The British builder, Balfour Beatty, applied last year for the Government to underwrite its bid for the pounds 200m Ilisu project on the Tigris river, and yesterday the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Stephen Byers, published two reports commissioned by the Government on the Ilisu dam. "I have carefully considered both reports and I am minded to grant export credits," he said. "This will have to be conditional on the Turkish authorities agreeing to address the concerns we have about the environmental and social impact of the project." Balfour Beatty welcomed the announcement.
Tony Blair is believed to have given his backing to the project. But environmental groups have opposed the scheme tooth and nail. Friends of the Earth says the dam will flood 15 towns and 52 villages and displace up to 20,000 Kurds. The scheme is also politically sensitive, planned for a site only 40 miles upstream from the Turkish-Iraqi-Syrian border.
Mr Byers said Britain was currently discussing with the Turkish government the details of the areas where changes to the plans for the dam would be required. As well as the stipulation for a plan to save "as much as possible" of the archaeological heritage of Hasankeyf, one of the oldest towns in the world, these included a resettlement programme reflecting internationally accepted practice and including independent monitoring; provision for upstream water treatment plants to ensure that water quality is maintained; and an assurance that adequate downstream water flows would be maintained at all times.
But it will be impossible to save Hasankeyf. Many of its monuments are carved out of living rock. The threat to Iraq is equally insurmountable - no matter what assurances Turkey gives, the dam will allow it to control the flow of water to Iraq, and that could be enough to start a war.
The report on the social impact of the dam rightly points out that Turkey's resettlement and compensation programmes have been inadequate in the past, and urges the Turkish authorities to draw up better plans well in advance of flooding. It also says there is a risk that all the gains from the dam will be channelled to the rich cities of western Turkey, and urges the authorities to reinvest some of them in the impoverished South-East.
Friends of the Earth yesterday said the whole project would be a "disaster".