Turkey to move ahead on hydro project

By PENNY YOUNG

ANKARA, Sept. 23, 2000à‚–Turkey insists it still plans to go ahead with its $2 billion hydroelectric Ilisu dam project on the River Tigris in the south east of the country, despite international criticism. Critics say the project would cause environmental pollution and could lead to war with Syria and Iraq.

Ilisu, together with the associated Cizre dam further down stream, would be two of the final pieces in the massive jigsaw puzzle of Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolian water project, known as GAP. The project was launched in the 1970s with the aim of building 22 dams and 19 hydro-electric power plants on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers at a total cost of $32 billion.

The project to build the Ilisu dam has come under the international spotlight. In December last year, the British Labour government declared itself in favour of supporting Britain’s leading civil engineering group, Balfour Beatty, part of the international consortium of companies negotiating with the Turkish government for the Ilisu contract. But the project has been fiercely attacked by some Labour Members of Parliament who say Britain should not be involved in such a scheme. Britain’s Export Credits Guarantee Department recently announced a radical restructuring of the way it supports international projects and says Ilisu will be a test case.

The Turks say they are bewildered about the ripples the construction plan is creating. “I am surprised because the GAP project was formulated in 1977,” says Kaya Yasinok, a vice president of GAP. “Since then, we have implemented much of the project and suddenly when the Ilisu dam comes into the picture, there is opposition.”

The Ilisu dam would be the second largest in GAP after the huge Ataturk Dam, built on the Euphrates and the fifth largest dam in the world. Ilisu would generate an annual 1200 MW of electricity. However, the reservoir would flood nearly 300 square kilometres inundating dozens of villages and displacing around 20,000 people. The historic town of Hasankeyf south east of the town of Batman would also largely disappear beneath the water (see THE November 1998).

Few outsiders have visited Hasankeyf it has been practically inaccessible over the past decade or so because of the vicious Turkish/Kurdish war in the area. The ruined town, which boasts monumental medieval Selcuk remains, has been described as one of Turkey’s major archaeological treasures. Professor Olus Arik from Ankara University, who is leading the archaeological dig to uncover as much as possible before inundation says that although Turkey has many wonderful sites, Hasankeyf is “unique.”

The critics of Ilisu say the project will not only destroy some of the country’s priceless heritage but will also cause environmental pollution, infringe on the human rights of people living in the area, mainly ethnic Kurds, and at worst cause war with Syria and Iraq downstream.

The Turks insist that Ilisu is a vital element in its thrust to generate badly-needed electricity. The country is suffering from a major shortage of power. Its consumption of electricity is only 15 percent that of western Europe and the US. Turkey says it needs two new power stations the size of Ilisu every year for the next 10 years to help meet the growth in demand. It accepts that question marks now hang over the environmental impact of massive damming projects–the U.S. for example has even been dismantling some of the dams it built in the 1950s because it wants to reverse the environmental damage they caused. But Mumtaz Turfan, Deputy Director General of Turkey’s State Hydraulic Works which will build Ilisu, says Turkey is still a developing country which cannot afford to behave as the richer western countries do.

“We are not Americans, we are Turks,” he said. “We are trying to develop as quickly as possible. Our gross national product per capita is about $3,100. You cannot compare our country with the Americans and the Europeans.”

Turkey recently announced that four power plants would go ahead under the build-own-operate model (BOO). Three are to be powered by gas, the fourth by coal. But Mr. Turfan says Turkey must make use of its own natural resources.

“We have the advantage of hydropower,” he said. “It is a renewable source and it is the best project as far as the environment is concerned.”

Balfour Beatty, the lead civil engineering contractor in the international consortium negotiating to build Ilisu, agrees. The company stresses that hydro-power is renewable and non-polluting and Ilisu would save the three million tonnes of carbon dioxide that an equivalent thermal power station would emit each year.

This has not stopped the project from coming under fierce attack. One of the major concerns is Turkey’s resettlement plans for the people displaced by the inundation. Turkey admits the way people were moved away from GAP dams in the past was a disaster, although a new participatory approach for resettlement after the Birecik dam on the Euphrates was completed has been hailed as a success by the Turks. They say they want to implement a similar but improved scheme for lisu.

Nigel Sloan, Balfour Beatty’s export finance manager, says the consortium has agreed a common line on environmental issues. Four areas of concern have been identified which include resettlement, the impact on Syria and Iraq, pollution and archaeological rescue. Turkey has been asked for detailed plans on tackling all issues.

“The onus now lies with the Turkish authorities,” said Mr. Sloan. “They know what needs to be done. They are working hard at it.”

The consortium is led by the Swiss company Sulzer Hydro. Other partners include ABB of Switzerland, Impregilo of Italy, Skanska of Sweden and three Turkish construction companies. Commercial negotiations are still continuing and the contract has not yet been officially awarded. But it is hoped to have the agreements in place by the end of the year and Turkey hopes to start construction next year with the dam in place by around 2008.

Balfour Beatty says the concern over Ilusu reflects a new attitude to foreign contracts and environmental issues.

“I think we are moving into an era where export credit agencies are having to change from their traditional fairly narrow focus to look much more widely at the effect of the projects that they carry out,” he said.

Nigel Sloan says the export credit agencies have agreed to act together although he could not comment on how they would react if the British government decided not to support Ilisu. A British decision is expected in the autumn.

The Turkish government says if Balfour Beatty dropped out, it would find a replacement, but it hopes this will not be necessary.

“We hope that we will come to a reasonable conclusion with the joint venture that will satisfy both sides,” said Mumtaz Turfan of the State Hydraulics Works.

Copyright International Communications Sep 2000

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