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Saturday, 22 January, 2000, 00:21 GMT
Turkish dam controversy
Britain's involvement in the construction of a controversial dam in Turkey is once more under scrutiny. BBC World Affairs Correspondent David Shukman travelled to the region in January.

The arguments are bitter, the issues complex but at heart the question is simple: should Turkey build a vast new dam to generate electricity?

The Turkish Government says its plan for the so-called Ilisu Dam, in the mountainous southeast of the country, will be a vital catalyst for development in a neglected region.

A huge international consortium of engineering companies is lined up to start construction.

Tell Tony Blair not to go ahead with this.

Abdul Kusen
Mayor of Hasankeyf

A British engineering company, Balfour Beatty, is one of several international firms involved in the construction plans.

The contractors and the Turkish authorities say this project will be a model of environmental and social care.

They promise that as the dam is built across the valley of the River Tigris, and a deep reservoir builds up behind it, the 15,000-20,000 people who will be forced to move home will be carefully resettled.

Compensation will be offered. The historical monuments and ruins of earlier ages will be documented or even rescued.

And, as for fears that the dam will become an international flashpoint - with the countries downstream, Syria and Iraq - receiving less water, officials pledge that the design of the dam will make it impossible to hold water back, and anyway Turkey would never want to.

The town of Hasankeyf - and the valley - would disappear

Local opinion

With those points in mind, I set out for the region itself to find out how local people are reacting to this plan. It was, after all, a promise of the British Government's that those affected by the dam must be consulted first. The answers I got from them were very clear.
Locals are against the dam
My first destination was Hasankeyf, a small but ancient town perched on the banks of the Tigris. No one knows how long Hasankeyf has been settled.

Some say there is evidence of habitation stretching back 11,000 years. What no one disputes is that the town has seen waves of humanity - the Romans, the Byzantines, the Persians, the Seljuk Turks, the Mongols.

And in the 14th century came the forerunners of the modern-day Kurds. No wonder Kurdish people object to the planned dam so forcefully, calling it yet another attack on their culture.

The town contains some remarkably beautiful relics. Town mayor Abdul Kusen led me along the rocky paths that connect the site of an abandoned mosque with a ruined castle.

Why not develop Hasankeyf as a tourist destination? That would be more help than the dam

A local waiter
Around us were intricately-carved stone doorways and panels bearing ornate Arabic inscriptions.

Across the river was a small tower, delicately-decorated with turquoise tiles, which turned out to be a mausoleum to a mediaeval Muslim king.

The mayor explained that the new reservoir would flood the entire town. Only the highest parts of the ruined castle and the very top of the main minaret would remain above the water level.
The carved designs on an abandoned mosque
"Please," he said, "tell Tony Blair not to go ahead with this, to lose this special place."

I wandered around Hasankeyf seeking out local opinion. An old weaver said his family had been settled for years and he did not want to move.

Two young waiters, who spend the summers working in the tourist resorts of the Turkish coast, said the dam would be a big "mistake".

"Why not develop Hasankeyf as a tourist destination? That would be more help than the dam," they said.

No one was as openly critical in public as they were in private. This is not a part of the world where free speech is encouraged.

Decision time

Our movements were constantly monitored by a pair of plain-clothes security men. When an armoured Landrover rumbled past, we were asked to stop filming.

Yet it is in this atmosphere, more intimidating for those who live here than for us, that the authorities are supposed to test local opinion.

Campaigners against the dam say there can never be a real assessment of public opinion.

The British Government says it is "minded" to provide a financial guarantee to allow the project to go ahead.

Critics say that would sound the death knell for Labour's ethical foreign policy. Soon, British ministers must decide.

The BBC's David Shukman
"The valley that could vanish"
See also:

23 Dec 99 | UK Politics
Blair under fire over Turkish dam
28 Aug 98 | World
'Water wars' predicted
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