Flows of Power: A Political Ecology of Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project

Presented at Yale School of the Environment’s New Horizons in Conservation Conference // 2022

Dams, once heralded as symbols of modernity and material manifestations of social progress, have transitioned from icons of technological prowess to spaces of contested infrastructure wreaking social and ecological devastation. In the case of Turkey, the rampant construction of large dams is intrinsically bound to conceptions of national identity as over 1000 dams, 635 of which are considered ‘megadams’, have been built within the Republic’s borders since 1923 .

Turkey’s ambitious development of the Southeastern Anatolia region has been touted domestically as an unprecedented effort to modernize the nation’s most remote and disparate provinces and rebuild a crumbling national economy. Internationally, the West has applauded Turkey’s widespread implementation of hydroelectric dams and power stations, pointing to the nation as a prime model of green development . Similarly, American and Western European companies eye lucrative construction contracts, investment opportunities, and an emerging energy market to be expoloited. Politically, the continued construction of dams offers to reduce the nation’s dependency on foreign energy imports and give Turkey powerful geopolitical leverage against neighboring states. In the opening ceremony of a hydroelectric plant in the Rize Province, Turkish President Erdogan proclaimed never again shall a Turkish river run in vain:

“CO2 emissions from the use of fossil fuels will increase from 27 billion to 42 billion tons … We have to meet our own energy needs by developing our own,God-given natural resources such as solar, wind and hydro sources. We currently rely on imported natural gas, which costs 25 billion dollars … Turkey exploits only 36% of its hydroelectric potential, and when all of the projects are completed, this rate will increase to 90% … Our goal is to meet the energy needs that economic growth demands while maximizing the use of domestic and renewable resources.”

However, messages like the above, echoed through state-run media outlets, serve merely as thinly veiled and green-washed rhetoric concealing the ethnonationalist and socially repressive agenda of Erdogan’s AKP party. While dam building historically operated as a means to enforce state sovereignty and bring Turkey’s ethnic minorities into the folds of a unified national image, they now function as tools of geographical and cultural erasure that specifically target environmental  locations at which marginalzied cultural and religious identities are  anchored.

The shifting role dams play in state repression is situated in Erdogan’s turn towards a populist conservative Islam and the AKP government’s revival of Ottoman policy. Erdogan has abandoned Turkey’s decades-long national program of cultural hegemony through secularization aimed at appeasing  the European Union and, instead, looks to restore Turkey as an Islamic Caliphate akin to the Ottoman Empire. A critical analysis of Turkey’s South Eastern Anatolia Project (GAP) shows how the AKP government’s neo-Ottomanist policies wield largescale infrastructural project to political ends through examining the recent construction of two dams: the Uzunçayır Dam on the Munzur River and the Illisu Dam on the Tigris River. Both dams are significant not only for their controversial and contested constructions but also for their targeted destruction of natural heritage sites revered by Kurds and other ethnic groups across Turkey. Such an analysis comes at a critical conjuncture as President Erdogan recently praised the AKP government’s doubling down on the constriction of dams during his 18-year presidency:

“Despite all the efforts of previous governments, Turkey only managed to build 276 dams until 2003. But in 18 years, we have put 585 new dams into service … Similarly, before 2003, Turkey had just 105 hydroelectric power plants. We have added 576 more hydroelectric power plants in just 18 years.”

However, this spree of “development” and unprecedented construction has not gone uncontested, this piece closes by highlighting the ways in which Turkey’s Kurdish activist groups draw from environmental politics  in a bid to frame their struggle as one aiming to preserve the cultural ties between nature and Kurdish identity.

The Megadams of Southeastern Anatolia
Nation-states often wrap projects of national development, particularly the construction of dams, in promises of economic stability and improved quality of life. In Turkey, the construction of dams has been seen as a necessary step in the economic development of impoverished regions while a strengthening the bond between infrastructure and national identity. Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), introduced in 1984, is contingent on such proposals of development and ideology. GAP remains, arguably, one of the most comprehensive projects of development in the modern world, covering a surface area of nearly 75,000 km², and encompassing approximately 10% of Turkey’s geographic territory and population. The expansive network of 22 large dams, 19 hydroelectric plants, and hundreds of miles of irrigation infrastructure promised to bring water to an arid 1.8 million hectares of land and open the economy of rural Turkey to European markets. However, the construction of this series of dams along the basins of Tigris and Euphrates rivers has become the material backbone of a larger attempt by the government to develop the Kurdish-majority Anatolia region and, finally, offer an answer to Turkey’s “Kurdish question”.  The ultimate goals of the GAP project have moved beyond infrastructural improvements to now include the complete transformation of social, religious, and ecological landscapes in  a region long considered backwards and impenetrable.

