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Ilisu: Making Waves

Part 1 of "Village of the Dammed," a blog mini-series from Turkey, on the country's controversial Ilisu...

Part 1 of "Village of the Dammed," a blog mini-series from Turkey, on the country's controversial Ilisu Dam.

Hasankeyf is a millenia-old city, home to almost every powerful civilization in Mesopotamia's archaeological record from the Western Roman Empire forward. It has been continuously inhabited until just the past two years. Now it sits in purgatory waiting for its own Great Flood.The flood waters would come with the construction of the Ilisu dam, one component in a 12-phase energy initiative, the Southern Anatolia Project (Güneydo?u Anadolu Projesi, or GAP). The GAP involves damming the Tigris and the Euphrates (an idea originally conceived by ruler Atatürk in the 1930s) to produce "clean" energy, new jobs, irrigation and agroindustry, and with those things, regional economic growth. The first of GAP's 22 dams was completed in 1987. Ilisu Dam, named for Ilisu town, was conceived in the '50s and designed by 1982. A master plan for the dam unfolded in the last two decades. Its ETA changes as fickle or anxious investors come and go. In the meantime, the inhabitants in the predominantly Kurdish region that will be submerged upon the dam's completion are treading water while they await news.Achieving the energy and development goals of the GAP could help pull Turkey out from under its "developing nation" reputation and into the modern world-maybe even into the E.U. But the cost of progress in the case of Ilisu-drowning myriad priceless archaeological sites and ancient monuments, destroying an ecosystem, and disrupting the lives of tens of thousands of people-reflects the conflicts between development and preservation, energy and environmentalism, modernity and heritage.

A view of the El Rizk mosque, built by the Ayyubids in 1325, in Hasankeyf. Authorities estimate that flood waters from the Ilisu Dam will reach to 3/4 the height of its minaret.

Hasankeyf is at the center of the Ilisu controversy. The site has been continuously inhabited since years BC, and Roman, Byzantine, Arabic, Mongol, Ottoman, and, in modern times, Kurdish cultures have all left their mark. Those who were told they would have to leave during the resettlement stages of the Ilisu development are waiting for information and compensation. According to reports, the dissemination of details from the dam commission has been disorganized, vague, and sometimes nonexistent. And despite clamor from financial backers and the assigned "Committee of Experts" about the Turkish government's reported lack of preparation when it comes to social and environmental issues, construction of the dam is underway.So, wading through a din of opposition (dozens of NGOs, archaeologists, ecologists, environmentalists, health experts, human rights advocates, the World Bank, Swiss and German export credit agencies (ECAs), the government, and Kurdish separatist extremists all have an opinion), the Turkish government and its European financiers struggle to pull it together for a project they believe in, in hopes of creating a great advantage-instead of a great disaster-out of this next great flood.On that note I'm off to Turkey-specifically the region holding its breath, waiting to be submerged beneath Ilisu's 125-square-mile lake-to see it for myself, and calculate some exchange rates: if energy and development come at the expense of environmental and cultural stability and millenia-old sites like the village Hasankeyf, is the price too high? And if it is, is it too late to look back?

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