Turkey revives controversial dam project that will force out 50,000 out of their homes

Justin Huggler
Friday 11 August 2006 00:00 BST

Turkey has revived plans for a dam that will force more than 50,000 people from their homes and destroy the priceless remains of Hasankeyf, one of the oldest towns in the world.

The Ilisu project was abandoned four years ago when the British construction company Balfour Beatty pulled out after a campaign against the dam by The Independent, backed by environmentalists and archaeologists.

But, in a decision that will be greeted as a disaster by the inhabitants of Hasankeyf and the villages around them, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has said the Ilisu project is back on, after a consortium headed by an Austrian company agreed to build it.

Most of the 50,000 people who will lose their homes are members of Turkey's Kurdish minority, who have endured decades of repression at the hands of Turkish governments. At one time, even speaking the Kurdish language was illegal.

Hasankeyf is one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited settlements. It survived 15 years trapped in the middle of the bloody civil war between Turkish security forces and Kurdish separatists, only to face annihilation now by the dam.

The Ilisu dam is part of the South-East Anatolia Project (GAP), a series of 22 dams on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers to provide irrigation and hydroelectric power. Mr Erdogan said the government will safeguard the historical treasures of Hasankeyf from the dam. But since most of Hasankeyf is carved from rock, archaeologists agree it is impossible to protect it from the flooding. At most, 20 per cent of what is "culturally valuable" could be saved, said Professor Olus Arik, the former head of excavations at Hasankeyf.

Turkey has also promised to resettle those who are displaced and pay them adequate compensation. But when the Ataturk dam was finished in 1990, 50,000 people were displaced, none of . whom received any money from the government. When the Birecik dam was being finished in 1999, the government pledged to do better. But payments were delayed and many of the displaced woke up to find water pouring into their homes because they did not have the money to buy a new house in time.

The government also failed to allow for the devaluation of the Turkish lira, leaving the displaced with next to nothing. The area along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is considered the cradle of civilisation. With many of the remains along the rivers in Iraq feared damaged in the fighting, GAP is threatening those on the Turkish side of the border.

As the Birecik dam was being completed, archaeologists excavating the ancient city of Zeugma, which was to be flooded, found mosaics considered to rival the finest in the world. They begged the Turkish authorities to delay filling the dam so they could save the mosaics. The authorities delayed by only one week, and many mosaics were lost.

A consortium of international companies headed by Austria's VA Tech Hydro is seeking export credit guarantees from the Austrian, Swiss and German governments to build Ilisu.

History submerged

* 10,000-8000BC First settlement built at Hasankeyf

* 1978 Hasankeyf declared area of historical importance by the Turkish government

* 1982 Turkey decides to build Ilisu dam at a site that will submerge Hasankeyf

* 1990 Atuturk dam, the biggest in the South-East Anatolia Project, is completed; 50,000 are displaced, with nocompensation

* March 1999 UK Government considers £200m export credit guarantees for Balfour Beatty

* Summer 1999 Ancient mosaics at Zeugma, an ancient city are lost to the Birecik dam

* December 1999 British Government says it is "minded" to grant Balfour Beatty the export credit guarantees after Tony Blair overrules cabinet opposition

* November 2001 Balfour Beatty pulls out because the dam fails to meet ethical, environmental or commercial criteria

* August 2006 Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, says a new consortium has been found to build Ilisu dam

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