The run-up to GAP
In 1920 the defeated Turkish Sultan Mehmet VI signed the Treaty of Sevres, which lobotomised the Ottoman Empire, a major force since the twelfth century. The Sultan’s abdication in November 1922 established a secular, Europe-oriented republic with a strong role for the military. The new government managed to negotiate a better deal for Turkey in the Lausanne Treaty of 1923: the minorities were not to gain independence, and international control was rescinded.
Post-Ottoman Turkey continued to manifest itself as a regional player. It is historically very well placed at the crossroads between Southeast Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. Turkey has been a long-time member and cornerstone of NATO and was one of the top three recipients of American foreign aid until the war against Iraq in 2003.
Turkey’s development trajectory was state-led and authoritarian. In the 1930s, Atatürk, father of the Republic, envisaged diverting the Euphrates and Tigris to the drier west of Turkey. This plan gave way to a development vision for the Southeast modelled on the Dniepr development plan in the Soviet Union (Mukhtarov 2009). First studies were conducted in the 1960s, leading to concrete river development proposals in 1970.
In the 1970s, the trade balance of all three Euphrates–Tigris riparians tilted from net food exports to net food imports. An aspiration for autarky spurred Turkey’s internal regulation and resource drive: large irrigation schemes could turn the Southeast into a ‘breadbasket’ for the Middle East. Southeast Anatolia is dry (rainfall ranges between 470 and 830 mm) but rich in fertile soils. Irrigation enables the production of summer crops (cotton, maize, sesame, soybean) which so far was impossible in Southeast Anatolia. In all, the irrigation schemes are scheduled to develop a 2-million-hectare area, an area the collective size of the Benelux countries. The Euphrates is not particularly rich in fish, but this sector is also promoted, especially in the Atatürk Dam reservoir.
At the same time, Turkey’s energy import bill skyrocketed due to OPEC’s energy price hike while domestic demand was on the increase. Annual hydroelectricity production from GAP will produce 22 per cent of Turkey’s total energy generation with an installed capacity of 7,476 MW. The Ilısu HEPP project discussed below is a milestone in this hydroelectric ambition.
After evaluating 22 different combinations of four dams of different heights, the Turkish State Hydraulic Works department, Devlet Su Işleri (DSI), presented the Lower Firat plan for the Euphrates in 1970 to bring irrigation and low-cost energy to the surrounding plains between what are now the Keban and Atatürk dams. In 1977, the Lower Firat plan was integrated into a package with all other schemes in these regions, seven hydropower and irrigation schemes on the Euphrates and 6 on the Tigris, by the name of GAP. In 1983 construction of the project’s centrepiece, the Atatürk Dam, started.
Given the large outlay and uncertainties involved, a Turkish-Japanese consortium was commissioned to draw up a GAP Master Plan, which recommended scaling back the GAP to priority projects (Brismar 2002) but continued its radical reorientation towards a regional development project, people-focussed rather than water oriented in scope. The Master Plan sought to lift the region, seen as backward, in terms of education, agricultural practices, gender relations, environmental conditions and participation. By then the GAP scheme had expanded to 22 dam projects (comprising 80 dams) and 19 hydropower schemes involving 66 hydropower stations on both the Euphrates and Tigris,Footnote 3 providing irrigation for 1.9 million ha and investment in health, education, finance and transportation to modernise a traditional agricultural society in a region twice the size of Belgium (Balat 2003).
Despite its progressive reincarnation, the scheme kept inciting domestic and international allegations that the project was neither sustainable nor peaceful. Downstream states complained about the quantitative and qualitative impacts on their water resources, actors in the Kurdish-inhabited region where the dams are planned saw it as a hostile move to integrate the Kurds into Turkey, while (I)NGOs activist academics and journalists worried about the humanitarian, environmental and cultural heritage consequences of flooding dozens of villages.
