In today’s Turkey, free-flowing rivers can’t just exist. Turkish officials seem intent on turning rivers into “green” solutions for the country’s growing hunger for energy sources.
A project on the Köprülü River in southern Turkey offers a case in point. The main motivation for building a dam there is hydropower generation, 99,462 megawatts of it, to be precise. Scheduled for completion in 2014, the river’s Kasimlar Dam is part of a scheme to build an additional 1,783 dams by 2023 on top of the more than 2,000 dams that already exist. Up to 2 million people will be affected by the projects, and Turkish ecologists worry they will leave hardly any free-flowing river system intact.
In Kasimlar’s case, the dam will endanger parts of the country’s longest hiking trail, the 500-kilometer-long St. Paul’s Trail, threaten the livelihoods of about 15 farming villages, and cause the loss of farmland and forest. The habitats of over 150 endemic species, like the rare brown fish owl, will be affected.
Named after the early Christian apostle Paul, part of the trail follows the route of Paul’s first missionary journey to Anatolia, a journey undertaken around 47 AD. Starting just east of the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya, the walk leads past ancient Roman cities, Seljuk and Ottoman-era monuments, before winding through one of Turkey’s most diverse ecosystems, the Köprülü Canyon National Park.
The construction of hydroelectric dams in and near nature preserves is legal in Turkey, but Kate Clow, the British ecotourism entrepreneur and activist who mapped St. Paul’s Trail in 2004, warns that damming the Köprülü river will not only destroy original Roman roads and bridges, but strain already “overused” water resources in a region economically dependent on agriculture.
Local villagers contend that the dam’s environmental and social cost outweighs its economic benefits, and assert that the government does not listen to them. “They tell us that the dam will be good for Kasimlar, but that’s a lie,” fumed Hassan, a guide from Kasimlar, the village where the dam’s 2,188-meter-long tunnel will enter the mountains to channel the Köprülü River’s water. “It’ll destroy the whole valley.”
In Degirmenözü, the village where the dam’s electricity-producing turbines are slated to be installed, emotions run equally strong. An official letter that informed villagers that they had until May 5 to put questions and complaints to the regional governor arrived four days after the deadline, according to one villager, who gave his name as Ali. An earlier presentation on the turbines offered villagers no chance for discussion, he added.
For these communities, which depend on subsistence agriculture, such a lack of information is more than an annoyance; it’s a threat to their survival. “Nobody tells us how the dam with affect the water quality, if there will be less water for our fields,” exclaimed one Degirmenözü farmer. “How is it possible that such radical change is planned for our village and for our lives and nobody talks to us about it?”
Similar confusion reigns in Daribükü, a village of 150 households that is expected to be flooded by the 80-meter-high dam. With the dam’s scheduled completion just two years away, residents say the government still has not told them where they will be resettled or how much they will be paid in compensation for destroyed property.
“We don’t know what is going to happen, nobody tells us anything,” said one villager. “We don’t want this dam to be built, but there is nobody we can talk to.”
The lack of information makes it much harder to oppose the dam, noted a local activist, Yusuf Yavuz. “State officials and those responsible in the construction companies simply go through the legally required motions. But they are not interested in informing the people, or in real dialogue.”
Neither government officials nor representatives of Gülsan, the construction company building the dam, were available for comment.
Yayuz points out that most villagers do not have the financial means to afford their own lawyers, or to retain experts to write detailed environmental-impact assessments, which cost roughly 5,000 lira (almost $2,700) to prepare. “We know of cases where farmers sell their last cow to be able to pay for one,” he said.
Compensation for houses submerged by dams generally amounts to roughly 30,000 to 40,000 lira ($16,000-$21,500), “which is not enough to start a new life somewhere else,” Yavuz argued.
“People in Turkey often look down on villagers, but they have no right to do so,” commented Clow. “Once life in overcrowded cities has become unsupportable, they will understand what has been lost.”
This article was amended on 6/3/12 to correct the spelling of Yusuf Yavuz's name and to change milliwatts to megawatts.
Constanze Letsch is a freelance writer based in Istanbul.