Dams Power Turkey's Future, but Drown Its Rich History

By Christie-Miller, Alexander | The Christian Science Monitor, March 7, 2011 | Go to article overview

Dams Power Turkey's Future, but Drown Its Rich History


Christie-Miller, Alexander, The Christian Science Monitor


Cultural and natural sites are being submerged as Turkey races to double its power output by 2020.

The stunning mosaics, courtyards, and passageways of the 1,800- year-old Roman spa complex of Allianoi were so dear to archaeologist Ahmet Yaras that he named his daughter after the Ilya River that ran by them.

As he now witnesses its waters rise and engulf the ruins he has fought so hard to save, he says their disappearance beneath the reservoir of a new irrigation dam feels like the loss of a child.

"This is the murder of history," says Dr. Yaras, who formerly headed the excavation team that found some 11,000 artifacts during a decade of digging at Allianoi - work that unearthed only 20 percent of the site.

The Yortanli dam is part of an unprecedented hydro-engineering program launched by the Turkish government to maintain the country's rapid economic development.

It is also one of the flash points in the battle between Turkey's government and an increasingly vocal lobby of activists and academics who fear the plans will exact a devastating toll on the country's rich historical and ecological wealth.

1,300 new plants to power Turkey's economic development

Mert Bilgin, a professor specializing in energy policy at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University, acknowledges that poor oversight has maximized the environmental damage associated with the projects. But he says Turkey's need to increase its energy output could hardly be more urgent as the country strives to fulfill its dream of becoming a major economic power.

In 2010, energy imports cost $40 billion, accounting for nearly half the country's foreign trade deficit. This cost is set to soar since Turkey needs to double its power capacity by 2020.

"The negative impact of energy expenditures on trade balance, and consequently on the current account deficit, is extremely important for the Turkish economy," says Professor Bilgin. "Many reports point out that Turkey may face electricity shortages shortly if it cannot develop energy infrastructure as much as its economic growth."

The Department for State Hydraulic Works is expected to invest some $71.5 billion in dam building by 2030, an investment that goes well beyond the long-running Southeast Anatolia Project. It includes a program to realize the country's full hydroelectric potential with 1,300 new plants.

New bill would endanger 80 percent of protected land

Many archaeological and environmental hot spots have already been threatened.

Now, a nature protection bill redrafted by the government in September and currently in parliament will abolish the country's largest network of nature reserves, endangering 80 percent of currently protected land. It will also do away with a set of regional culture- and nature-protection councils that in the past have sometimes held in check the government's dam-building schemes.

All conservation decisions will be placed in the hands of a committee dominated by appointees of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the main engine behind the hydroengineering program.

Turkey claims the draft law is part of its efforts to join the European Union, but the EU Commission has condemned the legislation. Some 200 Turkish groups have also come together to oppose it.

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