Downstream fear of floods and droughts
The Turkish state’s hydraulic mission not only impacts on the country’s relations with the Southeast, but also the state of play with downstream neighbours. Both the Euphrates and Tigris rivers have great extremes between their highest and lowest flow levels, bringing risk of both drought and floods. The region is also drought-prone, inviting impoundment of water in dams. Downstream states are normally the first to shield themselves from flooding and develop the flatter valley lands, and Iraq is no exception. Flood control can bring many benefits: regulated water supply, agrarian and industrial development and control of territory. Especially in Iraq, floods have historically brought distress and inspired Great Flood accounts like Gilgamesh as well as the biblical deluge recounted in the book of Genesis. This especially concerns the river Tigris: snowmelt from the Taurus and, via its Zap tributaries, Zagros Mountains add their waters causing often destructive flooding. In ancient Mesopotamia, the spring floods were a source of acute fear each year; in recent times, the 1954 flood ravaged the capital, Baghdad. In response, Iraq built the ar-Ramadi and Sāmarrā’ barrages in the 1950s, to divert the floodwaters into Lake Habbaniyah and the Tharthar depression in central Iraq. Even larger works carried out on the Tigris tributaries Zap and Diyala further tamed the Tigris, though the last major Tigris flood is as recent as 1988.
When midstream Syria started developing the Euphrates, Syria and Iraq just stopped short of a violent clash over water in 1976. The Cold War provided an opportunity for Syria to build its Tabqa Dam between 1966 and 1973 with Soviet support. This reduced the flood risk for Iraq, but also curtailed much-needed irrigation water and silt (and, less welcome, salt). Iraq claimed that the dam’s impoundment adversely affected 3 million Iraqi farmers (Starr and Stoll 1988). As a result, in 1975, armed forces of both countries were mobilised at the border. The Arab League had to mediate.
Ever since Syria and Iraq’s wings of the ruling Ba’ath (‘Renaissance’) party split, relations between the two countries have been notoriously bad, and the 1975 clash was the closest the Euphrates riparians have come to violence over water. However, a common cause against a third party can make enemies temporarily set aside their differences and create a joint front. The GAP mega-project provided the occasion for their joining forces and delivering fierce protests and threat to Turkey each time a dam is announced.
Any upstream latecomer inevitably faces a legitimacy problem as downstreamers will claim prior use (Kibaroğlu 2003). The historic Euphrates flow before Turkey started its project is calculated at 1,000 cubic metres per second (m3/s) at the border with Syria. The downstream Arab states argue that since there are three states sharing the river’s flow, each is entitled to one-third, giving the two Arab states a total of around 667 m3/s (Gruen 2004). Turkey could not agree to that amount, but signed a protocol with Syria in 1987 promising to release an average of 500 m3/s, about half the river flow, across the Turkish–Syrian border, and has not flagrantly defaulted.
Frequently, a GAP-induced 40 per cent reduction in river discharge downstream is predicted for Syria and up to 80 per cent less for Iraq; this latter figure would be a cumulative effect of Turkish and Syrian dam projects (Shapland 1997). But more important than the real impact is the potential to give the water tap a twist in either direction. After all Turkish engineers stopped the Euphrates flow for a month to fill the storage lake for the huge Atatürk Dam, in a year where the flow was low anyway (190 m3/s). The Turks declared the decision final and non-negotiable (Zawahri 2008). The two downstreamers pleaded for dam-lake impoundment without stopping the river, but in 1990 President Özal claimed that the Euphrates–Tigris does not have to be shared because it is a ‘Turkish river’. This way, Turkey resisted internationalisation of the water issue, claiming that the water is safest in Turkish hands. Turkey did honour its obligation to supplement the flow later. The Birecik dam, also on the Euphrates, was filled in another dry period, 1999 until 2001. When 2000 carried an extremely low flow of 75 m3/s, Turkey made endeavours to let through 400 m3 (Brismar 2002).
Active storage in Syrian dams would be too small to contain strategic or unintentional mass releases or mass ‘arrests’ of the Euphrates and Tigris. The Turks, however, are investing great effort into trying to convince others that its actions are taken in good faith and serve the interests of the downstream actors as well. The Tigris is more flood prone than the Euphrates—snowmelt in March can cause torrential flooding in April, the harvest month, which necessitated early diking, canalisation and diversion works in Iraq.Footnote 4 The Turkish dams regulate the hydrological regime, so that they not only cushion the impact of floods and droughts downstream but also improve the timing of the river regime to coincide with downstream agricultural needs (Bilen 2000). Turkey, thus, contributes to a stability of expectations that can be regarded as an international public good—but without conferring with its neighbours.
