Ecological destruction in Turkey and Northern Kurdistan

Turkey as a state is experiencing a multidimensional crisis, caused mainly by authoritarian-dictatorial governance. In the crisis, which has been deepening since 2018, the state is doing everything it can to increase investments of all kinds through agreements, benefits, incentives and sell-offs. Like ruthless privatisation, loss of actual wages and low interest rates, more investment should help to overcome the crisis as quickly as possible with as little economic and political damage as possible. In this context, investments in dams/hydroelectric power plants, canal projects, mining, coal and nuclear power stations, road and bridge construction, railway line extension, pipelines, tourism facilities, airports, shopping centres and large residential areas play a key role.

These investments are usually made with foreign capital and/or foreign loans. This is because neither the state nor domestic private companies have sufficient capital for this large projects. The latter have debts of around 450 billion euros with foreign banks, which they can hardly repay – they can only survive if the state takes actively over the debts. International companies with a lot of capital know how to exploit the situation with the active support of their own governments. German companies play a not insignificant role here. Just think of the news from September 2018, when it emerged after a visit by the Turkish president to the Federal Republic of Germany that the planned expansion of the rail network and infrastructure in Turkey is to be implemented by a consortium led by Siemens, involving investments of around 35 billion euros. In Germany, intensified efforts to increase the number of tourists in Turkey are to be pursued.

Increasing and usually unnecessary investments naturally mean increasing social and ecological destruction. In a dictatorial state such as the Republic of Turkey, which has the potential for open fascism and where the weak social and environmental criteria are increasingly being dismantled, rapidly advancing investments lead to extreme destruction of nature and people. Moreover, existing regulations and laws are deliberately not respected if they stand in the way of the respective investment.

For many decades, many people in Turkey have been displaced by investments of various kinds, forced into poverty, deprived of their basic human rights and ecosystems being destroyed one by one. According to official figures, more than half a million people have been displaced by dams alone. However, with the extremely neo-liberal AKP government from 2002 onwards, this has reached unprecedented dimensions.

The resistance against it increased in parallel and several major struggles for the defence of the country and life were fought. Unfortunately, too few of them were successful, which was also due to an elitist approach by the activists, the lack of a pooling of the already limited capacities and the lack of a jointly developed strategy, as well as the inability to impact seriously the public opinion. This became apparent when the Ilısu dam was stopped in 2009 and during the Gezi protests in 2013. Years later the resistance started to learn something.

Nowadays, almost all rivers are dammed or dried out and almost all wetlands have dried out. The groundwater level in Central Anatolia, the Aegean and Mediterranean region and Northern Kurdistan has dropped hundreds of metres. Dozens of coal-fired power stations are dramatically poisoning their surroundings, almost all important forests have been degenerated by road construction and mining. Industrial agriculture has poisoned many millions of hectares of land, biodiversity is rapidly declining, urbanization is extremely advanced, new dangers from fracking and nuclear power plants are becoming increasingly real. … The list could go on for a long time. With the exploitation of nature, the exploitation of people has deepened.

Some of the resistance against the destructive investment projects has played an important role since the end of the 1990s for the fighting and critical people on the ground and throughout the state. For example there are the farmers of Bergama, Hasankeyf (Kurdish: Heskîf), Munzur and the nuclear power plant Akkuyu. 2019 was a year in which the resistance against destructive projects was perceived by the general public as it has not been for a long time – this was also due to the success of the left-wing and social democratic opposition in the local elections in March 2019. Among them, the Ilısu project in Northern Kurdistan and the Alamos mining project in the Ida (Turkish: Kaz) mountains near Çanakkale in the Marmara region were the most important. For months, even liberal media reported intensively about it. In December 2019, a new project that had almost been forgotten came on the agenda: the Istanbul Canal. Since then, it has been a permanent topic in Istanbul and in Turkish politics. These three projects of the Turkish state are exemplary for the political, economic and ecological situation in Turkey and in Northern Kurdistan. They show with which means and how far the Turkish state goes to realize investments at any price.

The battle for Hasankeyf and the Tigris

Since July 2019, the highly controversial mega-dam Ilısu has been damming the Tigris River in Northern Kurdistan. The growing reservoir has reached the 12,000 year old ancient village Hasankeyf in January 2020 and is expected to bury it under water in the next weeks and months – if it should not be prevented.

At this point we do not want to repeat in detail how valuable the threatened upper Tigristal is. Globally, Upper Mesopotamia is an extremely important region where the first humans settled and which has hardly been studied to date. At least 24 cultures left their traces here. From an ecological point of view, it is one of the last remaining intact river basins in the Middle East. For the Kurds as well as the Arabs living in Hasankeyf Ilısu means stricter assimilation and control of the population by the Turkish state. From a social point of view, it is a catastrophe to forcibly displace tens of thousands of people and force them into the poverty of the cities. The displacement of tens of thousands of people will continue all the way to the Mesopotamian Marshes in southern Iraq, where the water would be dug up. From a geopolitical perspective, the potential for conflict between states and other political actors in Mesopotamia would increase. The situation is aggravated by the climate crisis with decreasing rainfall since the late 1990s.

