretches of the Tigris, within Iraq. In particular, the World Heritage-listed Mesopotamian Marshes in southern Iraq are at risk of drying out, due to reduced downstream flows.
The dam would seriously jeopardise the water supply of major Iraqi cities such as Baghdad and Mosul, and threaten Iraq’s agriculture. Water could be weaponised by Turkey against its neighbours.
Despite export credit guarantees from Europe halting as a result of protests in 2009, there is still international participation in the project. Austrian company Andritz is set to profit from this ecological and cultural devastation, as will the Spanish BBVA bank, which owns one of the Turkish banks that is financing the dam.
The #SaveHasankeyf campaign is calling on the Turkish government to cancel the project.
A new participatory and transparent discussion on the future of the affected region must take place with all affected people, municipalities and NGOs, to find an alternative to the dam — one that will be environmentally, socially, culturally and economically beneficial to the region.
“The Turkish government wants to destroy everything and it is unacceptable,” DKCCNSW co-chair Gûlê Rose told GLW. "Something needs to be done immediately by UNESCO and by the UN.”
For more information about the campaign, visit the #SaveHasankeyf website.