The Great Anatolian Project: Is Water Management a Panacea or Crisis Multiplier for Turkey’s Kurds?August 5, 2013 By Ilektra Tsakalidou
During the Gezi Park protests last month in Istanbul, Turks and Kurds dismissed historical mistrust and banded together against Prime Minister Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism. Some have suggested the newly unifying cause has strengthened momentum for a long-standing solution to Kurdish autonomy and rights in Turkey. Still it may be water that the fate of Kurdish ambitions is most tied to, rather than officials in Ankara or protestors in Istanbul.
The Southeastern Anatolia Project, or Guneydogu Anadolu Projesi (GAP) in Turkish, is one of the largest river basin development projects in the world and the largest single development project carried out by Turkey. It includes 13 irrigation and hydropower schemes, involving the construction of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants on both the Tigris and the Euphrates. Upon completion it is expected to provide up to 25 percent of the country’s electricity.
However, it is also a hotbed of controversy. Turkey’s Kurdish population, which represent 90 percent of the population living in the area affected by the GAP, claims that promised economic and social gains have yet to bear fruit and the GAP is simply another effort by Ankara to subvert their ethnic identity. Meanwhile Syria and Iraq argue they haven’t been consulted on the project, as experts warn that downstream food security and water supplies will be negatively affected by new dams and reservoirs.
Seeds of Discontent
The Tigris and Euphrates river basins have long been vital to Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and the Kurdish people. However, it was Turkey in the 1930s under Kemal Ataturk that first seized the opportunity to develop the potential of the two rivers’ water resources in a major way.
Ataturk’s hope was to better integrate eastern Anatolia into the rest of Turkey and generate economic development through the construction of irrigation projects. This vision began to materialize in the form of the GAP in the 1960s under the leadership of Suleiman Demirel, a well-respected politician and trained engineer. Beyond electricity, the regional development project – expected to be finished in 2015 – is projected to generate up to 200,000 employment opportunities, both during the construction period and following the commissioning of all infrastructure. For the agricultural sector, the GAP is expected to bring two million new hectares of land under irrigation, potentially making Turkey an exporter of agricultural goods. Furthermore, the government is looking to address education and inequality issues, including women and girls’ literacy, with the hope that increased participation in entrepreneurial activities follows – all tremendous boons in one of the most economically under-developed areas of the country.
However, one of the underlying assumptions behind the project was that it would also help resolve the Kurdish issue. Of Turkey’s approximately 72 million people, between 13 and 14.2 million are Kurds, the majority of which live in the south-eastern provinces. As the largest minority ethnic group and due to past government policies denying their unique identity, they have been struggling for more rights and autonomy for decades.
Despite the post-World War I Treaty of Sèvres stipulating that “a scheme of local autonomy should be drafted for the predominantly Kurdish areas lying east of the Euphrates,” after the creation of the modern state, Kemal Ataturk introduced legislation whereby no minority had the right to claim cultural independence. The government developed strict linguistic policies, whereby, until 2001, the use of Kurdish in schools and the media was banned under the pretext that it fostered separatist ideology. The lift of the ban created a platform for debate on identity politics; however, the underlying issues remain unresolved as evidenced by agricultural education programs still being taught in Turkish, not Kurdish.
Slow socio-economic development, inexistent property rights, and feudalistic structures have also exacerbated inequalities, inciting popular discontent along the way. For example, small farmers do not usually own their land but work for an agha, or large landowner, and most of the agha support the central government in Ankara.Worst of all, so far, GAP has not produced the infrastructure, productivity, or security gains that many expected.
The destruction caused by GAP projects, such as the Ilisu dam, further rallies critics against Ankara, as it is seen by some as part of an effort by the government to eliminate Kurdish culture. Historical sites, like the city of Hasankeyf, will be destroyed while resettlement plans, although abiding to international standards, may leave many displaced people without compensation due to the lack of institutional capacity to document land rights.
Worst of all, so far, GAP has not produced the infrastructure, productivity, or security gains that many expected. Parts of the region still lack reliable electricity supply. Agriculture has failed to modernize. Feudalistic land ownership structures have become more entrenched, not less, with large landowners diversifying their holdings and smallholders, predominantly Kurds, still lacking access to credit.
