ISTANBUL, Turkey, March 23 (UPI) -- The Fifth World Water Forum ended Sunday, wrapping up a full week of dozens of meetings among governments, private businesses and non-governmental organizations. The breadth of the range of panels has been both global and impressive, but one aspect of the gathering that is bound to grow in future years is the presence and influence of environmental and green parties. While the booths of such groups at the World Wildlife Fund are modest, they sit uneasily next to those of the multinational companies and energy concerns, and in at a time of the growing influence of the Internet, their visibility can only increase, even if they lack access to more traditional media outlets.
In the struggle to balance national needs against environmental and public concerns, the forum's host country, Turkey, has a project that has already attracted protests outside the Sutluce conference center and leafleting within. In stark contrast to the glossy media publications strewn across tables in the press center, a small brochure stands out, adorned with a picture of a minaret arising in an arid landscape. Its title is simple: "Stop Ilisu Dam."
The 1,200-megawatt, $2.7 billion Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River is part of Turkey's ambitious, three-decade-old Southeastern Anatolia Project, known by the Turkish acronym GAP. The project was begun in 1977 and designed to bring water to southeastern Anatolia, the country's poorest region. Turkey's General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works is overseeing the project.
Opponents of the project argue that it will displace and impoverish up to 78,000 local inhabitants and flood many ancient and unique sites of Mesopotamian civilization, including the historic town of Hasankeyf, which archaeologists estimate to be 10,000 years old. Ankara counters that it is taking all measures to survey and excavate historic sites and that the project is needed to lift the region out of dire poverty by providing both power and irrigation water to the region.
A further element is political. Southeastern Anatolia is home to most of Turkey's Kurds and has historically been the country's most impoverished region. Ilisu Dam and other GAP projects are seen by the government as an important element in their "hearts and minds" campaign to wean local Kurds from giving support to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. The Turkish government for decades has been battling the PKK's guerrillas, who frequently carry out terrorist attacks in cities across the country, including Ankara and Istanbul. Not unreasonably, Ankara believes that a rising standard of living could weaken support among the local populace for the PKK.
Opponents of the Ilisu Dam are focusing their attentions on its weakest point, its foreign funding. In March 2007 Austrian, German and Swiss export credit agencies provisionally extended credit to underwrite a portion of the Ilisu project. As opposition mounted, in March 2008 a German Foreign Trade and Investment Promotion Scheme spokesman reported that Germany's export guarantees for constructing the Ilisu Dam were being subjected to a "critical review."
The action followed the publication of a report by a commission of international experts hired by European governments sponsoring the GAP and Ilisu projects. The report alleged that Ankara failed to fulfill most of the mandated 153 criteria established as prerequisites for the Ilisu project to receive German government-backed export guarantees. Among the criticisms that heartened environmentalists were that the Ilisu project lacked sufficient environmental guarantees and failed to protect Hasankeyf and that filling the dam's reservoir would force the resettlement of nearly 78,000 residents, mostly Kurds, from the affected areas. Turkey's hydraulic-works directorate disputes the allegations and has posted a number of environmental-impact reports about the Ilisu Dam project on its Web site.
Christine Eberlein of the Berne Declaration, a Swiss non-governmental organization, called the project a "fiasco." Decision time for European export credit agency involvement is coming; in July, in the face of mounting criticism, they will make a final decision as to whether to proceed with funding Ilisu.
Whatever funding setbacks may develop over Ilisu and other projects, it seems unlikely that the Turkish government will be deterred from attempting to complete GAP. The project, the price of which is now estimated at $32 billion, includes Ilisu, 21 other dams and 19 hydroelectric plants with a total 7,476-megawatt installed capacity. Aside from the electricity generated for what has remained one of the country's most isolated and poverty-stricken regions, GAP's reservoirs will be used to irrigate more than 6,500 square miles of previously unproductive land, enriching the lives of the more than 9 million inhabitants of southeastern Anatolia by providing food, employment and power.
The Turkish government projects that GAP will directly and indirectly create 3.8 million additional jobs. It is ironic that, after Ankara's decades of battling PKK terrorists, an economic project designed to better their compatriots' living conditions would be stymied by European activists. The reality worldwide is that poverty breeds despair, which in turn breeds extremism.
Archaeological preservation and resettlement are both issues that can be addressed by increased funding. Europe would do well to consider the benefits of supporting Turkish economic initiatives in one of the country's most impoverished regions rather than throwing further fiscal roadblocks in the way of its development, as well-fed, warm and employed people are less inclined toward using violence to ameliorate their conditions. It is a telling sign that my little pamphlet, in listing Web sites to visit for more information, only gives addresses in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, all countries with high standards of living and many well-fed, warm and employed people.