From the vine-draped veranda of Yolgecen Hani, a café in the Turkish town of Hasankeyf, one can still catch the scent of the free-flowing Tigris River below, which courses through the country’s rugged southeast and then the length of Iraq before emptying into the Persian Gulf. The sun-baked mountains, verdant riverbanks, and jagged gorges, which lay at the heart of ancient Mesopotamia, today are home to unique ecosystems rich in endemic flora and fauna.
Yet, in a matter of months, a massive hydroelectric plant and impoundment dam located about 35 miles downstream will obliterate much of this splendor. The waters that will soon back up behind the Ilisu Dam will transform nearly 90 miles of the Tigris and another 150 miles of its tributaries into a vast reservoir that will submerge nearly 200 villages and displace an estimated 80,000 people. The drowned settlements will include the pearl of Hasankeyf, whose cultural heritage — ancient churches, caves, and tombs — attests to the presence of some of the first large human communities 10,000 years ago.
The flooding, as well as the surge of water releases downstream, also threatens endangered species such as the Eurasian otter, the marbled duck, and the red-wattled Lapwing, say experts. The dam will further imperil many of the Tigris’ native fish species, already battered by overfishing, industrial pollution, and sewage discharges. And experts say the impacts of the Ilisu Dam will be felt hundreds of miles downstream across large parts of the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, which includes Syria, Iraq, and Iran, exacerbating water shortages that will affect irrigation, biodiversity, fishing, drinking water, and transportation.
“This is an infrastructure project with a 1950s mindset: big, bigger, as big as possible,” says one conservationist.
The Ilisu Dam, due east of Hasankeyf, is a 440-foot-high, mile-wide, prestige mega-project of the Turkish government that has been more than 20 years in the making. At an estimated cost of $2 billion, it is expected to generate as much electricity as a small nuclear reactor; it will produce an estimated 3,800 gigawatt-hours of electricity a year, enough to power around 1.3 million homes. The Turkish government has praised the dam project as an abundant source of carbon-free electricity, but scientists and affected residents say the dam will exact a high human and environmental toll.
The rockfill dam bears the giant letters “DSI,” the initials of Turkey’s State Hydraulic Works, across its imposing concrete face. The power plant is a centerpiece of the Southeastern Anatolia Project, a massive $32 billion hydropower and irrigation scheme — one of the world’s largest — conceived decades ago to spur Turkey’s development. The Ilisu Dam is one of the biggest of the project’s 22 dams and 19 power plants. Most of the other hydropower projects have already been built on Turkish rivers, including up and down the storied Euphrates River, which flows roughly parallel to the Tigris before joining it north of Basra, Iraq to form the Shatt Al-Arab River.
The region’s environmentalists say the loss of riverine ecosystems and wildlife will be calamitous. “This dam is a disaster for biodiversity, not just in Turkey but also for ecosystems of the whole Tigris-Euphrates basin,” explains Itri Levent Erkol, conservation manager at the Turkish environmental NGO Doğa Derneği. “The Tigris River Valley has the last pristine riverine and canyon ecosystems in all of southeastern Turkey. There are endangered species there that we know will become extinct once the valley is flooded.”
Scientists from Middle East Technical University, located in Ankara, presented Turkish authorities with alternative plans for smaller, less-intrusive hydropower dams. “The authorities didn’t even respond to it,” says Erkol.
I recently visited the Ilisu Dam site with Ulrich Eichelmann of Riverwatch, a Vienna-based NGO that lobbies to protect international rivers and has been active in the fight against the dam. Standing 100 yards from the dam wall as heavy-duty trucks, cement mixers, and hydraulic shovels plied the river’s banks, Eichelmann said, “This is an infrastructure project with a 1950s mindset: big, bigger, as big as possible. And this is after all that we’ve learned over the years that these kinds of ridiculously huge dams pay no heed to nature. But the Turkish government has refused to give even a centimeter.”
The power plant is scheduled to begin full-scale operations early next year; water impoundment will start gradually in a few weeks.
Erkol and other scientists from Turkey and abroad say the Euphrates soft-shelled turtle is one of the indigenous species on the brink of extinction. The turtles, which grow up to 2.2 feet and can weigh 44 pounds, have been laying their eggs in the river’s reedy sand banks for millennia. Now that the Euphrates has been carved up by dams and hydropower plants, the rare turtle species exists only in small pockets along the Tigris and is unlikely to survive the deluge that will engulf much of this part of the Tigris Valley, according to Erkol.
For nearly two decades, Turkish and international conservationists and scientists have fought the Ilisu Dam.
As for birds, in addition to the lapwing, whose shrill alarm calls carry across the river, the lesser kestrel is a globally threatened species that will lose its habitat in the river’s grasslands. For centuries, the high cliffs that soar above the Tigris at Hasankeyf have hosted Bonelli’s eagles, Egyptian vultures, and griffon vultures. But the non-stop construction in and around Hasankeyf — which includes cementing over embankments and thousands of ancient caves, including the craggy nesting places of these birds of prey — has already driven most of them away.
DSI’s years-long preparations for the start of Ilisu’s hydropower operations has also exacted other costs on the Tigris’s ecosystem. For several years now, the power plant’s construction has blocked the journey of fish that swim upstream to spawn. The river once boasted dozens of species, including the ray-finned mangar, which could weigh more than 220 pounds. The leopard barbel, named for its black spots and found only in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, is already on the brink of extinction. The damming, say experts, will cut the number of fish species in half.