Damming the Munzur River: Alevi Kurds of Tunceli
The rural Munzur River Valley, deep in the heart of Eastern Anatolia’s rugged Tunceli province, has historically served as a stronghold of Kurdish militancy. The valley is also home to a large population of adherents to the Alevi Islamic sect, the majority of whom are ethnically Kurdish. Followers of Alevism make up an estimated ten to fifteen percent of Turkey’s total  population and incorporate religious beliefs and rites from both Sunnism and Shiism as well as the mystical elements of Sufism and Anatolian folk-traditions. Kurdish Alevism, as distinct from the broader Alevi religious tradition, has produced unique rituals, sacred sites, and socio-religious forms of organization following sacred lineages rooted in the veneration of nature. Historically, the heavy infusion of religious practice into social production positioned Alevi Kurds against Atatürk’s efforts to secularize the early Turkish Republic and build a homogenous national identity through the forced assimilation of religous and ethnic minority groups. The antagonisms between rural Tunceli province and the Turkish state are marked by the bloody repression of two Kurdish rebellions against the Turkish state which took place in 1921 and 1938, respectively, as well as the 1978 Maras Massacre – during which neo-fascist paramilitary groups supported by the state terrorized Alevi population centers across Eastern Anatolia.

Contested Infrastructure
Today, the Alevi Kurds of the Tunceli province face an entirely different form of assimilation and state violence. Dispossession and enforcement of state sovereignty are driven through the rapid construction of large dams and hydroelectric facilities rather than military force. Beginning in 1983, the Turkish Dam Authority included the construction of 6 dams and 8 hydroelectric production plants in its announced master plan for Tunceli province. This announcement would be proceeded by a declaration of war against the Turkish state by the militatnt Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) shortly after in 1984 . The number of proposed dams and hydroelectric facilities in the region have risen to 10 and 16, respectively. To date, 8 dams have been built along the region’s largest river, the Munzur, and its tributaries collectively amounting to a cost of $2 billion, financed and constructed largely by an infusion of Western capital. The damming of Munzur River has only intensified following a 1998 bilateral agreement between the United States Department of Commerce and Turkey’s Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources in which American companies acquired contracts to construct 9 new hydroelectric power plants in the region . In this sense, the massive infrastructural initiatives put forth by ministries aiming to preserve Turkey’s environment and economy merely shore up foreign investment in the private sector. Further, the mountainous terrain of the Tunceli Province is home to little agricultural activity, rendering the purported economic stimulation promised by dam reservoirs and irrigation systems a moot point. The energy output from the power stations along the river continuously falls short of ministry expectations and what little energy the dams offer is carried away to distant urban centers rather than servicing Tunceli.

Uzunçayır Dam
Anti-dam activists across the Tunceli Province liken the damming of the Munzur River to Atatürk’s violent repression of Kurdish rebellions decades ago, calling the construction of dams “the state’s final fight against Dersim (the Kurdish name for Tunceli)” and a “second 1938”, as well as “the domestication of the river and its people”. Beginning in the 1990s, construction of dams in the region aligned with a sharp increase in military confrontations against the Turkish state and PKK guerillas as the military enacted a scorched earth campaign across the province. The “war”, as it was colloquially named, became baked into the implementation of GAP along the Munzur River. Throughout this period, 284 of the 420 villages in Tunceli were emptied or destroyed due to land appropriation in the name of development and anti-PKK operations, although the number of residents displaced remains unknown, the population of Tunceli is currently at half of its 1970s levels.

