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TURKEY: Dam Will Destroy Kurdish Culture, Say Critics

Bloomberg
August 16th, 2000

A Kurdish human rights lawyer is spearheading an international campaign to block the Turkish government's efforts to build a dam he says will dislodge thousands of Kurds and destroy archeological artifacts. Kerim Yildiz, the London-based executive director of the Kurdish Human Rights Project, is in Washington this week pressing the U.S. Export-Import Bank to reject a loan guarantee for a 1,200-megawatt power plant that will be built with the dam.

''If anyone supports this dam it will contribute to the violation of human rights and international law,'' said Yildiz, who is backed by several U.K. Parliament members and environmental groups like Friends of the Earth, among others. ''It will destroy Kurdish history and culture.''

The Ex-Im Bank last year gave preliminary approval for a $100 million loan guarantee to Balfour Beatty Plc, a U.K. construction and engineering services company that's part of a group aiming to build the dam. The group is seeking a total of $850 million from credit agencies in Western Europe and North America. The guarantee would help Balfour Beatty purchase equipment from U.S. suppliers like Illinois-based Caterpillar Inc.

Yet Yildiz and others opposed to the project say it shouldn't go forward because the Kurds who would be affected are locked in a 15-year conflict with the Turkish government and are unable to voice opposition to the plan. Yildiz also says the project could run afoul of a law requiring that countries downstream from dams approve of their construction.

Diversification

The dispute comes at a time when Turkey is trying to diversify its energy sources to meet increasing demand for power. Building the plant would require constructing a dam and reservoir on the Tigris river, about 37 miles upstream from Turkey's borders with Syria and Iraq, which also have Kurdish communities. Syria says Turkey hasn't discussed its plans to build the project, according to a letter from the Syrian foreign ministry to Friends of the Earth that was released by the group. Turkey's obligation to consult with its neighbor is ''stipulated by the rules of international law,'' the letter read.

Yildiz's human rights group has won 17 cases against Turkey at the European Court for Human Rights and will file a new one objecting to the dam if the government builds it. According to the group, the Ilisu project will flood 52 villages and 15 small towns, including Hasankeyf, the region's only surviving city built during the Middle Ages.

''The Turkish government has been taking and will take all necessary measures to save the ruins,'' said Namik Tan, a spokesman for the Turkish embassy in Washington. ''We have invested so much money to restore and preserve our sites.''

'Useful Meeting'

James Mahoney, the Ex-Im Bank's vice president for engineering and environment, met today with Yildiz and representatives from environmental groups to discuss the project. ''It was a useful meeting,'' said Marsha Berry, a spokeswoman for the bank. ''There are some shared concerns.''

Yildiz and a group of environmentalists also met with Harold Koh, assistant secretary of State for democracy and human rights. The State Department finds conditions in southeastern Turkey, where the dam would be built ''a serious concern,'' with officials engaging in torture of civilians, according to the most recent edition of the U.S. government's annual human rights report.

The corporate group, led by Switzerland's Sulzer Hydro, a unit of Sulzer AG, is waiting for consultants to submit an environmental impact statement that specifies conditions the government must meet before the project can proceed, said Tim Sharp, a spokesman for Balfour Beatty.

The Ex-Im Bank and credit agencies in seven other countries will decide whether to back the project based on how Turkey addresses the environmental and human rights concerns raised by the consultants. If they deny financing, the project probably won't be carried out, Sharp said. ''It's difficult for us to be involved in political disputes between Turks and Kurds,'' Sharp said. ''We don't have enough knowledge.''





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