“I don’t even bother [fishing] anymore,” says Abdullah Kandemir, whose father was also a fisherman. “We used to be able to fill our nets and sell fish to the restaurants here. Now one can work all day and not get more than two, maybe three, pounds [of fish],” he says, noting that damming of the Tigris upstream of Hasankeyf in the 1990s had already reduced its water level and depleted fish stocks.
“Very soon we’re going to lose everything,” says Ahmet Sevinc, a young man who works in the handful of local restaurants still open. “It’s a disaster for us. We made our livings from tourism,” he says, gesturing to the town’s melancholy main street, now filled with the detritus of shuttered shops and abandoned snack bars.
For nearly two decades, Turkish and international conservationists, scientists, and activists — including Turkish Nobel Prize laureate author Orhan Pamuk — have fought the construction of the Ilisu Dam. All but one European firm – the Austrian turbine manufacturer Andritz — withdrew from the project, and foreign governments pressed Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to do the same. In Turkish Kurdistan, where Ilisu is located, politicians vigorously opposed the project. But all to no avail.
“We failed, it’s as simple as that,” says Erkut Erturk, a Turkish environmentalist who has worked on the anti-Ilisu movement for years. Opponents did manage to rescue some of Hasankeyf’s choicest archeological and architectural treasures. The village’s mosque, with its 600-year-old minaret, as well as a small Islamic monastery and a travelers’ inn, or han, have been relocated to the other side of the Tigris. The government also agreed to build New Hasankeyf from the arid hardscrabble north of the river. The settlement of 710 identical cement houses lies in the mountain’s foothills, where the town’s 2,000 residents can relocate — if their savings and compensation for their original property is enough to buy one of the homes. Turkish authorities also have excavated the graves and reburied the deceased ancestors of the people of Hasankeyf and other settlements along the river.
Not all of the region’s people oppose the dam, according to Erturk. “Many Turks say that their country wants to develop, just like the European countries did,” says Erturk. “They consider it hypocritical that Europeans tell Turkey not to build dams when they’ve been doing it for decades.”
The government also reminds the dam’s Western opponents that Ilisu will generate large amounts of renewable energy, in keeping with the country’s pledge in the 2015 Paris climate treaty.
“Turkey has to import oil, natural gas, and even coal to meet its energy needs,” the DSI website says. “The EU places great emphasis on green power in energy policies… Consequently, the weight of hydroelectric power in overall generation needs to be increased.”
But dam opponents argue that the Turkish government has stubbornly forged ahead with large-scale hydropower projects, ignoring the huge renewable energy potential of southeastern Turkey. Ridvan Ayhan, a local administrator in the nearby city of Batman, the heavily Kurdish region’s administrative capital, contends that Turkey’s abundant sunlight, its wide-open steppes, and its windy plains are ideal for wind and solar power installations. “It’s cheaper and cleaner,” he says, pointing to studies that show this. “The government just isn’t pushing these renewables like it does hydro and coal.”
For Turkey, hydro dams are not just sources of energy and revenue, but potent levers of geopolitical pressure.
One such study concludes that Turkey could triple its current wind and solar capacity by 2026, which would satisfy 31 percent of the country’s electricity demand. Currently, wind and solar generation represent 7 percent of Turkey’s total electricity output.
As other types of renewable power generation become cheaper and more widespread, hydropower projects globally are coming under increasing scrutiny. Yet, for Turkey, its hydro dams are more than just sources of energy and revenue — they’re also potent levers of geopolitical pressure. The Tigris and the Euphrates cut through Syria and Iraq all the way to the Persian Gulf. Thousands of downstream communities in these countries rely on the rivers for irrigation, drinking water, power generation, and transportation. In both Syria and Iraq, water demand along the rivers already outpaces supply.
Over decades, Turkey’s power and irrigation projects have reduced flows in the Euphrates, polluted its waters, and dried out wetlands to the south. Iraq claims that Turkey’s dams and hydropower plants have reduced water to Iraq by 80 percent. In its southernmost regions, Iraq is currently losing around 61,000 acres of arable land a year to desertification, according to the UN Environment Program. The shortages and poor water quality in Iraq have sparked protests. In Baghdad, water levels on the Tigris were so low that locals could wade across it.
The Mesopotamian Marshes, located mainly in southern Iraq and home to myriad migratory and endemic species of birds and mammals, were once the largest wetland habitat in the Middle East. While the marshes bounced back after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein drained them in the 1980s and 90s to punish the opposition Marsh Arabs, the Turkish dams have put them under threat again.
“The marshes are a critical stopover in the migrations of many waterfowl en route to northern Africa,” says Eichelmann of Riverwatch. In the winter of 2018, the marshes experienced a 74 percent decline in bird populations, a consequence largely of Turkey’s dams, compounded by climate change and decades of Iraqi water mismanagement, says Eichelmann.
But in a political context in which water is power, Turkey is not budging on its perogative to dam “its rivers.”
“Turkey takes a very outdated approach with regard to its international water-resource policies,” says Nicolas Bremer, a German lawyer and author of a book on Turkey’s dams, explaining that most countries and international law envision collective approaches to shared water resources. “Turkey sees itself as completely sovereign in the management of its rivers and basically does whatever it wants, in terms of damming and discharging pollution. Turkey refuses to be bound by the international treaties and laws that exist.”
The author received travel funding for this article from Riverwatch.