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Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival

It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

September 22, 2017
11 min read

The town of Hasankeyf. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In Kurdistan, one of the world’s most controversial dams nears completion. However, local residents, civil society organisations and international activists are still fighting to block the project.

The Ilısu dam is located within south-east Turkey. The massive artificial lake will displace up to 78,000 people, the majority of whom are Kurdish. 199 villages will be completely or partially flooded, and thousands of nomads will also be displaced.

Almost half of the affected people — and all nomadic peoples — have either no land or land titles. They will not receive any compensation.

The Turkish government claims that the dam will have ‘major environmental benefits’. However, it will flood 400 km of precious riverine habitat, and will have catastrophic results for the ecosystem of the Tigris river basin. The endangered Euphrates soft shell turtle is just one of many species threatened with extinction. The dam will also have grave effects on Iraq and Syria, which rely on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for their water supply. The Mesopotamian marshes in Iraq – one of the most important ecosystems in the world – will also be devastated.

The Turkish government has stated that people will be relocated next year, and that the region will be flooded by the beginning of 2019. In June, Turkish newspapers reported that the Ilısu project is 97 per cent complete. This is contentious, as the construction of the hydroelectric power plant, as well as new bridges and roads, are not finished.


One of the oldest continually inhabited places on Earth, the 12,000 year old town of Hasankeyf is set to be submerged by the dam. An area of extraordinary beauty, and described as Mesopotamia’s cradle of civilisation, Hasankeyf is home to hundreds of ancient monuments and thousands of neolithic caves, many of which were inhabited until recently. The historic town fulfills the criteria to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but despite activists’ calls to protect the area, the UNESCO Committee has not acted.

The Turkish government has built the concrete block town of ‘New Hasankeyf’ to relocate residents. However, locals must pay for these houses, which cost two or three times more than the compensation they will receive from the government – an amount that will put many in severe debt. According to the Initiative To Keep Hasankeyf Alive, two thirds of people applying for an apartment in New Hasankeyf have been turned down, and new apartments may be sold to affluent people from other cities instead.

We have visited the Hasankeyf area four times to monitor the progress of the dam. In 2015 we interviewed local people and asked them whether they would get compensation. ‘I have eight siblings,’ Murat, a resident, told us. ‘The money [for the house] must be divided between everyone. So if I take 10,000 lira, what can I do? The new homes cost us 150,000 lira. How can I buy this?’

On our last visit to the region, we were subjected to military checkpoints and questions as we drove to the site of the Ilısu dam. When we visited New Hasankeyf, the police spotted us on CCTV and warned us not to take photos.

Since then the situation has worsened. Public demonstrations are almost impossible and the areas around Hasankeyf have been declared military zones. ‘Militarisation has reached such a level that it has become impossible to visit the site as independent researcher,’ says the Initiative To Keep Hasankeyf Alive. This year, National Geographic photographer Mathias Depardon was arrested when taking photos of New Hasankeyf.

In 2015, the European Court of Human Rights accepted the case of five individuals who are challenging the destruction of Hasankeyf’s cultural heritage. They are awaiting a result in 2017.

The destruction of Hasankeyf has already begun

In May, the first of nine of Hasankeyf’s fragile monuments was relocated, with the intention to make a ‘cultural park’, adjacent to New Hasankeyf. The irony of destroying a town which has been inhabited since 10,000BC to build a ‘cultural park’ is seemingly lost on the Turkish government.

Over 200 of the town’s neolithic caves are due to be filled in. In August, a company was commissioned to blow up a rockface with dynamite, damaging caves close to Hasankeyf’s ancient castle. In response, Mehmet Ali Aslan, a member of parliament from the feminist, pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), chained himself to a rock in protest, temporarily halting the crew’s work. Mehmet stated that he would return with more people if dynamite crews continued.

The Turkish government states that the dam will provide hydroelectric power, bringing economic growth and ‘higher income levels and new opportunities to an area which badly needs them’. However, there are a number of underhand reasons why the dam is being built.

Firstly, it will force Kurdish people out of the villages, severing their connections to their land and their cultures. Turkey has attempted to ‘assimilate’ Kurdish people for decades. ‘Assimilation is much easier to achieve within cities, where people speak less Kurdish and connections to traditional Kurdish culture are weaker,’ Kurdish activist Ercan Ayboga told us. ‘This dam will oppress Kurds, control them and exploit them.’

Ercan went on to explain that the Ilısu project is also for capitalist gains: ‘It will change the economic characteristics of the whole region. It will displace people, incorporating them into the capitalist cycle of production, and especially consumption.’ Many of those displaced from their lands will be forced to the cities.

Another reason why Turkey wants to push on with the dam is to restrict the movement of resistance fighters of the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party]. The building of Turkish military forts on the mountain tops surrounding the dam has also ensured that the Turkish military has more control of the area.

