DIYARBAKIR (AFP) â€” Turkey began Saturday building a major dam on the Tigris River, overriding fierce criticism that the project will devastate a millenia-old historic site and displace thousands of Kurds.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan joined a groundbreaking ceremony for the Ilisu Dam outside Dargecit town, 45 kilometres from the Syrian border, marking the start of a project that was first mooted in the late 1970s and has ever since remained controversial.
At the core of opposition to the dam is nearby Hasankeyf, a small poverty-stricken town on the banks of the Tigris, once a mighty city in ancient Mesopotamia, part of which will be submerged by the damâ€™s giant reservoir.
The many critics of the project argue that the dam, to be completed with a hydroelectric power plant, will destroy Hasankeyfâ€™s unique heritage which includes Assyrian, Roman and Ottoman monuments and ruin the traditional way of life of its population of ethnic Kurds and Arabs.
In a bid to halt the project, activists have petitioned the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights and urged foreign creditors to withhold loans for the international consortium building the facility.
Supporters counter that the dam, part of a large decade-old plan to boost economic development in the poor, mainly Kurdish southeast, will create up to 10,000 jobs, pave the way for fisheries, irrigate vast areas of farmland and provide vital energy for Turkeyâ€™s flourishing economy.
The southeast has been the theater of a 22-year conflict between separatist Kurdish rebels and the army, which has claimed some 37,000 lives, ravaged the meager infrastructure and the mainstays of farming and forced thousands to migrate into urban slum areas.
Erdogan hailed the project as a proof of Ankaraâ€™s determination to raise the living standards of its Kurdish minority.
â€œThe step that we are taking today demonstrates that the southeast is no longer neglected… This dam will bring big gains to the local people,â€ he said at the televised ceremony.
Scheduled to become operational in 2013, the 1.2-billion-euro ($1.55 billion) Ilisu Dam will become Turkeyâ€™s second largest reservoir and fourth largest hydroelectricpower plant, generating 3.8 billion kWh of electricity annually.
Officials say 80 per cent of Hasankeyfâ€™s archaelogical sites â€” including tombs and hundreds of cave houses, already damaged by natureâ€™s impact and years of negligence â€” will remain above the planned waterline.
The monuments that would be flooded â€” including mosques, a hammam (Turkish bath) and the remains of an ancient bridge over the Tigris â€” will be relocated to a would-be open-air museum nearby, which Erdogan pledged would turn the region into a â€œtourist centre.â€ The government is determined to salvage Hasankeyfâ€™s heritage, Erdogan said, adding that 66 million euros ($85 million) had been allocated for the archaeological work, already under way.
Opponents argue that even if the monuments are safely relocated, the integrity of the site and the original landscape will be destroyed for good.
The government will also compensate people from nearly 200 villages who will lose their homes, estimated to number at least 50,000, and is planning to build a new town for Hasankeyf residents.
â€œThis dam will destroy a history of 12,000 years,â€ grumbled Hasankeyf Mayor Abdulvahap Kusen, part of a vocal civic coalition battling the project.
â€œNeither I nor anyone else will go to the new settlement. We will all migrate to big cities if Hasankeyf is flooded,â€ he told the Anatolia news agency.
The Ilisu Dam is a key element of the Southeastern Anatolian Project (GAP) that envisages a total of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric plants across the region, most of them on the Tigris and the Euphrates.
The project has triggered protests from neighbouring Iraq and Syria that Turkey is monopolising the waters of the two rivers, which flow on south to their drought-plagued territories.