So far, Turkey has laid relatively limited claim to the Tigris, but the final series of GAP dams will significantly enclose that river, too. The first big dam on the Tigris, Ilısu, 1,810 m long and 135 m high, will have a total storage capacity of just under 10.5 billion cubic metres and an operating capacity of 7.5 billion m3. Normally, that would leave a buffer capacity of 3 billion m3. As the average annual inflow of the Tigris is 15 billion m3, the reservoir will account for half the total annual Tigris flow. Opponents fear that the spare capacity would enable a malevolent Turkish government to arrest the river influx for some additional months, such that, they hold, not a drop of Tigris water would flow into Syria and Iraq (Bosshard 1999).
Not just closing but also suddenly opening the floodgates would be disastrous. There is a historic precedent: in 689 B.C. Sennacherib, the Assyrian dammed the Euphrates upstream from Baghdad, only to destroy it after sufficient water had assembled behind the dam. The sudden flood wave flooded the Mesopotamian capital and won Sennacherib the day. According to a Pentagon statement, Iraq itself used strategic flooding of the Tigris to stop Iranian advances in the 1980s, and indeed, there were fears that the river would be used as a defence against the allied invasion in 2003 (CNN 2003). A dam can even break accidentally: half a million citizens in Mosul and Baghdad found themselves at risk from a flood wave if a fragile Iraqi dam should break at Mosul (Independent, 8 August 2007).
When Syria joined the anti-Saddam coalition in the Gulf War, the two countries officially fell out, but after a 5-day meeting in 1996, the states decided jointly to dispatch threatening letters to companies involved in building the Birecik dam. When the Ilısu Dam, a hydropower and irrigation project 45 km from the Syrian border, and its smaller sister dam, Cizre, were mooted, Syria and Iraq again joined forces sending protest letters to funders. Turkey’s upstream development caused the downstream riparians to be sufficiently ‘realist’ to agree in 1996 on a percentage distribution of whatever Turkey leaves them: 42 per cent for Syria and 58 per cent for Iraq.
Until 2008 the downstream riparians have consistently resisted the building of new Turkish dams and maintained the Euphrates and Tigris are international rivers. Iraq and Syria furthermore claim a breach of international law and riparian water rights. This is not a particularly strong hand, though. With some imagination, a breach of a Turco-Syrian treaty stipulating consultation between riparians could be invoked. The Treaty of Friendship and Good Neighbourliness signed in 1946 by Iraq and Turkey was the first real legal instrument for cooperation. It included a Protocol for the Control of the Waters of the Tigris and Euphrates, and their tributaries. The countries agreed that flood control structures and storage services should be built upstream on Turkish territory, which was the most effective location. The Turks promised to provide daily hydrological and meteorological data concerning floods (Gruen 2000). A Turkish–Iraqi Protocol signed that same year allowed Iraq to construct hydrological infrastructure and meteorological stations along the rivers inside Turkey ‘to prevent downriver flooding and, thus, benefit Iraq’ (El-Fadel et al. 2002). But international law only provides only cold comfort for water plaintiffs: there are no widely shared and enforced principles governing international rivers. Iraq may insist on the international law doctrine of absolute territorial integrity, stipulating that no riparian is allowed to impair the quality and quantity of the water resources flowing within its territory. But Turkey can with equal vigour juxtapose the doctrine of unlimited territorial sovereignty, also known as the Harmon doctrine: each state can treat the water within its boundaries any which way it likes.Footnote 5
Linkage politics and the Kurdish issue
Although Turkish and Arabic groups are also significant in the GAP region, Kurds dominate. Southeast Anatolia is a patchwork quilt of landowners and landless, often groups of nomadic origin which various Ottoman rulers tried to sedentarise with varying success since the seventeenth century. When the dream of independence fell through in the 1920s, the Kurds resisted ‘horizontal integration’ by an assimilative Kemalist republic, staging several uprisings. The republic, in turn, regarded their particularism, but also their aversion to secularism as a threat to Turkish unity. The Turkish Republic was defined as an indivisible, unitary Turkish state in which the Kurds formally existed only as ‘mountain’ or ‘Eastern Turks’ (doğulu). This key plank of the Kemalist scaffolding was enforced in a (recently relaxed) curb on Kurdish identity, language and culture, seeking the cultural homogenisation (Turkification) of an imagined ‘Kurdistan’.