The struggle to defend Hasankeyf and the Tigris Valley, which has lasted over twenty years, has often mobilized thousands of people along the Tigris, influenced millions of people and is an important issue in mobilizing people for an ecological society. The Mesopotamian ecological movement has also been driven forward by the Ilısu campaign.

After two or three months of relative calm, the latest pictures with the water reservoir arriving in Hasankeyf have moved the public and the media is reporting more again. Due to the invasion of the Turkish state in Rojava in October 2019, it became extremely difficult to organize protests at times. By February 2020, the activists* have regained their composure and are trying to create a critical public and make links to the Istanbul Canal Project. Because the fate of Istanbul also depends on ecological struggles in places like Tigris. A backlash on the Tigris would make the Istanbul Canal project more difficult, if not impossible for the Turkish state.

The fight for the Tigris and Hasankeyf is still not quite decided, we keep trying until the last moment to stop the project and open the gates of the Ilısu dam so that the Tigris flows freely again.

Istanbul Canal – Fall into ecological and climatic chaos

The Istanbul Canal project, which has been the focus of intense discussion for several months, has actually been known since 2011. But it had lacked concrete steps and money. At the end of 2019, the Turkish government announced it in a big fashion again and thus changed the agenda.

The planned canal is intended to connect the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea about forty kilometres west of the Bosporus, and is supposed to make shipping safer, increase the frequency of passage and also bring the state additional financial income. The ecological and social consequences for the sixteen million Istanbul residents and the Marmara region would be extremely catastrophic if the project would actually be implemented.

This is because it would first destroy huge areas of the already heavily decimated Istanbul forest. With the construction of further cities along the canal, practically all of Istanbul’s natural areas would be covered with buildings and the metropolis would grow by three to four million people – Istanbul would be a giant monster. Tens of thousands of people would be displaced and significant agricultural land would be lost. The drinking water supply for eight million Istanbul residents would be at risk because these forest areas are the main drinking water resources. The canal would change ocean circulation to such an extent that even the winds could be affected. The Sea of Marmara could biologically tip over completely and become a sinkhole, as oxygen-poor and dirty water would be brought in from the Black Sea. Even if the canal were to be closed again later, the disaster would be irreparable.

There are several reports that corporations and rich people from the AKP leadership and especially from allied states like Qatar have bought land around the planned canal. This can be seen as a quid pro quo for Qatar’s support and the investment of tens of billions of dollars in Turkey, which should alleviate the economic crisis.

It is a fact that the shipping numbers through the Bosporus have been declining in recent years and the claim of doubling is a deception. The last dangerous tanker accident in the Bosporus was several decades ago. In addition, the passage through the Bosporus is free of charge and therefore hardly anyone would use the new canal.

It is also unknown to what extent the canal works would amplify or bring forward the major earthquake that has been predicted for Istanbul for years. This is another aspect that makes this project so unpredictable and has caused many protests since December. Even now, more than fifty percent of the people in Istanbul reject the canal. But the government insists on it and rapidly the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been approved. A law, which is supposed to officially withdraw any participation of the municipalities in major projects, is on its way, because the newly elected mayor of Istanbul, Imamoğlu (from the opposition Kemalist-social democratic Republican People’s Party CHP), clearly opposes the project from the very beginning and thus makes life difficult for the government.

The resistance against the Istanbul Canal quickly mobilised many people, civil social organisations and also political parties. The conflict will intensify when the government finds international companies to pre-finance and build this twenty billion euro project.

Prospects for the ecological struggles

The forming resistance against the Istanbul Canal can only be successful if it mobilizes many people, NGOs and social movements in Istanbul and throughout the state. It should not be a few and it should not be dependent on the CHP. Mutual solidarity with other ecological and social movements is also essential to strengthen the resistance against the dictatorial ACP-MHP regime. For example, activists in Istanbul should name destructive projects such as Ilısu again and again in order to form a state-wide movement against the increasing ecological destruction. Istanbul is the centre of the state and many millions are watching it.

When fighting against desastrous projects such as Ilısu or the canal, it is important not to give up too early against government construction activities. It is necessary to react quickly, but not rashly. For this, long-term foresight is elementary – this is exactly what has been missing in Turkey and Northern Kurdistan for most of the last two decades. It is never too late for nature and life. The renaturation of waters, forests and biodiversity by us, the people, is largely feasible if the political framework is created by social movements and by political struggle. In this sense, it is not too late for Hasankeyf and the Tigris as well as for the Munzur and the forests in the north of Istanbul.

The ecological struggles have the potential to make an important contribution to weakening the AKP-MHP dictatorship. Ecological destruction is moving millions of people. If it turns into tens of millions, and if there is a good campaign underpinning it, the annulment of the investment projects can set many and hardly imaginable things in motion.

Written by Ercan Ayboga, Mesopotamia Ecology Movement (MEM), first published in Kurdistan-Report in German language

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