Repressive policies from Ankara, lack of economic opportunities, and corruption incidents involving public officials have in turn created a support base for the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), the largest Kurdish insurgent group in Turkey. Since the early 1980s, the PKK has fought a guerilla war for an independent Kurdistan. In the 1990s, counter-insurgency even bled over into development policy when the government decided to build 11 dams in the Hakkari and Simak provinces in order to prevent PKK fighters from crossing the mountains from Iraq. After the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in Kenya in 1999, the number of violent incidents declined considerably, however the conflict remains at the forefront of regional politics.
Despite the announcement of a ceasefire and planned withdrawal to Iraq for many of the PKK’s fighters in March, southeastern Anatolia and the GAP region continue to be militarized, exacerbating tensions, as on June 28 in Lice when Turkish soldiers reportedly opened fire on Kurdish demonstrators protesting against the building of a gendarmerie post.
A Transnational Challenge
Besides domestic tensions, GAP has also spurred historical enmities with Turkey’s neighbors. Both Iraq and Syria claim that under the Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of Transboundary International Watercourses and agreements by a joint technical committee established in 1980, Turkey should have informed them before developing such a massive project that impacts the Tigris and Euphrates’ waters. They have also raised concerns over reduced flows perhaps leading to soil erosion and increased salination levels in formerly irrigated areas, as was observed after the completion of the Karakaya dam.
Aaron Wolf on transboundary water basins and institutional resilience
Again, the Kurdish presence in the region complicates things. The Kurdish people’s extraterritoriality (there are major populations in Iraq, Iran, and Syria, as well as Turkey) has enabled Turkey’s neighbors to put pressure on the government over GAP. For example, after estimates established that GAP could lead to a 40 percent reduction in water discharges, Syria allowed the PKK to train in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, a stay which ended up lasting 20 years from 1979 to 1999.
Turkey argues that the GAP will benefit the region as a whole – preventing flooding in downstream areas, for example – and that improving Kurdish living standards will limit the base for separatist groups by removing economic grievances and better integrating the region into the broader market. Former Turkish President Turgut Özal – himself of Kurdish descent – actively supported this line of thinking.
However, the government’s securitization of the Kurdish issue has created grounds for mistrust, prompting some to wonder whether Turkey is looking to its own grand political objectives – securing electricity supplies, boosting agricultural exports, assimilating the Kurdish population, etc. – rather than truly looking after its constituents’ needs, as it claims.
Has Development “A La Turque” Failed?
For years, Ankara has tried to harness the Tigris and the Euphrates and bring peace to the area. But the GAP’s challenges show how traditional modernization theory can fail in an area suffering from centuries of socio-economic and identity grievances. Before the GAP is completed in 2015, a new framework is needed to enable southeastern Anatolia to meet its development targets.“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
Equity is of paramount importance. In the short term, the creation of institutions for the provision and documentation of both water and land rights should be considered in order to promote transparency and social inclusion. Once property rights are properly allocated, the resettlement compensation scheme will operate as planned and small farmers will have the funds to start over instead of becoming even more marginalized after losing their land. In the long term, the Turkish government should acknowledge that solving the Kurdish issue entails minimizing the population’s incentives to support separatist groups rather than forcefully consolidating Turkish national identity.
Furthermore, GAP should be reconsidered from a regional perspective. Embattled Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has promised the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (a political offshoot of the PKK in northern Syria) an autonomous administration in return for their support – a move Turkey has protested. The fluidity of the situation calls for prudent action on Turkey’s side in order to mitigate the potential for negative spillovers, mainly new claims for autonomy that might jeopardize the ongoing peace process. At the same time, consideration must be given to a post-Assad development plan. In the context of GAP, introducing a clause for additional provision of water, over the agreed 500 billion cubic meters a day, will both ease tensions between Syria and Turkey and will ensure that inhabitants in the most conflict-affected regions of Syria, near Aleppo, will have the natural resources to start rebuilding their economic base.
Heraclitus once said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” The quote ought to resonate strongly in the ears of decision-makers as it highlights the urgency for change if the completion of GAP is to be met with success. The momentum created during the Gezi Park protests and call for ceasefire from the PKK have created a small window of opportunity to change course and bring a truly equitable, sustainable, and peaceful development to the region – and water is the key.
Ilektra Tsakalidou is a junior analyst on European energy security at the European Union Institute for Security Studies.
Sources: Al-Monitor, Frederick and Erickson (1999), The Guardian, Hurriyet Daily News, International Affairs, Middle East Policy, Ministry of Development (Turkey), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Turkey), The New York Times, Reuters, Society and Natural Resources, Today’s Zaman, Water Alternatives Association.