When the resolutely secular Kurdish Workers’ Party arrived on the scene claiming to represent the Kurdish cause in the early 1980s, they did not command an obvious following, but in Leninist fashion, the PKK regarded itself as the uncompromising front guard. In 1984, as construction works for the Atatürk Dam got underway, the PKK staged violent attacks on the dam. Reportedly, 1,100 vehicles and pieces of working machinery were destroyed (Williams 2003). While the PKK did not manage to stop construction, slowing down development inevitably drove up the costs of the project.
Organised along tribal lines (Erhan 1997), Kurdish identity is by no means socially cohesive or culturally unified. But the attacks gave a face to Kurdish aspirations for autonomy. Kurdish parties in Turkish parliament were forced to the denounce PKK, or close down if they did not. The uprising again sparked ruthless response from the Turkish armed forces as well as paramilitary death squads. Both the Turkish Army and the PKK intimidated the villages, the former to smoke out insurgents from villages and forests, the latter to ensure allegiance to their cause.
From the early 1990s, GAP dams officially became an instrument in the ‘fight against terrorism’. State officials argued that ‘terrorists will no longer be able to easily cross from one region to the other due to the dams’. The dam site for Ilısu, for example, is near ‘Hell’s Valley’, famously named for its mountainous corridors used by Kurdish fighters. Opponents therefore claim that the dams seek to block easy passage between Kurdish from the Iraqi and Syrian side; 5,000 Turkish soldiers were reportedly stationed at Ilısu for the period of the construction works (Özok-Gündogan 2005).
Yet, President Özal saw the continuing war and securitisation of hydraulic development as an obstacle to Turkey’s regional ambitions. In 1993 Özal, the PKK and other Kurdish leaders seemed close to coming to an understanding along the lines of a federation, and the PKK called a unilateral ceasefire to end the intifada (Jongerden and Oudshoorn 1997). But after the President passed away, his successor Demirel chose to reinforce the violence against insurgents.
The aspiration for statehood for the Kurdish, dispersed over several countries, makes it an ideal issue for both Turkey and its neighbours to conduct linkage politics. From 1978, Syria used the Kurdish in Syria as a bargaining chip to add force to its water demands. But Turkey could use its upstream position as a bargaining chip, too. When Turkish threats to stop water flows to Syria led to Syrian promises to discontinue their support to the PKK, the resistance movement could use Lebanon’s Biqa’a Valley in Lebanon, then controlled by Syria, as a training ground. In the mid-1990s, Turkey increased its minimum flow pledge to Syria (Daoudy 2009), but Syria wanted more. By 1998, Turkish–Syrian relations came to a head with threats of violence. Syria backed down and handed over Öcalan.
Relations with Iraq on the Kurdish issue show a more complex mix of cooperation and conflict. Before the defeat of Saddam, a key worry for the Turkish state was Iraq’s hegemonic aspirations, especially after his invasion of Kuwait (Aydın 2003). Turkey lent logistic support to the allied invasion of Iraq in 1991 but occasionally needed its neighbour to grant ‘hot pursuit’ of Kurdish separatists on Iraqi territory. Turkey also refused to block Iraq’s river access despite allied requests to do so. It is perhaps indicative of changed basin relations that Turkey no longer allowed its territory to be used as an air base in the 2003 war on Iraq.
