Dams and democracy: has the last word been said on Hasankeyf?

That modernization will provide a remedy to all ills is a founding Turkish Republican idea that has proven to be also the most resilient one.

Hande Paker
25 February 2016

The remnants of the old Hasankeyf Bridge alongside the new Hasankeyf Bridge over Tigris. 2004. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.In January 2016, a law regarding the evacuation of the residents and the relocation of the town of Hasankeyf in a new resettlement area designated by the state was passed in the Turkish Parliament.

The law is the first to create a settlement in Turkey through legal channels. This marks the latest phase in the long-standing controversy over the fate of Hasankeyf.

Hasankeyf is an ancient settlement in the southeast of Turkey considered to be an ‘open air museum’ filled with Neolithic caves, Roman ruins, medieval monuments, and landmarks such as the Zeynel Bey Tomb, Sultan Süleyman Mosque, and the Hasankeyf bridge and castle.

The European natural and cultural heritage network Europa Nostra has recently shortlisted Hasankeyf for the ‘7 Most Endangered’ Program 2016. The ongoing construction of the Ilısu dam threatens this heritage site, which will be flooded once the dam is completed, scheduled for later this year.

The Ilısu dam also threatens the wider Tigris area as it will lead to its ecological demise including the loss of endemic species and key biodiversity areas of global relevance.

Powerful symbol

Dams have long been a powerful symbol of state power that both fed into and took advantage of the hegemonic discourse in Turkey that reveres economic growth and modernization.

Dams were presented as projects that can provide growth, employment and ultimately, modernization.[1] That modernization (equated with progress and civilization) will provide a remedy to all ills is a founding Republican idea that has proven to be also the most resilient one.

Its hegemonic power can be attested to by the fact that it has also been used by the AKP government, a political party that has built its agenda on critique and undoing of the so-called ‘old Turkey’.

The AKP has leaned on this not-so-new discourse to portray the image of the state that provides for and delivers services to the people. The modernization discourse is hegemonic because the state has effectively constructed development as a common goal for all of society, generating broad consent for undertakings in the name of modernization.

This discourse is also upheld by the AKP, albeit in new and more vicious ways. The hegemony of the modernization mission in Turkey has meant that all related policies have been undertaken without taking into consideration the social and ecological costs of energy investments, infrastructural megaprojects and urban renewal projects. Dams are a telling case.

Demirel’s dams

The association of dams with progress found its ultimate propagator in Süleyman Demirel, the one time prime minister (intermittently between 1965-1993) and president of Turkey (1993-2000). It was not in vain that Süleyman Demirel was dubbed the ‘king of dams’, having completed dozens of dam projects and endorsing even more during his term.[2]

He also initiated the Southeast Anatolian Project (GAP), which is one of the biggest water related development projects in the world. It is a mega project consisting of dams of various sizes, hydroelectric power plants and irrigation schemes, which he described as ‘the cement of Turkey’s unity and the greatest project of the Republic’.

The Ilısu dam was planned as part of this mega project and is to be among the five biggest dams in Turkey. In the case of the GAP as well, dams meant development and development meant a panacea for all problems social, economic and political.

From the state perspective, the GAP would appease the political demands of the Kurds while increasing state presence in the area.

Hence, Ilısu also represents how the state constructs the Kurdish issue as a problem of underdevelopment and lack of economic growth and not as a matter of human rights, democratization, and participation in the political sphere.

Dams and other mega projects are still used to generate consent and reinforce the image of the government as a provider of services to the people.

However, in the case of Ilısu and the Kurds, it is clear that dams are no longer a mechanism of reproducing consent. Immediately after the law was passed, The Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive issued a press release on February 8, which underlined that the government is using the conflict situation to bypass the democratic process and bring the long-contested dam project to a conclusion. The statement also indicates that the locals of Hasankeyf consider this a forceful imposition of their displacement and have refused to declare to the state the type of residence they would like to have in ‘new’ Hasankeyf in protest.

Keeping Hasankeyf Alive

The Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive is a key actor in the mobilization to save Hasankeyf. It was founded ten years ago and quickly became an influential network of 73 member organizations including local human rights and environmental organizations, affected municipalities, unions, and professional organizations from the region.

But the mobilization against the construction of the dam dates even further back, to the end of 1990s/ beginning of 2000s. A highly visible campaign involving civil society actors at the local, national and transnational levels was carried on for years to stop the construction of the dam.

The emphasis of the mobilization prioritized different aspects over the years depending on which civil society actors were active in the campaign. Local networks emphasized human rights issues while the national environmental organization, Doğa Association, highlighted the ecological damage in store, enlisting the support of well-known writers such as Orhan Pamuk and Yaşar Kemal, and popular culture figures such as Tarkan and Sezen Aksu. Transnational civil society organizations and networks were also involved, collaboration with which led to a major victory when export credit agencies backed by the governments of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria withdrew funding from the project.

The victory, however, proved to be short-lived because the state in Turkey turned to national sources of funding and got the credit from two banks. This led Doğa Association to seek transnational links and together with the local movements contesting the Belo Monte dam in Brazil, they formed the Damocracy network to raise awareness of the destructive effects of dams on ecological systems and local peoples.

These various civil society actors (organized locally, nationally, and transnationally) created solidarities to contend together with their sometimes merging, sometimes diverging frames of human rights, ecological preservation and cultural heritage.

Ilısu a symbol

In the case of Hasankeyf, the Ilısu dam has become a symbol of the coercive power of the state rather than a mechanism for ruling with consent.

And not just for Kurds. For some time now, ecological struggles have expressed demands for democratization, criticizing the way the state (or the AKP as embodying it) ignores the demands of its citizens to participate in decision-making processes – whether a dam, thermic power plant, hydroelectric power plant, nuclear power plant, mine, new housing, bridge or airport should be built in their river, valley, village, forests, city, and region.

Despite the controversy and contention around all of these projects, the AKP government has not given up on presenting infrastructural projects as prestigious steps in further development.  

Yet, capitalizing on the modernization discourse can secure the consent of only part of society, because such consent is reproduced in the highly polarized context daily exacerbated by prominent representatives of the AKP.

Not a day passes by when a public figure, organization or social group demanding democratic participation is not denounced as a ‘traitor’. As the capacity of the government to generate consent through the hegemonic discourse of modernization declines, the tendency to resort to coercive power increases.

Whether such polarization can be governed for long as the people of Turkey continue to lose their homes, livelihoods, way of life, ecological diversity, and archeological heritage, remains to be seen. 

[1] Please see Akbulut, B. and F. Adaman, 2014, ‘The unbearable appeal of modernization: The fetish of growth’ Perspectives, https://tr.boell.org/tr/node/879 for a more lengthy discussion.

[2] Akbulut, B. and F. Adaman, 2014, ‘The unbearable appeal of modernization: The fetish of growth’ Perspectives, https://tr.boell.org/tr/node/879.

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