BY GAREN YEGPARIAN
Turkey’s on a dam binge, again. Building that is. It seems 22 more are slated to be built.
So, why write about this? Many of the rivers being stopped up rise in the Armenian Highlands, hence they are of interest and concern to all Armenians. But, this damming operation has more sinister objectives.
While the developed world has come to its senses, realizing that dams are problems, too, not always solutions, and started to tear down many of them, Turkey is going in the opposite direction, despite its significant economic advancement. Why?
Dam building has been a big deal for Turkey, and may even have been reasonable at one point in time, but only up to a point. Everyone was on a damming binge in the 1950s when Turkey initiated its dam building programs. Irrigation and hydropower were and are legitimate concerns. For the Turks, those were not the exclusive drivers of what included some huge water projects.
Ankara had a misguided notion about building dams in what is really Armenia or neighboring Kurdistan. The Turkish government, steeped in its racist Kemalist ideology, thought that Kurds could be Turkified through “modernization” of what is referred to as southeastern Turkey. The idea was to provide irrigation to boost agriculture as a means of economic development which would lead to more satisfied citizens and their ultimate Turkification. Of course the drowning, destruction, and dislocation of Kurdish villages and settlements with lakes created by dams was (at least) a fringe benefit in pan-Turkist eyes.
There is also an international component to this whole dam scheme. The sentiment in Turkey was perhaps best captured by then-President Turgut Ozal’s remark: “We don’t tell Arabs what to do with their oil, so we don’t accept any suggestion from them about what to do with our water.” But what, you might wonder, do Arabs have to do with dams in Turkey? And who said it was exclusively “there” water? Just think of the complex water sharing arrangement for the Colorado River among seven U.S. states and Mexico!
The quickest of glances at a map makes things painfully obvious. A lot of the water in the streams and rivers that flow from the heights of our homeland ends up routed to Syria and Iraq, much of it through the Tigris and Euphrates. The once-fertile crescent of ancient times, the cradle of civilization, is no longer so verdant. Not only have mis- and over-use of water, human-induced climate change, and slower climatic shifts taken their toll, but Turkey’s hoarding of the Armenian Plateau’s water and using it for political leverage have wrought havoc.
War has almost erupted a few times when Turkey was filling up the reservoirs behind its dams or trying to pry concessions from its southerly neighbors. The Syrians even shot down a Turkish plane that was supposedly being used for surveying. The Turks used their water-leverage over Syria most extensively to coerce the latter to lessen or stop its support for (or turning a blind eye to) PKK activities based in the northern part of the country.
But nature is not something to be toyed with. Periodic extreme (artificial) drought downriver causes more than just temporary aberrations and disruption. People in agriculture lose their livelihoods. They move to cities or are otherwise displaced and become increasingly aggrieved. This leads to societal disruption and sometimes even worse.
Turkey is at least partially guilty, though its dam/water policies for the three Ds: desertification, destabilization, and Daeshification in Iraq and Syria. You have no doubt read by now that a major contributing factor to Syria’s destabilization was the drought and its impact on agriculture that the country experienced in the years prior to the “Arab Spring” uprising.
But this latest round of planned dam building isn’t even intended for nominally societally “beneficial” purposes. Many of these dams are planned in a “line” along Turkey’s southern border, from where much of the population has moved out precisely because of Turkey’s depopulation and anti-PKK actions. So these new reservoirs of water won’t be irrigating anyone’s gardens or fields. Rather, they are intended as barriers, making PKK infiltration from Iraq and Syria more difficult.
Of course these newly created bodies of water will exacerbate all the ill effects their predecessors had on the lands to their south: disruption of natural flows, diplomatically or politically motivated disruption of water supplies, evaporative losses that lead to net less available water, potential seismic impacts (especially since large reservoirs have already been created by other dams) in a part of the planet with much earthquake activity, impact on fish (an important local food source) because of increased salinity, and to the extent that any of the water is used in agriculture – the same salination of the soil experienced in other parts of Turkey.
And, as if all this wasn’t enough, the further desertification of Iraq, especially in the southern part of the country is worsening the dust storms experienced in the area. And, here’s the kicker, those dust storms are blowing all the way into Iran’s Khuzestan province, thereby dragging in one more country as in interested/impacted party to Turkey’s dirty water wars.
The only hint of good news is that some European countries have stopped funding Turkey’s dam projects precisely because Ankara has avoided committing to multilateral, binding, water use/sharing agreements with its neighbors.
Water being so fundamental a need could motivate these three countries to support Armenian claims against Turkey, so let’s use our Diasporan and state diplomatic resources to cultivate these governments interest in a water solution.