What Will Happen to Turkish Villagers in the Path of a Giant Dam?

September 6, 2013, National Geographic Newswatch

Thirteen years ago, life changed forever for the residents of Halfeti, a town on the Euphrates River in Southeastern Turkey.

The Birecik hydroelectric dam opened in 2000, creating a reservoir that flooded most of the town. The government paid Halfeti’s residents for their submerged property, but people didn’t know how to invest the funds responsibly.

“We weren’t able to acquire anything good, we couldn’t use the money, because for years the people have been dependent on the land,” says former Halfeti mayor Mehmet Gökçe. “The land provided us with our livelihood.”

Despite efforts to train locals in business management skills and solicit advice from other dam-displaced villagers, the money dwindled away quickly.

Near the Ilısu Dam construction site, a sign outside a soon-to-be-submerged village warns drivers to watch out for construction vehicles. Photo by Julia Harte.

Since then, Halfeti locals say, the adjustment has been difficult. ”Compared to the past, in terms of our means of subsistence, there is much less wealth and much more poverty,” says Halfeti resident Ali Ağar, who opened a tourism business after he and his family moved to New Halfeti, the government-approved resettlement site for the villagers.

“Before the dam, there were green gardens with every type of vegetable and fruit along the shores of the Euphrates River here. We passed by those gardens all the time in our youths, so when we talk about our first sweethearts, our first loves, those are still unforgettable,” adds Ağar.

Halfeti offers a glimpse into the future for villages in the path of the Ilısu Dam, a hydroelectric plant twice as big as Birecik that is planned for completion on the Tigris River by the end of next year.

Residents of the town of Ilısu were first to be evicted two years ago. To build houses in their new settlement area, many were forced to take out big loans. Suzan Doğan, 21, and her husband are in debt to the tune of 70,000 TL (approximately $35,000) for loans they took to buy the building materials for their house.

Children cluster into the front gate of a recently built house in New Ilısu. Photo by Julia Harte.

The new village site is not ideal, either. The land isn’t level enough for gardening in most areas, according to Doğan, and her husband’s job at the Ilısu Dam construction site doesn’t pay enough to keep them on top of their loan repayments.

With two children to support and her husband yet to complete his mandatory military service, Doğan says, her life in New Ilısu is beset by constant financial anxiety.

“Especially because of this debt we’re in, we can’t think about anything else. Nothing about the future. Our only hope from now is that this debt finishes, we don’t want anything else,” she sighs.

Doğan’s plight is precisely the fear of Arif Ayhan, a carpet seller in Hasankeyf who will also lose his hometown to the Ilısu Dam.

“They tried to make money from us,” Ayhan says bitterly. “They finished our lives. They make us—they take all the things of ours. Now they will give us house, borrow, we have to pay all our life, and we have to be again like animals for government.”

Sheep are herded through a valley near Hasankeyf. Photo by Julia Harte.

Ayhan and other Hasankeyf residents are quick to point out that they don’t oppose economic progress, however.

“We aren’t against the dam. We want the dam to happen,” says Suleyman Ağalday, a local butcher. “But we want a dam that will leave Hasankeyf above the water.”

Instead, he says, “the Koç mosque from Artuqid times, the Süleyman mosque, the İmam Abdullah hermitage, the Zeynel Bey tomb, the old bathhouse — these are going to be submerged. The civilizations will be erased.”

Ağalday thinks Hasankeyf’s tourism potential could generate far more money than the Ilısu Dam — if its historical and ecological treasures were advertised properly.

Local children stand on a wall overlooking the Sultan Suleyman mosque complex in the center of Hasankeyf. Photo by Julia Harte.

“The new Hasankeyf that they’re constructing won’t have any distinguishing features. There are seas everywhere, there are dams everywhere. They have new cities in many places in Europe. People don’t come here to see new houses and new cities. They don’t come here to see a dam,” he points out.

Although they face economic uncertainty in their new settlement site, few residents of Hasankeyf have spoken out against the dam.

“The people of Hasankeyf are really poor, and many people of Hasankeyf get help from government, from head official, mayor. That’s why they say nothing,” explains Ayhan.

“For some little money, they sell everything. But tomorrow, when they go [to the new settlement site], when the dam finished, what they will do I don’t know.”

Most of Hasankeyf’s residents don’t yet know where they will go when the Ilısu Dam reservoir floods their homes — or how much the government will compensate them. Photo by Julia Harte.

If the situations in New Halfeti and New Ilısu are any indication, Hasankeyf’s residents will have to adjust to more business-oriented jobs, a more barren environment, and higher home prices.

Although the Hasankeyf district governorship says official prices for homes in New Hasankeyf aren’t yet certain, Ayhan says authorities posted notices advertising houses in the new settlement for 180,000 TL (about $90,000).

“Who can pay this?” he demands. “They will give us maybe 20,000 TL ($10,000) for our homes.”

Government-backed dams in Turkey have left a trail of displaced, economically depressed villages in their wake. As the 12,000-year-old town of Hasankeyf prepares to join them, few of its residents are hopeful for their future.

Fishermen from Hasankeyf walk away from the shore of the Tigris with their predawn catch. Photo by Julia Harte.


This project is also made possible by a Dick Goldensohn Fund grant from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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