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Jun 23, 2016 | 09:30 GMT

7 mins read

Dams Power Turkey's Conflict With the Kurds

In Turkey, Dams Power Ankara's Conflict With the Kurds
(PHILIPP JOHN/Wikimedia Commons)
Forecast Highlights

  • Hydropower projects and dam building will continue to be important components of Turkey's strategy for managing its Kurdish population.
  • As a result, these sites will be the target of protests and attacks by Kurdish militant groups, a risk that could grow as the projects near completion.
  • Though the attacks may delay construction, Kurdish militants are unlikely to significantly damage Turkey's water infrastructure.

Since the start of civilization, rivers have defined the region we now call the Middle East. Mesopotamia, part of the Fertile Crescent situated between the Tigris and Euphrates, was home to many of the great empires of old. But over time these ancient societies rose and fell, and the borders between them blurred. A century ago those borders were redrawn entirely, altered to meet the political objectives of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The boundaries laid down by the West ignored ethnic distribution and geography, contributing to the chaos that would come to define the Middle East for the next 100 years. One of the biggest casualties of that chaos was the Kurdish state.

The Kurds are a people without borders, citizens of many countries if only in name. The largest Kurdish population — some 15 million people — resides in Turkey, where the sizable ethnic minority maintains a complex relationship with the country's rulers. The relationship has been further complicated by the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, wars in which the Kurds and the Turkish government have a stake. As President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cracks down on the country's Kurds to gain support at home for his policies abroad, the region's rivers will be central to his strategy — and Kurdish militants' reprisals.

The Politics of Water Management

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers are vital lifelines for Iraq and Syria, but their headwaters lie in a Turkish region largely populated by Kurds. The Euphrates begins in the eastern Turkish highlands, between Lake Van and the Black Sea. From there, it flows into Syria, where it is joined by two other tributaries originating in Turkey before passing through Iraq and emptying into the Persian Gulf. All told, nearly 90 percent of the Euphrates' water comes from land owned by Turkey, and a well-placed dam in the upper Euphrates Basin could control the bulk of the river's flow.

The Tigris also begins in the mountains of eastern Turkey, briefly entering Syria on its way to Iraq. But unlike its sister river, the Tigris' major tributaries are more geographically dispersed. Turkey controls only 44 percent of the river's flow, which, while still a sizable share, means that water management along the Tigris River is more complicated than on the Euphrates.

Since President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's reign, Turkey has dreamed of harnessing these great rivers for the purposes of power generation and irrigation. The country began building its first dam on the Euphrates in the 1960s, marking the start of an extensive effort by Ankara to manage the nation's vast water resources. By the early 21st century, Turkey had built nearly 600 dams, with over 200 more under construction.

But water management is about more than just producing power and watering crops; it is also about leverage. Ankara uses dams to assist (or control, depending on your perspective) the country's underdeveloped but water-rich southeast, which significantly overlaps with historical Kurdistan. These include the Karakaya Dam, completed in 1988, and the Ataturk Dam, which was finished in 1992 and is one of the largest dams in the world. Both are part of the Southeastern Anatolia Project, which has a stated goal of boosting economic activity in the region by creating jobs and improving quality of life, especially by increasing access to electricity and irrigation. In practice, though, the project has also displaced local communities and risked the destruction of historical and cultural sites, causing some to suggest that Ankara's intention may actually be to subvert the Kurds rather than help them.

Nowhere are these issues more clear than at the Ilisu Dam. Its reservoir, when complete, would flood 80 percent of the ancient town of Hasankeyf, potentially displacing 80,000 residents and covering numerous cultural landmarks with water. Though the dam's construction began a decade ago, European creditors pulled their funding for the project not long afterward, causing delays. Turkey found alternative financing for the dam, however, and it progressed in spite of local and international objections. Even a 2013 ruling by a Diyarbakir administrative court calling for construction to halt did little to dissuade Ankara, and in January, Turkey's parliament passed a law approving the Ilisu hydropower plant. The measure, by default, will require Hasankeyf residents to relocate. Though the reservoir was originally scheduled to have been filled by this year, further delays have pushed back its completion date. As the project winds down, however, opposition to the dam could rise among Kurdish groups.

A Useful but Limited Tool

While the Islamic State has become the Kurds' common enemy in Iraq and Syria, Turkey continues to strike Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) targets in northern Iraq. At home, Erdogan has also become aggressive toward the country's Kurds in an attempt to galvanize nationalist sentiment and expand his political support base. And just as they have for the past 50 years, dams will continue to play a role in the mounting tension as Turkey's government and Kurdish minority seek to exploit them for their own ends.

From Ankara's perspective, dams can be used to constrain the PKK's movements in the country's mountainous east, particularly along Turkey's border with Iraqi Kurdistan. After all, territory covered by water is easier to defend than land, and by separating the Kurdish region's northern and southern halves, Ankara could restrict the activities of Kurdish militants in the area. Unsurprisingly, the government is reportedly planning to build several new dams in Hakkari and Sirnak provinces, though details are scarce.

Of course, as long as Ankara keeps building dams, Kurdish militants will keep attacking them. Attacks on dams have escalated in eastern Turkey over the past few years. Numerous construction workers have been kidnapped, and in 2012, 22 trucks were set on fire at dam sites. All of these incidents were attributed to PKK militants. Then, at the end of 2014, work on the Ilisu Dam stopped for four months after the PKK's armed wing kidnapped two of the project's subcontractors. When construction resumed, the largely non-Kurdish workforce was escorted to the site by military tanks. Similarly, militants have targeted Diyarbakir's Silvan Dam by placing explosives on the roads leading into the site, and security threats in the region have caused construction delays. These types of attacks are unlikely to stop anytime soon: Kurdish separatist groups announced in July 2015 that they will continue to attack hydropower sites.

This is not to exaggerate the dams' role in the conflict, though. While significant, it hardly merits the warnings of "water wars" that tend to crop up when tension runs high. Flare-ups surrounding the transnational rivers are nothing new, and Turkey is unlikely to permanently change the flows of the Tigris or the Euphrates to bleed Kurdish militants in Iraq and Syria dry. The international backlash alone would be enough to deter Ankara, particularly since it could not cut off water to the Kurds without cutting off Iraqi and Syrian residents as well. Militants' options for using the dams to strike back at Ankara will likewise remain limited. Though they might block roads, attack convoys or threaten workers, the chances of lasting, substantial damage to Turkey's water infrastructure are slim.

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