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libralady 12 Feb 2009

Hasankeyf and the Ilisu Dam

I recently watched a programme about Turkey and there was a report about this town and dam. I decided to read more and write this article.


Hasankeyf and the Ilisu Dam

Hasankeyf is a small but ancient town, perched on the banks of the River Tigris easily recognised by its equally ancient Artukid Bridge and imposing cliffs littered with caves. 


Nobody knows for sure how long Hasankeyf has been occupied, but evidence suggests habitation stretches back some 11,000 years, with waves of humanity – The Romans, the Byzantines, the Persians, the Seljuk Turks and the Mongols.  In the 14th century came the fore-fathers of the Kurds.


The town is rumoured to have been named some 400 years ago, after an Arab prisoner called Hasan who had been sentenced to death.  His last request before being executed was to ride his horse. With this being granted, on his horse, he promptly jumped the fortress wall where he was being held, into the Tigris – a leap of 150 metres.  The horse died on landing but Hasan escaped, never to be seen again.  Spectators viewing this exclaimed, “Hasan Keif?” (Hasan how?) 


The old citadel built at the top of the limestone cliffs in the 13th century now lies in ruins along with the old town built beside it.  Some 40 years ago the town of old houses, some built from limestone, were inhabited. The government forced the occupants to settle in the valley below.  How ironic this appears to be now, with the planned Ilisu Dam project which is supposed to be built further along the valley. With the subsequent flooding Hasankeyf will no longer exist.


Had the 15,000 – 20,000 or so occupants remained in the original homes at the top of the cliffs, then the occupants would have been safe from the flooding that the dam would create.  Locals will have to be dispersed to look for houses and work elsewhere and all that will remain of Hasankeyf is the top of the minaret of the El Risk mosque.  To get a sense of what this would mean, there are a range of photo on google image where you can see how high the water would be, by the height of the minaret.


Hasankeyf is an accumulation of historic and cultural heritage, and experts have identified dozens of cultural heritage sites in the wake of the dam.  The citadel dominates the valley; the ancient Ulu mosque built in 1325 over an ancient church and the old Artukid Bridge.  Other monuments such as the The El Risk mosque built by the famous Ayyubid sultan, Suleiman, the tomb of Zeynel bey are all suffering from the decision (some 40 years ago) to build the dam and have been neglected to deteriorate.


The dam project has caused great controversy, with the original contractors, the UK engineering company Balfour Beatty being one of several international firms involved in the project.  Balfour Beatty has since pulled out of the contract and Swiss, German and Austrian export insurance agencies have recently suspended credit guarantees worth €0.05bn.


There are many opponents of the project both in Turkey and abroad, not least the local community who would be displaced. There have been active campaigns against the dam for many years from both environmentalists and human rights activists.  The three countries (Switzerland, Germany and Autria) have frozen the financial guarantees and the Turkish authorities have been given 180 days to meet the World Bank criteria for the protection of the local population, the environment and the cultural heritage. Initial support from the UK government has since waned in light of the controversy surrounding the environmental and human rights issues.


The 50,000 – 70,000 residents (figures vary from report to report)  are unaware of what compensation they are likely to be entitled to or what the alternatives are.  The communication has been poor from government organisations, along with inadequate consultation with the local population as requested by foreign experts. They see the recent delays (suspending finance) as a setback with even further uncertainty.

Sadly for Hasankeyf it is not on the tourist map, with very few hotels left that are open and it is commented on that the police do little to foster tourism but instead hassle the few foreign tourists that do stay over night. Little is being done to encourage entrepreneurs investing in tourism projects, fearing this would create ever more controversy.


What appears to be a list of benefits being much needed hydro-power and irrigation for local famers are very much outweighed by the list of disadvantages; the displacement of so many people, loss of homes,  livelihoods and heritage, the flooding of a culturally rich valley, a relatively short life span of the dam (40 to 50 years) and not least, possible tensions between neighbouring Iraq to where the Tigris flows.


In summary, the Turkish government has failed to reassure its opponents that this is a viable project by not making assurances about the livelihoods of the mainly Kurdish and Arabic speaking people, and by not communicating well that the 3,800 GW power the dam will produce will bring substantial benefits in plugging the energy shortage of the country as a whole.  There needs to be a balance between economic integrity and environmental and social damage - in a sustainable manner.  The government and project planners need to be able to provide evidence that this has been addressed.








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