The largest dam along the Munzur River, the Uzunçayır Dam, was completed in 2009. Standing at 65m high, the dam supports a power station with a capacity of 84 MW, to date this power station contributes an amount of energy equal to less than 1% of Turkey’s total annual energy consumption. The dam boasts a revisor with a near 14 km^2 surface area, the construction of which has effectively divided the provincial capital of Dersim in half, leaving many parts of the city difficult to access and isolated from public services. The construction of the Uzunçayır Dam involved portions of the Munzur River Valley Park, a designated national heritage site under special protection of Turkish law against development projects. Despite this legal protection, construction of the dam continued unabated as the AKP government reworked Turkey’s environmental assessment impact laws in 2004 to allow the state to lease land to private enterprise for developmental purposes for up to 49 years. The national park is regarded as a place of profound natural beauty and diversity, home to over 1600 unique species of flora and fauna, it has been designated a key biodiversity area (KBA) by the World Wildlife Fund and home to a number of IUCN recognized endangered species.  

Apart from its rich biodiversity, the Munzur River Valley physically embodies the intimate connections between Alevi spiritual practice and the natural world. Not only does the dam inundate large swaths of the natural preserves in which “every rock and tree has been infused with sacredness”, the reservoir threatens many Alevi holy sites, places of worship, and pilgrimage destinations. The construction of Uzunçayır was contested in Turkish courts on the grounds of that places of worship are protected under law. Because Alevis worship in nature rather than traditional human-made structures under the state’s jurisdiction, the case was dismissed. Further, the reservoir has flooded the summer pastures of many of the region’s nomadic herders as well as devastated populations of fish in and around the river, a food source much of Dersim relies on. Outside of the Alevi population, the cultural impacts of the Uzunçayır Dam are experienced in the broader Kurdish imagination through the destruction of key historical sites associated with the Valley’s anti-statist past. Many of the cavern strongholds which housed Kurdish leaders and their rebel militias in the early days of the Republic’s history, pilgrimage sites in their own right, are now submerged or have been destroyed in the process of dam building. Many Kurds, Alevi and non-Alevi alike, consider the systemic cultural and geographical destruction of state development projects to be part of Erdogan’s efforts to remove dissident population from their traditional homeland and into urban centers so that they may be assimilated into the state’s particular form of Turkish Islam.

Flooding History: The Ilisu Dam   
Considered the crowning achievement of the efforts of GAP along the Tigris River, the Ilisu Dam is one of the largest of the 22 dams constructed under the project. Standing at 135m tall and over 1 mile wide, the massive Ilisu Dam was completed in 2019 in the Kurdish majority Mardin Province to much controversy. The $2 billion project was funded primarily through international credit and the financial backing of American and European firms. However, Turkey’s failure to comply with international human rights and environmental standards during the construction resulted in the suspension of much of the project’s international support. Despite this setback, Erdogan’s government announced the dam would be completed at any cost. Construction was further hampered by repeated attacks by the PKK, which prompted Erdogan to order 1,600 soldiers to the region and place the province under strict martial law. The construction of the Ilisu Dam impacted an approximated 3 million people across 5 of Turkey’s Anatolian provinces, 90% of whom are ethnic Kurds. Ilisu’s massive 313km^2 reservoir, subsequent support infrastructure projects, and the created of the dam itself displaced an untold number of Turkish Kurds. Turkey’s own government website states the project displaced an estimated 15,000 residents of the region. DSI resettlement plans place the number at 61,620 residents displaced living in 199 settlements however, claiming only 15,000 residents in 83 settlements will be fully affected (removed). NGOs operating in the region place the number of displaced between 55,000 and 80,000 with over 200 settlements affected, including the complete destruction of 108 villages and 49 hamlets. These estimates, however, exclude nearly 50 villages in the reservoir region that had been cleared out during 1990s as well as the impacts facing the region’s large clans of nomadic herders whose summer grazing pastures have been inundated, numbering around 20,000. Turkish authorities offered miniscule compensation to resettled families, the requirements for which demanded formal proof of ownership through the possession of a state deed, documents possessed by few Kurds in the region, where property rights were traced through centuries old familial lineages.

