Down by the river, Edip Ipek is busy building one of Hasankeyf's newest structures, a primitive wooden shack that will serve as a waterside restaurant for the tourists who come to visit during the summer.
Ipek is not really thinking about longevity for his shack. If the Turkish government has its way, in a few years his restaurant and everything else in Hasankeyf will be deep underwater. Some 50 miles (80 kilometers) downstream initial work has begun on the $1.8 billion Ilisu dam, a massive project that is projected to become Turkey's second largest hydroelectric plant. The dam stands to flood a large part of the area around Hasankeyf, causing the displacement of 55,000 people.
Like many locals, Ipek dreads the dam's completion. "Of course I support my state and my country, but I don't want to lose my historical past," the 32-year-old says, taking a break from hammering together rough wooden boards.
"I don't think the dam will improve a lot in the region. They are promising us that we will all be able to work in fishing after the dam is built and that there will be tourism here, but how many of us can work in fishing?"
Ilisu is part of the $32 billion Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), an ambitious dam and irrigation plan that has the twin goal of providing Turkey with much needed electricity and easing the economic suffering of the predominantly-Kurdish southeast. On May 27, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that his government would complete the decades-old project in the next five years, spending about $12 billion to develop the restive region. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
But for locals and experts alike, big questions remain about the GAP's economic impact: doubts linger about whether the project can prove to be the magic bullet that lifts the southeast out of its long-standing economic and political troubles.
"The real problem with the project is the way it is being run, which is without really considering regional preferences, without taking the advice of almost everyone who suggested they should build a bottom up approach to the project. Primarily what they did is an engineering project," says Ali Carkoglu, a political science professor at Istanbul's Sabanci University.
"They are so preoccupied with conquering the geography that they are forgetting the more human issues," added Carkoglu, who has long followed the project's progress.
At least up until now, GAP's achievements have made a bigger impact outside the southeast region. While the completion rate for hydroelectric projects, which mostly benefit energy-thirsty western Turkey, is approximately 77 percent, the rate for irrigation projects, which are designed to boost agriculture and employment in the arid region, is only 15 percent.
Meanwhile, a recent study by the Turkish Confederation of Young Businessmen (TUGIK) found that despite the fact that GAP has already invested some $20 billion in the southeast, the region's share in the national income is lower today than it was 40 years ago. While the 2007 per capita income in the region around Istanbul was $14,500, in Turkey's southeast it was only $5,200.
Mehmet Acikgoz, GAP's regional director, admits that irrigation had been previously neglected, mostly because of a lack of funding. But, he says, the project is now being approached with a renewed focus. "One of the project's aims, especially, is to answer the social and economic problems in the region," Acikgoz says during an interview in his office, outside the southeastern city of Sanliurfa. "This region has a lot of potential. It has land, water, a young population, and this project is trying to bring out that potential."
Along with infrastructure projects, GAP also funds a number of social development initiatives. In Sanliurfa and 28 other cities, the project supports community centers that offer childcare and educational courses for disadvantaged women. Still, what is spent on projects like these are still only a fraction of what GAP spends on dams and roads.
"It's a development project, but the economic aspect and the social aspect must go together. There must be a balance. If this doesn't happen, people might be more prosperous, but it won't necessarily change the way they live," says Osman Kazici, director of the Turkey Development Foundation's office in Diyarbakir, one of the largest cities in the southeast.
Where GAP has also been unbalanced, critics say, is an emphasis on developing agriculture without associated actions that would develop local manufacturing and food processing capacity. Such a tandem development strategy could bring added value to what is grown locally and diversify job opportunities.
In the Harran plain, a vast agricultural region south of Sanliurfa, channels bringing water from a GAP-built dam now crisscross the fields, making year round planting possible. But while incomes have grown, local villagers say they are still faced with few job options. "Things haven't changed with the irrigation. It's only impacted the people who have land. Those who don't have land can drive trucks or work as laborers. Their income hasn't improved much," says Ibrahim Tekin, a farmer in the village of Parapara, a collection of simple cement homes surrounded by wheat fields and dirt roads.
An hour and half away, up the Euphrates River, the residents of the picturesque village of Halfeti can only talk about what GAP has taken away from them. A large part of the village was flooded nine years ago after a dam was built downstream. Most of the residents moved to a newly constructed settlement nearby.
Sitting in the shaded garden of her government-built home, 68-year-old Lutfiye Cetintas says she and her neighbors are still trying to adjust to their new life. "Now we are struggling to earn our money to survive. Before we had lots of work to do in our gardens and fields," she says. "Now all we do is sit and wait for the evening."
Of course, hovering over GAP is the Kurdish question and how to deal with the ethnic issues that have inflamed the region for decades. For his part, GAP regional director Acikgoz sees no "ethnic problem" in the region. "The only problem in this region is economic," he says.
But observers both inside and outside the southeast say such an approach may be misguided. "If the state doesn't take any steps towards solving the problem here both economically and politically, the problem will only get bigger," says Mehmet Kaya, president of the Diyarbakir Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Adds Sabanci University's Carkoglu: "Unless economic development is coupled with more substantial reforms on political and cultural grounds, economic reforms will not be sufficient. ... Finishing the GAP project with a few billion dollars will still not do it."
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.