Opinion

Turkey can avert a tragedy on the Tigris

It can develop energy and progress into the future without washing away the town of Hasankeyf, its jewel of the past.

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In the southeastern corner of Turkey near its borders with Iraq and Syria, environmentalists, human rights organizations, and archaeologists recently won a battle in the effort to avert a cultural tragedy.

Swiss, German, and Austrian firms pulled out of their contract with the Turkish government to build a dam that would flood and destroy a historical ancient city, harm ecosystems downstream, and displace thousands.

To permanently protect this area though, it should be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Ilisu Dam, a cornerstone in a project to develop Turkey's electrical and water capacities, is the largest and the most controversial of the 22 dams and 19 power plants scheduled in the $32 billion Southeast Anatolia Project.

At the heart of the controversy is the town of Hasankeyf, carved into the limestone cliffs above the Tigris River. Hasankeyf is reputed to be one of the oldest continuous settlements on earth, at least 10,000 years old, with relics found this summer that may date it to 15,000 years old.

In the Kurdish region of southeastern Anatolia, Hasankeyf has hosted at least nine civilizations, including the Assyrians, the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, the Mongols, and the Ottomans. On a central trading route in ancient Mesopotamia, Hasankeyf boasts more than 4,000 caves; 300 medieval monuments; 83 archaeological sites with ruins, including Hasankeyf Castle, built by the Byzantines in AD 363; and historic tombs and mosques. Its cultural and archaeological value is priceless.

Today the hillsides are dotted with artisans' stalls, children on donkeys, and caves with restaurants inside.

If the Ilisu hydroelectric dam is constructed as planned 50 miles downstream, much of Hasankeyf – historic caves, ruins, and all – will be buried under 400 feet of water.

The flooding will also submerge 80 surrounding villages and displace tens of thousands of people in what would be Turkey's second-largest reservoir. While the government has said that it will relocate people and preserve some of the antiquities of Hasankeyf, residents of the region say the compensation isn't enough.

The European firms, which revoked their $1.6 billion loans in July, say that Turkey has not sufficiently met World Bank standards to preserve the environment, the population, and the culture in its planning for the Ilisu Dam. The Turkish government claims that it will proceed with the dam anyway.

The issues are complex. Advocates and opponents cast the debate as preservation of the past challenging progress for the future, conservation versus energy, national interests versus minority Kurdish interests, nationalism versus the interests of neighboring countries. The government argues that the dam will bring irrigation and power to the region. Opponents maintain that much of the electricity generated will go to other parts of the country.

Iraq has protested vehemently against Turkey damming the Tigris River just upstream and further restricting the water flow across the border.

There is also the geopolitical drama of the European partnerships withdrawing and Turkey potentially pursuing other partners such as China and Russia. The one clarity in this widening controversy is that Hasankeyf should be preserved.

The city has already been listed by the World Monument Fund as one of the world's 100 most endangered sites. In 1978, the Turkish government designated Hasankeyf as a site for conservation, legally protecting it, and the government halted an earlier attempt at a dam project. However, after the fighting in the southeast in the 1980s and '90s with Kurdish guerrillas, Ankara reversed its position and approved the hydroelectric dam.

The Turkish government should once again take steps to preserve this cultural treasure for itself and for the rest of the world. Preserving Hasankeyf would go a long way in demonstrating the government's goodwill to the citizens of the region. Turkey can develop and progress into the future without washing away this jewel of the past.

If the Turkish government is still determined to erect the Ilisu Dam, it should at least modify the size and specifications so that Hasankeyf survives. It should also put in an application to designate the city as a UNESCO World Heritage site. By taking these two initiatives, the Turkish government would take a major step in honoring its own history and allowing the future to crest alongside of, but not flood, what has gone before.

Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, a novelist, is a former reporter for the Monitor and a former international secretary of International PEN. She visited Hasankeyf during an International PEN Conference in nearby Diyarbakir.

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