Situated in the center of the Ilisu Dam reservoir is the 12,000-year-old historic city of Hasankeyf. As of 2020, the historic city has been completely submerged under dam waters. Hasankeyf represented an important site of cultural, historical, and cultural significance to both Turks and Kurds prompting the Turkish government to declare the city a national heritage site in 1981 and, in recent years, activists plead for the UN to declare the city a UNESCO world heritage site. Despite Hasankeyf national significance, the city would become targeted by the GAP as essential to the construction of the Ilisu Dam. Kurdish activists in the region fought the construction of the Ilisu Dam for years, pointing towards the economic, geographical, and cultural significance of the region. The ancient city drew an annual crowd of 500,000 tourists, making tourism the most important economic sector in the region. Hasankeyf, a popular crossroads since the Silk Road, offered an important land-crossing from the region’s nomadic shepherds. Culturally, the city was home to many important monuments and buildings tied to Kurdish history in the region, ranging from Mesopotamian dwellings to artifacts of Persian Sultanates. Objections raised by residents and 20 national and international NGOs prompted the Turkish government to build an upstream settlement aptly named New Hasankeyf and transfer archeologically significant artifacts to the town. Residents of New Hasankeyf claim the government has made little effort to provide proper compensation or accommodation, forcing many former residents of the region to move to the urban centers of Western Turkey in order to find employment. Further, only eight historic artifacts were moved to higher ground. In response to accusations of intentionally flooding the historic city to bury its historical relevance in the Kurdish imagination, Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement arguing the destruction of the city was crucial to developing the impoverished region, saying “the nostalgia of living here may be romantic … but it does not address the social and economic needs of the nation.”

Shifting Towards Neo-Ottomanization

The modernization of Turkey has historically been a process predicated on the integration and homogenization of cultural, social, and political spheres into a national body. The conceptualization of the modern Turkish identity began following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of the modern Turkish Republic sought to create a nation loosely within the limits of the former empire. Atatürk defined the modern Turk not through a shared past and history but rather through the deliberate framing of Turkishness as a belonging through legal citizenship and national identity. This new Turkish identity superseded any ethnic or religious divergence from the ideal Turkish nation, one of forward-looking secularism with strong affinity to the West, as articulated by Atatürk. The desire to become ‘Western’ and ‘modern’ exposes a fetishization of Western institutional and economic practices in the nationalist imagination of the early Turkish Republic, manifesting in largescale projects of regional development such as the GAP. Despite Turkey’s attempts to reform and its showcasing of technological prowess alongside the drive to rapidly modernize itself, EU accension has remained out of reach. The Europeanization of Turkey has taken a sharp turn since Erdogan and the AKP government have risen to political prominence. Rather than appeal to appeal to Western leaders, Erdogan has turned inward. In the wake of a weakening Turkish lira, stiffled economy, and diminishing geopolitical value to the West following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Turkish president seeks to garner political support from a populist and conservative Sunni base both domestically and internationally. Turkey’s long tradition of secularization to appease Europe has become replaced by the emergence of religious rhetoric and revival of Ottoman symbolism across social and political discourse at the national level.

Erdogan’s ambitions were made apparent most recently by the Turkish invasion of Kurdish enclaves in northern Iraq (KRG) and Syria (AANES) as he declared the military and its Sunni militia allies “the armies of Mohammed”. Dams play an increasingly important role in Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions as the damming of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers threaten the already water-stricken Shiite governed nations of Iraq, Syria, and Iran who rely on water sources whose flow originiates in Turkey. For many Kurds across the region, this turn towards a conservative Islam  further renders the regions they inhabit as culturally and politically othered and targeted by displacement efforts.

