The Independent Gateway to Kurdish News and Analyses

Turkey’s GAP and its Impact in the Region


Kurdish Herald Vol. 1 Issue 5, September 2009 -

by Ercan Ayboga


Since the 1980s, the Turkish State has endeavored to implement the Southeastern Anatolia Project (Güneydogu Anadolu Projesi-GAP); a project that includes the construction of 22 dams along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in nine different predominantly Kurdish provinces. Currently there are plans to build more than 90 dams and 60 power plants in the Euphrates and Tigris basin. According to the Turkish government, the main purposes of the project are energy production (an installed capacity of 7500 Megawatts is planned) and regional development through irrigated (1.82 Mio. ha land) agro-industrial production for export. However, the socio-economic and political implications of the GAP are rather controversial both domestically and internationally.


One of the upcoming projects initiated through the GAP is the construction of the 138-meter high Ilisu dam 45 km around the Syrian-Iraqi border, which would be the largest in the Tigris River Basin. Although the construction was initially approved, Turkey failed to fulfill 150 conditions in social, ecologic, cultural and international standards.


The historial Kurdish city of Hasankeyf


Consequently, three governments in Europe that include Germany, Austria and Switzerland, cancelled their export credit guarantee in July of 2009 after ten years of international discussion on the Ilisu dam and a number of non-governmental campaigns. Nevertheless, while the construction process of the Ilisu dam has been halted, the plans to continue with the project are still on the table. The involved companies have not cancelled their engagement and the Turkish government affirms that the project can continue through alternative finance models. Today, Ilisu still remains one of the most discussed dam projects in the world.


The Ilisu Dam: The impact of the recent GAP on local socio-economy and historical site


Perhaps the greatest concern among activists who are against the construction of the Ilisu dam is potential destruction of the livelihood of up to 78,000 people – the majority of whom are ethnic Kurds – living along the approximate 158-mile river stretches. Since the legal framework for resettlement of the displaced people is inadequately recognized in Turkey, except for a handful of large landowners, most of the displaced population is confronted with poverty.


In the case of the Ilisu dam, half of those people that will be affected have no legal land titles; thus they would receive little or no compensation by this eminent domain. The mentioned conditions foresee, for instance, that resettlement of the displaced persons has to be done with the principle of land-for-land, and the Turkish government often build projects in old agricultural regions. However, there is little land left for resettlement as the majority of suitable land is already in use in Turkey.


Even when small landowners receive some compensation, since there is insufficient public infrastructure to support newly displaced populations, they often encounter great difficulty integrating into a new urban life. For instance, the two most popular destination cities for newly displaced persons are Diyarbakir and Batman, but the compensation is not enough to sustain even a basic living standard in these cities without having necessary skills to work in an urban economy.


The historical Kurdish city of Hasankeyf




The Turkish government insists that the benefits of the dam project for the local population are vast because proponents claim that the dam will help to develop the region’s economy through creation of new jobs and investments and produce hydro-electric power for Turkey’s population in order to compensate for the energy consumption. Nevertheless, so far, the evidence has shown otherwise.


On average, during a seven-year period of dam construction, 2300 people are employed. However, after the completion of the project, the hydropower plant only provides about 200 jobs while some 1000 jobs are permanently destroyed in the impounded region. Such contradiction inevitably leaves impressions among locals that that the construction of dams in Kurdish provinces is a continuation of previous campaigns of forced displacement and the assimilation of the people in the region. Activists and academics who are against the construction of Ilisu dam argue that the conservation and soft-sustainable development of the cultural heritage of the city and preservation of the biodiversity in the valley could bring more socio-economic benefits among other things.

Additional important struggle against the construction of the Ilisu dam is the fate of the ancient city of Hasankeyf, which is believed to be one of the oldest and most continuously-inhabited cities in the world with a history stretching back estimated at least 12000 years. Hasankeyf is located in the Tigris valley, which is a very important part of Upper Mesopotamia and is where the first settlements of human history were found. More than twenty Eastern and Western civilizations have left their traces in Hasankeyf, and it is, indeed, a unique open-air museum. The approximate numbers of historic sites discovered to date in and around Hasankeyf total 6000 manmade caves and 300 monuments, including the biggest stone bridge of the Middle Ages. In order to carefully excavate, archaeologists need at least another one-hundred years. An estimated 289 known archaeological sites will be affected due to the construction of the Ilisu dam. Furthermore, an unknown additional number may be affected since surveys have been done in only less than half of the region.

Since Hasankeyf has become the main symbol in the protests against the Ilisu project, the Turkish government has developed a plan to construct a cultural park with some of the original monuments in the region. However, due to sophisticated structure of the monuments, it is not technically possible to do so. Even if it is done successfully, the monuments would lose their sense by moving them from their original site to an artificial location. In addition, the flooding caused by the dam will wipe out the unique cultural heritage and traditions of the people who live in the area today. In this sense, the Ilisu project is not a unique case. The GAP in general decreases cultural diversity, and in particular, wipes out the presence of the Kurdish culture from the region.


Decreased water quality and quantity in Syria and Iraq due to the GAP


The Euphrates and Tigris rivers in southeast Turkey have been the primary sources of irrigation and drinking water for Syria and Iraq for thousands of years. If the GAP is ever fully realized, up to 50% of the river water will be used within the Turkish borders. Quality of water is expected to deteriorate due to water waste from larger cities, which are located in upstream of the planned reservoir, and from developing agro-industrial irrigation in Turkey. That said, concerns among people in Syria and Iraq with regards to the implementation of the GAP are not farfetched. The complete implementation of the Ilisu dam and other planned irrigation works in the Tigris Basin will drastically affect millions people along the Tigris in Iraq, including approximately four to five million people in the marshlands in southern Iraq that depend almost entirely on the rivers for their water supply.


The Euphrates River has already shown a substantial change due to a partial completion of the GAP. All planned dams on the Euphrates have completely been built and while complete irrigation has not been implemented, this already has negative effects on Iraq and Syria concerning water quantity. Between 2000 and 2001, and since 2008, there have been a series of severe droughts in the region, dramatically reducing water flow to Iraq and Syria. Since April 2009, the Iraqi government has communicated official statements to Turkey to release more water from the Euphrates.


The storage capacity of the constructed five dams on the Euphrates within Turkey is about 90 cubic kilometers while the annual mean flow of the Euphrates River is approximately 32 cubic kilometers. The planned capacity of the dams in the Tigris River Basin is 20.5 cubic kilometer, and the annual mean flow of the Tigris is approximately 17 cubic kilometer at the Turkish-Iraqi border. In other words, the water storage capacity of the existing and planned dams of the both rivers is more than enough to cease water flow for a long period of time.


The Ilisu dam project and the cities and municipalities that will be negatively impacted

Map showing sites of various dams as part of Turkey's Southeastern Anatolian Project (GAP)


The most relevant international agreement that Turkey has long refused to sign for the GAP is the UN Convention on Non-Navigational Use of Trans-boundary Watercourses (1997). Nevertheless, the cut of water is still a breach of international customary law regardless of whether there are formal legal agreements between Turkey and the other two countries. These factors are of great concern but the international community has not paid enough attention despite the historical precedent of detrimental relationship between the states in the politically-fragile Middle East.


Turkey has implemented the GAP at the expense of the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people, one of the well-known archeological sites and the local biodiversity. By way of caution, malign influence created by water disputes can impede stablization and peace in the region. Thus, increased attention and concern in the international community is necessary and there must be efforts to foster constitutions and regulations to manage the direct distribution of water wealth.




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