New international players in basin politics
Until 1994 conflicts over the Euphrates and Tigris remained within a neat Realist framework of rivalry between states. However, the privatisation in the Turkish water sector has brought new actors into play from outside the securitised sphere, directly or indirectly influencing basin politics: transnational companies (TNCs), and hot on their heels, INGOs see Table 2 below. The latter’s campaign over human rights and cultural heritage in dam site areas added to the opposition from co-riparians targeted the Achilles heel of a project of this size and scale: funding (Table 2).
Finding external money for GAP has proved problematic for the Turkish government from the start. Although the World Bank formally decided not to fund GAP projects in 1984, the Turkish government apparently never even formally applied for Bank backing, sensing the Bank would show itself highly sensitive to protestations on the part of co-riparians Syria and Iraq.
An inflation-ridden economy groaned under the development effort, coupled with the cost of military engagement with the PKK. The lack of multilateral cooperation made itself felt in ever more painful ways when in the early nineties projects started to fall behind schedule and GAP began to look like the famed ‘white elephant’: the costly development project that never materialises. The GAP, however, could gather steam due to a radical institutional move: privatisation. As early as in 1987, the Izmit dam ran out of funds. Izmit, located close to Turkey’s capital metropolis, Istanbul, was to provide water for homes and industry. At the instigation of President Özal, a private consortium was created, Izmit Su, to complete the works (dam, storage lake, sewage works and water utility). Thames Water was contracted under a Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT) scheme to run the utility for 15 years before returning it to the municipality of Izmit.
While private investment was possible under the 1984 Build-Operate-Transfer law, the required legislative framework and infrastructure simply were not in place.Footnote 6 A privatisation law, opposed by the secular and religious right, was pushed through Parliament in November 1994 by Prime Minister Ciller. As a result, the Izmit project was ready to go onstream 10 years after its abortive start.
Faced with an acute shortage of project funds for the remainder of the GAP project, Turkey needed to co-opt the global jet stream of liberalisation and privatisation in the water sector. While Turkey needed to project a vision of GAP bringing mutual hydraulic benefit to an international audience, if only to secure the flow of funds, privatisation presaged a heated internationalised dispute over the Izmit, Birecik and, most intensely, Ilısu Dam, the first major Turkish dam on the Tigris. Privatisation not only exposed donors and guarantors to public scrutiny, it also ran up against activist (I)NGO strategy calling foreign companies account for their corporate governance practice. Their conclusions were supported by the Government Audit Department, Sayistay, in 1999–2000, who issued a detailed report saying that, from beginning to end, ‘the project was full of violations of laws’. In 2002, after the contract expired, the Turkish Court of Accounts found irregularities in the contract that made the water too expensive (cited in Munir 2004).
For construction companies, the projects do not just provide opportunity but much-needed economic security in a highly competitive market. However, participation in GAP also carried considerable economic and political risk: investing in a controversial project in a country that was effectively still at war with itself. As international companies were loath to carry the risk themselves, the contractors sought to alleviate it by securing export credits from the export credit agencies (ECAs) of Austria, Germany, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States and the UK in Summer 1998. Export credits were especially needed to secure the participation of the British construction company Balfour Beatty, approached by the Swiss-Swedish construction giant ABB (Asea Brown Boveri) to subcontract the civil engineering works while ABB itself took care of the electrical engineering. Sulzer Escher Wyss would lead the construction consortium to realise the dam, the reservoir and hydropower station. Other enterprises involved in the original Ilısu consortium were Impreglio (Italy), Skanska (Sweden) and the Turkish companies Nurol, Kiska and Tekfen.
The international private involvement in Ilısu exposed the companies and their governmental backers to angry Syrian letters and writs against foreign investors and constructors involved in GAP. Syria repeatedly claimed that Turkish interventions damaged Syrian agriculture and water supply. When Ilısu was approved, Syria filed compensation claims from constructing and funding companies, including Chase Manhattan Bank, and threatened to blacklist them until a trilateral agreement was signed.
While such downstream resistance greets the start of any new Turkish dam project, the guaranteeing governments had not counted on the GAP uniting Syria and Iraq (Gulf War adversaries) and (I)NGOs in an alliance of convenience over human rights. This international support for downstream protest was to become a factor in the hydropolitics of the basin.