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Dams power Turkey's future, but drown its rich history

Cultural and natural sites are being submerged as Turkey races to double its power output by 2020.

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Guven Eken, president of the Turkish advocacy group the Nature Association, worries that, if passed, it could trigger "the mass destruction of biodiversity in Turkey" and a wave of government-backed development in formerly protected areas.

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The net effect, he says, will be the end of all restrictions: "In the current political climate, we can see that the decisions of this committee aren't likely to be in favor of preserving human culture or environmental diversity. It's going to destroy our cultural heritage, our natural heritage, our quality of life."

Why politicians love big dams

Prof. Serhan Oksay, who specializes in environmental economics at Istanbul's Kadir Has University, says the pursuit of large-scale hydro­engineering projects is ingrained in Turkey's political culture.

The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, proposed harnessing the energy of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers more than 80 years ago, and influential past premiers like Suleyman Demirel and Turgut Ozal once spearheaded energy and infrastructure programs while still state-employed engineers.

"Since then, building dams for irrigation purposes or generating electricity has been deemed necessary for building up a prosperous country," says Professor Oksay. "Anyone with the ambition of building a successful political career seems to be in favor of such schemes."

Turkey's leaders have done little to hide their impatience with opposition to dam-building policies. Most vocal is Environment Minister Veysel Eroglu, widely regarded as the driving force behind the current program. Following the decision to bury the Allianoi baths last year, he described them as "just one pillar and a fountain."

'These can be found anywhere,' Mr. Eroglu said. "No one was aware of them before we dug them out. My job is to build dams, but we tried to protect this place."

Still-functioning thermal baths

It's true that when exploratory work started in 1998 as part of a survey for the dam, Yaras had no idea that beneath a field near Bergama lay one of the world's most extensive and best-preserved ancient health settlements.

But once archaeologists found the still-functioning thermal baths, as well as a hospital containing bronze medical instruments from the 2nd century AD, the following decade was consumed by a race to catalog the ruins and force Ankara to scrap the dam.

Authorities first buried the ruins in sand – a move they said would protect the ruins, although archaeologists have disagreed. Then they began flooding the area on the final day of 2010. The rising water is now some six feet deep. Eventually, the baths will sit in nearly 100 feet of silt and water.

"The most painful part may be that we will never know what knowledge we may have found," says Yaras. "I feel like a scientist who was on the verge of a major discovery, only to be banned from his laboratory."

Yaras and others embroiled in this bitter debate surrounding the future of Turkey's natural and cultural heritage doubt the government will concede an inch to conservation demands.

"Allianoi is only an example," says Yaras. "They will ruin many other precious sites."

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