From Red to Green:  Radical Resistance to the State 
As the effects of global climate change become increasingly felt,  political discourse orients itself around transitions to sustainable energy systems. Critically examining the ties between infrastructural development and social injustice becomes all the more important. Sustainable public works lie at the heart of Erdogan’s Hedef 2023, the AKP’s proposed vision for Turkey’s centennial anniversary. This speculative future laid out by the AKP government promises rapid developments in wind, geothermal, and nuclear energies. Turkey’s political shift towards a hardline Islamic stance, representative of a regional rise in  fundamentalist and populist political movements, risk inscribing a politics of injustice into regional green energy development. This point is echoed in Turkey’s own government press releases pointing to the successful carbon offsetting affiliated with its dam projects, while no mention of displacement or ecological devastation is made apparent. Alternatively, domestic and international Kurdish political groups have abandoned the separatist aspirations championed throughout the 20th Century in favor of a green activism, drawing attention to the ecological impacts of state projects and emphasizing the Kurdish cultural affiliation to the natural world. Returning to the Alevi Kurds of the Munzur Valley, political discourse has shifted from a historically Marxist struggle against the forces of capitalism and western imperialism to that of an environmental struggle, albeit against the same foes, only this time to protect land and culture. Militant political groups in the region, such as the PKK and TIKKO, launched a systemic campaign of guerrilla sabotage against dam construction, heralding their attacks as acts of environmental and cultural protection. A senior member of the PKK surmised the actions against dams as actions to preserve the Kurdish identity:

“They want to own the root of civilization. Dams are one of the methods to destroy the Kurdish history and culture. They use it to flood archeology, to divide communities, and to make us leave our mountains.
The people get forced to live a modern life and forget their roots. They divided us over the countries when they drew their borders, and they want to divide us through those dams as well.”

Following the completion of the Uzunçayır Dam, protests broke out across the region culminating in a 20,000-person march as part of the “Campaign to Save Munzur”. The event became Turkey’s largest ever political action predicated on environmental issues. Continued protests across Dersim culminated in the international recognition of the struggle of Turkey’s Alevi Kurds. In 2014, through the efforts of Alevi activists, scholars, and lawyers, Turkish high courts shocked the region by ruling against the AKP and declaring the development of the Munzur River Valley against Turkish law, an order that postponed the building of several dams around the national park region. Similarly, the construction of the Illisu Dam was contested globally, spearheaded by a coalition of Turkish Left and Kurdish political parties, trade unions, and international NGOs, through the “Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive”. As Turkey’s dam projects multiply, so too do the protests against them, representing a growing schism in the social productions of nature and the national imaginatoins of Turkey’s Kurds and the state. While one group imbues the non-human world with sacredness, the other positions it as a resource to be exploited. Such complexity highlights the intricate development of climate activism in the context of already existing historical social movements, a point worthy of deeper examination. 

The father of the modern Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, sought to shape a secular and Westernized nation from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Ataürk’s imagined Turkish identity would crystalize around the concrete edifices of massive dam projects, representative of the technological prowess and strength of the new Turkish state. The quest for rapid modernization and development, Atatürk hoped, would simultaneously concretize state sovereignty In the hinterlands and create a unified Turkish national identity. Infrastructural development, however, came on the heels of violent and forced assimilation of the nation’s religious and ethnic minority groups. Dam building quickly became a means to displace rebellious or anachronistic populations and sever cultural ties rooted in a particular geographic place. Turkey’s GAP project, which proposed the construction of dozens of dams and hydroelectric power plants across the Kurdish-majority Southeastern Anatolia Region, exemplifies the state’s program of dispossession through rural development. This work examined the cultural and geographical erasure associated with two dams under the jurisdiction of the GAP, the Uzunçayır Dam on the Munzur River and the Illisu Dam on the Tigris River. The construction of these dams has displaced an estimated hundreds of thousands of residents, destroyed hundreds of villages, and flooded spiritual and cultural heritage sites tied to Kurdish culture. Dam building in the Anatolia region remains monetarily, spatially, and socially costly while projected agricultiral and economic benefits rarely justify the projects. The question remains, why does the Turkish government continue to advocate and sponors dam projects in the region? While GAP has been historically linked to the Kemalist desire of ‘Turkifying’ Kurdish populations, its recent intensification under the AKP government echoes the neo-Ottoman aspirations of ‘Sunnification’ as illustrated by the specific targeting of sacred cultural places. In this sense, GAP can be situated In the broader ambitions of the AKP government to abandon Ataturk’s wish for a Westernized and secular nation and, instead, position the nation at the head of the Sunni Muslim world. Marginalized groups, particularly the nation’s Kurdish minority have responded to the forced cultural assimilation at the heart of projects such as the GAP by allying their plight with the global environmental justice movement, highlighting the environmental and ecological degradation of such development initiatives.

Dillon Foster