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Hasankeyf, Turkey


In 2008, I traveled in a van full of Turks across Southeastern Turkey, through the regions of Anatolia and Batman, through a dust storm, along the tense Syrian Border, through Kurdistan at Ramadan, to find this ancient village called Hasankeyf which was at risk of being flooded by a 125-square-mile dam conceived by the Turkish Government.


After what amounted to a decade of arguing, the project was postponed. While Hasankeyf remains above water presently, media reports as recently as fall 2016 that the dam is scheduled to be completed imminently and estimated to open in 2017, "flooding large parts" of Hasankeyf and hundreds of other villages, and displacing 70,000.


When I went, its possible destruction was imminent. I wrote an eight-part online series about the hydropower controversy and other Turkish concerns of the moment which ran on GOOD magazine's website. The below is excerpted from that series, and another excerpt about Kurdish rebels and the Turkish-Kurdish conflict appears here.

EXCERPTED FROM GOOD: "ILISU: MAKING WAVES" | Hasankeyf is a millenia-old city, home to almost every powerful civilization in Mesopotamia's archaeological record from the Western Roman Empire forward. It has been continuously inhabited until just the past two years. Now it sits in purgatory waiting for its own Great Flood. The flood waters would come with the construction of the Ilisu dam, one component in a 12-phase energy initiative, the Southern Anatolia Project (Güneydogu Anadolu Projesi, or GAP).

Abdullah, born in Hasankeyf, lives in an ancient viaduct just across the Tigris from the main village.

The GAP involves damming the Tigris and the Euphrates (an idea originally conceived by ruler Atatürk in the 1930s) to produce "clean" energy, new jobs, irrigation and agroindustry, and with those things, regional economic growth. The first of GAP's 22 dams was completed in 1987. Ilisu Dam, named for Ilisu town, was conceived in the '50s and designed by 1982. A master plan for the dam unfolded in the last two decades, and its ETA changes as fickle or anxious investors come and go. In the meantime, the inhabitants in the predominantly Kurdish region that will be submerged upon the dam's completion are treading water while they await news.


Achieving the energy and development goals of the GAP could help pull Turkey out from under its "developing nation" reputation and into the modern world-maybe even into the E.U.  But the cost of progress in the case of Ilisu — drowning myriad priceless archaeological sites and ancient monuments, destroying an ecosystem, and disrupting the lives of tens of thousands of people — reflects the conflicts between development and preservation, energy and environmentalism, modernity and heritage. And, considering the relationship between the Kurds and Turks to date, familiar strains of imperialism might be heard along with talk of the government-managed destruction of this precious cultural site.



Hasankeyf is at the center of the Ilisu controversy. The site has been continuously inhabited since years BC, and Roman, Byzantine, Arabic, Mongol, Ottoman, and, in modern times, Kurdish cultures have all left their mark. Those who were told they would have to leave during the resettlement stages of the Ilisu development are waiting for information and compensation. According to reports, the dissemination of details from the dam commission has been disorganized, vague, and sometimes nonexistent. And despite clamor from financial backers and the assigned "Committee of Experts" about the Turkish government's reported lack of preparation when it comes to social and environmental issues, construction of the dam is underway.


So, wading through a din of opposition (dozens of NGOs, archaeologists, ecologists, environmentalists, health experts, human rights advocates, the World Bank, Swiss and German export credit agencies (ECAs), the government, and Kurdish separatist extremists all have an opinion), the Turkish government and its European financiers struggle to pull it together for a project they believe in, in hopes of creating great opportunity — as opposed to a great disaster — out of this next great flood.


On that note I'm off to Turkey — specifically the region holding its breath, waiting to be submerged beneath Ilisu's 125-square-mile lake-to see it for myself, and calculate some exchange rates: if energy and development come at the expense of environmental and cultural stability and millenia-old sites like the village Hasankeyf, is the price too high? And if it is, is it too late to look back? – GOOD MAGAZINE, SEPTEMBER 18, 2008

EXCERPTED FROM GOOD: "POST-SCRIPT" | Damming the Tigris in southeastern Turkey is controversial for the host of hot-button reasons that nearly all dams are controversial. Add to that the Kurdish-Turkish conflict. Submerging these 125 square miles of Anatolia means pitting centuries of ethnic heritage and legacy against the national opportunity for energy and irrigation.

Author Diane Raines Ward spelled it out in Water Wars: Drought, Flood, Folly, and the Politics of Thirst. The social and political incentives to dam rivers-and subsequently, damn communities and ecosystems to flooding-is an awful obstacle to development. No single existing governmental body is qualified to wield the power of decision exclusively.


But who else is there to navigate? Right now, no one. There is no global committee exclusively dedicated to international water politics. So, at the national level, the destruction of world heritage sites rages on, while the mixed blessing of hydropower continues to spread.


Back at home in New York, it's intensely sad to think about the residents of Hasankeyf I met, and the Kurdish communities who will scatter, displaced for a means of providing water and electricity with no regard for whether or not that means will sooner or later become obsolete.  – GOOD MAGAZINE, OCT. 16 2008

Abdullah lives here. This will be under water when Ilisu opens.

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