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Türkiye: Water is used as a weapon against Kurdish people in south-eastern Anatolia

20 June 2023

Over the past decades, the government of Türkiye has sought to implement a plan to modernize south-eastern Anatolia. The plan is called the Southeastern Anatolia Project (Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi, GAP). The main idea is to utilize the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers for the development of hydropower. The government conducted several studies to ascertain how rivers in Türkiye could be utilized to produce energy, especially in the context of existing and potentially growing security issues related to energy shortages. The main objectives of the GAP were to ensure the improvement of people’s living standards and income levels; to eliminate regional economic inequalities, and to enhance productivity in the rural sector. In short, the government of Türkiye argued that the construction of dams on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers represented a large-scale government effort to achieve socio-economic development in south-eastern Anatolia, even though the project caused tensions with Iraq and Syria. Despite international pressure, the government insisted on the construction of 22 hydroelectric power plants.  

The dam threatens valuable biodiversity, and endangers animal and plant species as well as human lives, including through the displacement of local Kurdish communities.

The Ilisu Dam, the second-largest dam in Türkiye, is one of the infrastructure projects built on the Tigris River, close to the border with Iraq and Syria. While all dams in the region aimed to expand irrigable areas and produce hydropower, the Ilisu Dam had a totally different justification, motivation and rationale. Activists have reported that the dam threatens valuable biodiversity, and endangers animal and plant species as well as human lives, for instance through the displacement of local Kurdish communities. More than 78,000 people from the Hasankeyf district of Batman province are being affected by the inundation caused by the water reservoir. In addition, a portion of the 12,000-year-old city of Hasankeyf will be flooded. According to many critics of the project, the government of Türkiye has constructed the Ilisu Dam to defeat the Kurdish insurgency, and to gain influence over Iraq and Syria through its weaponization of water.

The Kurdish-Turkish conflict is an armed conflict between the Republic of Türkiye and the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party), which has demanded an independent Kurdistan for decades, calling for autonomy and greater political and cultural rights for Kurds in Türkiye. Since the 1990s, the government of Türkiye has used the GAP as a weapon in the fight against Kurdish insurgents. The government’s discourse revolves around the idea that the dam will provide economic growth to people in south-east Türkiye, and that economic development will deter local people from joining the Kurdish freedom movement. The government also insisted on the construction of dams to prevent PKK militias from crossing from Iraq to Türkiye or moving freely from one region to another. The official narrative of Turkish authorities has been that the large bodies of water could prevent PKK militias from crossing the border, which would thus deter displaced Kurdish people from joining the Kurdish resistance within Turkish territory. Construction of the Ilisu Dam has also given opportunities to the Turkish government to assimilate Kurds within their ongoing Turkification campaign.  

The government is targeting Kurdish identity through the construction of the dam.

The destruction of the 12,000-year-old city of Hasankeyf, an important Kurdish heritage site, would impact the social ties of Kurdish people, cutting them off from their history, memory and sense of cultural belonging. The overall goal of the authorities is to undermine Kurdish cultural rights in order to pursue the homogenization of Kurds, and their assimilation within the long-standing campaign of Turkification. In this way, water has played a significant role in shaping domestic politics, resettling minority communities (mainly Kurds) and subjecting minorities to economic, social and political instability.  

Ridvan Ayhan is a founding member of the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive, founded in 2006. I asked him what water politics mean to Kurdish people in the region. Ayhan spent all his childhood in the historical site of Hasankeyf. Later, he moved with his family to the city centre for economic reasons. He says that he never cut ties with Hasankeyf and remains deeply connected to the ancestral city, visiting it three or four days per week, even though he is living in Batman. He would spend his time in caves and historical sites. Ayhan has struggled for almost 25 years to keep Hasankeyf alive.

Many local and some international organizations have supported Ayhan’s Initiative. Ayhan and his team have conducted several awareness-raising campaigns in Türkiye and abroad. The Initiative has campaigned to stop existing hydropower projects and for energy-generating alternatives to be identified that can improve the socio-economic situation of local people while protecting their cultural heritage and the environment. Ayhan was arrested in 2012 and imprisoned for four and a half years for his involvement in the Hasankeyf campaign.

Kurdish youths visit the abandoned houses of the small ancient town of Hasankeyf, Batman Province, Türkiye. Credit: Bülent Kılıç /AFP via Getty Images.

According to Ayhan, the government is targeting Kurdish identity through the construction of the dam. It also intends to exert pressure on Iraq through transboundary water management. Ayhan thinks the Turkish authorities will use water as leverage if the Iraqi government prevents the Turkish military from conducting operations against Kurdish forces in Iraq. In short, the dam has allowed the Turkish government to exert control over Iraq while displacing organized Kurds to other parts of the country. Approximately 80,000–100,000 Kurds have already been displaced and forced to move to suburbs in nearby cities as a result of the Ilisu Dam. Displaced Kurds do not generally have immediate access to livelihood opportunities. . Because the displaced Kurdish populations relied on agriculture and livestock, displacement has meant that they have no means to recover from the economic impact or find alternative means of survival. Displacement has caused further cultural and social issues for the Kurds. Kurds who were forced to migrate cannot observe their cultural practices. Some displaced Kurds moved to western parts of Türkiye, where they could not easily continue practising their language due to local pressure, stigmatization, marginalization and oppression from majority sectors of Turkish society.

Portrait of Ridvan Ayhan. Credit: Eylül Deniz Yaşar

To conclude, it seems that water is a critical resource that will continue to shape the geopolitics of several countries in the region, affecting minority communities in direct and serious ways. In this part of Türkiye, Kurdish minority communities are victimized by water-related geopolitics. More advocacy is urgently needed to bring attention to the issue.

Photo: The ‘new’ Hasankey is so depopulated that most of the town looks like an abandoned ghost town. Credit: Eylül Deniz Yaşar.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >


Mahmut Sansarkan