Water as a weapon

Through their damming of the Tigris river, Turkey can use water as a political weapon. In 1992, Suleyman Demirel, then prime minister of Turkey, stated: ‘Neither Syria nor Iraq can lay claim to Turkey’s rivers any more than Ankara could claim their oil. This is a matter of sovereignty. We have a right to do anything we like. The water resources are Turkey’s: the oil resources are theirs. We don’t say we share their oil resources, and they cannot share our water resources.’

Activist Ercan Ayboga told us: ‘Turkey will use water as a political weapon. They did it in the past against Syria and they’re doing it against Rojava [the autonomous region in northern Syria]. Between April and July of this year, they cut the water on the Euphrates so Rojava couldn’t produce much electricity. This is a big reason why international solidarity in stopping the Ilısu dam is important.’

Unfortunately, the Ilısu dam won’t be the end of the story. Turkey is one of the most prolific dam-building nations, and has 635 large dams within its borders. The Ilısu dam is part of the Southeastern Anatolia Project (abbreviated to GAP in Turkish), which consists of the construction of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. According to journalist Joris Leverink, ‘the finished GAP project will reduce water flows to Syria by 40 per cent and to Iraq by a shocking 80 per cent’.

The Cizre dam, part of the GAP project, is planned to be built downstream from the Ilısu dam. The Cizre dam will rely on Ilısu to function, capturing the water flowing from Ilısu and diverting it to irrigation for agriculture. It is likely that the construction of the Cizre dam will result in the further marginalisation of Kurdish people from their land.

The displacements in the region affected by the Ilısu dam are part of a wider policy of violence and forced relocation that has been taking place in Bakur (the region of Kurdistan within Turkey’s borders). In the 1990s, thousands of people were killed or disappeared and more than 3000 Kurdish villages were burnt to the ground.

Since 2015, the largest forced displacement of Kurdish people by Turkey for over twenty years has been taking place. In cities across Bakur, people declared autonomy from the Turkish state, in response to violence by the military and the harassment of Kurdish movements. They barricaded their neighbourhoods to keep out the police and military. The military’s response was brutal, attacking residential areas with tanks and helicopters. Since then, Kurdish communities in the cities have faced arrests, imprisonment and concerted attacks by the police and military.

According to Ercan Ayboga, ‘the submerging and destroying of Hasankeyf fits together with the destruction of parts of at least seven cities in Bakur in these last weeks and months.’

Kurdish residents in the Sur district of Amed (Diyarbakır in Turkish) are currently facing forced relocations. Sur was one of the cities which had declared autonomy in 2015. After the suppression of resistance in Sur in 2016, the military destroyed over a third of the city. Forced displacements are still ongoing in Sur, intended to break the solidarity of the community and gentrify the old city. Thousands of people are still facing relocation.

The likelihood of violence and displacement has been increased by the massive consolidation of state power that has taken place since an attempted military coup in July 2016. Since then the constitution has been changed to allow Erdoğan to rule by decree. Hundreds of thousands of people have been detained or arrested, 147 media outlets have been shut down and over 2,000 education institutions have been closed.

Global Hasankeyf Day

Over the years, activists worldwide have taken a wide range of actions to attempt to stop the Ilısu dam. As the project nears completion, it is vital that campaigners don’t give up the struggle. It is also important to realise that Ilısu will not be the end of the story, and that there is a need to resist against Turkish plans for equally damaging future projects.

There are currently two European companies involved in the Ilısu project. Andritz, an Austrian company, is involved in the construction of the hydroelectric power plant. It has completed three of the plant’s six turbines. See this report by Corporate Watch for details of Andritz’s locations.

Dutch company Bresser is involved in the relocation of Hasankeyf’s monuments, and is therefore complicit in the destruction of precious cultural heritage. Kurdish activists have demanded that Bresser ceases its involvement in the project.

The Initative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive has called a global day of action on 23 September, where it is asking for international solidarity in opposing the dam. Activists will be holding a Twitterstorm against Andritz: you can join in by tweeting @andritz and asking them to pull out of the project.

Now is the time to take action against the Ilısu dam. If this project goes ahead, 78,000 people will lose their homes and their connections to the land. If the dam is completed, it will pave the way for new projects aimed at increasing the Turkish state’s oppression of Kurdish people and its domination of the region.

For more information on saving Hasankeyf see the Initiative To Keep Hasankeyf Alive.

If you live in the UK, you can find out how to act in solidarity with Kurdish communities and movements by checking Kurdistan Solidarity Campaign, Kurdistan Solidarity Network and Peace In Kurdistan.

Eliza and Tom are part of Shoal Collective, a newly-formed cooperative of writers and researchers writing for social justice and a world beyond capitalism. @shoalcollective

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