Ilisu Dam Project Development


18 Sep 2017

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The proposed Ilisu Dam is a single project under the umbrella of the massive Southeastern Anatolian Project (Guneydogu Anadolu Proje) or GAP. The GAP was a major development endeavour for Turkey and aimed to develop projects using the power of the two largest rivers in Asia, the Tigris and Euphrates, that run begin in Turkey and run through to the Arabic Gulf. GAP was conceived to meet Turkey’s rising energy needs by the construction of 22 irrigation dams and 19 hydroelectric plants, harnessing the hydroelectric potential energy contained in these two massive rivers (Stern, 2004). The GAP attracted international attention due to its focus on the human effects of the project and attention to sustainability. International credit agencies from the Canada, USA Japan, UK and other European governments along with the World Bank stepped forward to fund the project which they see as one being integral to the socio-economic development of Turkey which is an important US partner and is aspiring to join the EU. Certain aspects of the GAP, specifically the Ilisu Dam, have come under attack from citizens groups concerned about the social and political ramifications of the dam and the project is currently on hold after major sponsors pulled out and completion date has been pushed from early 2000 to 2010. This paper will examine the proposed dam and the issues that surround it.

Turkey was once part of the Ottoman Empire emerged from the demise of that empire and was inaugurated as a nation in 1923 under Mustafa Kemal who was later honoured as the “Father of the Turks”. Under his authoritarian leadership the Anatolians of the region saw improvements in social and economic status. The nation enjoyed a peaceful transfer to democracy in the 1950s though has since seen several military coups but always with a peaceful transfer back to democracy (CIA World Factbook. 2005). The nation borders the Black and Mediterranean Seas and its neighbours include Bulgaria, Greece to the West and Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria to the East.

The country is a member of the UN and NATO since the 1950s and is seen as a leading nation in the Asia region. There have been recent conflicts with separatist Kurds in the South Eastern portion of the nation. The Kurdish separatist movement is known as Congress of Kurdistan (KGK) or the communist PKK and have links with Kurds in bordering Iraq and Syria (CIA World Factbook. 2005). The nation has been adopting major environmental and social reform in hopes of being admitted to the rapidly expanding EU.

The GAP is aimed at developing the south eastern 8 Anatolian provinces which are home to the majority of the Kurdish population of the nation. The project is the largest ever development project Turkey has ever undertaken and seeks to improve the lives of nearly 10% of the Turkish population (Ilisu Engineering Group, 2001; Stern, 2004).

The south eastern part of Turkey is a poverty stricken area plagued by low income, violent instability and inequality (Morvaridi, 2002). The area’s faming consists of low-mechanization with few cash crops and the region suffers from aridity despite the presence of major rivers like the Tigris and Euphrates. The region also suffers from the Kurdish separatist movement which has attracted the attention of the Turkish and this has been compounded by the militants fleeing Iraq due to the recent US and UK invasion.

The focus of the GAP is to develop the energy potential of the region while providing irrigation for crop growing to the region. Historically most of the development in Turkey was concentrated on the North and Western regions of the nation, leaving the South and East to languish in obscurity. This lack of investment in the region could be a driving reason behind the Kurdish separatist movement. It is Turkey’s national interest to tap the resources of this region and hopefully quell the separatist movement by funnelling development funds into the area to improve the lives of its inhabitants.

The GAP has already begun to pay off as other projects other than the Ilisu Dam have already been completed. GAP related dams already account for more than 15% of Turkey’s energy needs and has potential to reach 22% (Kaygusuz, K, 1999). The final goal for land irrigation is 20% of Turkey’s total irrigable land which is nearly 1.7 million hectares of land United States Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service, 2005). In the region of Sanliurfa – Harran, agricultural benefits are being seen with huge increases in cash crop production (mainly cotton), the establishment of new industries such as beef along with development of textile industry which is raising the standard of living in the region (Northwest Texas International Trade Center, 2004).

Energy production is the other prong of the pitchfork of progress that is GAP. In 2002 Turkey’s energy consumption peaked at 126.9 billion KWh. Due to industrialization, development and population growth this figure is projected to rise to 265 billion KWh by 2010 and to 528 billion KWh by 2020 (Stern, 2004). Turkey has scarce fossil fuels so a major source of energy for the nation is hydroelectricity which accounts for 40% of Turkey’s energy needs (Stern, 2004). GAP was conceived to help meet these rapidly increasing energy demands and if GAP does not relieve some of the energy strain put on the nation then other sources of energy must be found.

The politics of the GAP are tricky as other nations lie down stream of Turkey on the Tigris and Euphrates. Iraq and Syria are dependent on the flows from the two rivers and by Turkey assuming control of these cross-border water resources tension has been created due to rights to access of the water. Turkey has to be sure to manage the water resources of these rivers in such a way as to not disadvantage the residents of these nations lest they risk war.

The GAP falls into the realm of sustainable development as it aims to use a renewable energy source for a long term benefit to the people of the region. The standard definition for sustainable development was generated by a report produced by a United Nations commission in 1987 entitled Our Common Future which is better known as the Brundtland Report after the head of the commission. The definition of the phrase sustainable development is wide ranging and open to subjective interpretation but Our Common Future (1987) defined it as:

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

From Our Common Future (Bruntland, 1987)

This report generated much response as world leaders began to respond to the issues tackled in the report. The environmental movement began in earnest with the 1960s with the publication of Rachel Carson’s landmark book Silent Spring. (Carson, 1962). The emergence of a demand of environmental responsibility from global citizens was often at odds with economic development planning and a compromise was necessary. Development in 3rd world nations was unchecked and often at the expense of environmental resources. Companies, unable to dispose of environmentally hazardous waste in 1st world nations, looked to pawn it off on 3rd world nations. Economic development was at the forefront of 3rd world nation’s development policies as deforestation, overfishing, herbicide and pesticide application raged rampant with little thought paid to environmental ramifications. An example of this was the 1972 United Nations Conference on Human Environment which was held in Stockholm, Sweden. At this conference the goal was to tackle the problem of acid rain problems of northern Europe. The nations pushing for a solution that addressed the industrial development roots of the problem were strongly opposed by the Soviet-led Block of 77 which accused the nations of pushing an eco-agenda and refused to cooperate (WSSD, 2000). However a positive outcome from this conference was birth of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Through the 1970s and 1980s the UN began to fund more initiatives focused on conservation and human environment issues (IISD, 2002). Public initiatives began to spawn environmental non-government organizations (ENGOs) such as the Environmental Defence Fund in 1967, International Institute for Environment and Development in 1971 and the Worldwatch Institute in 1984. These major environmental policy groups are still active and important today. Major environmental disasters such as Bhopal, India and Africa’s starvation in the 1980s brought further attention to human and environmental development (IISD, 2002).

In 1992 the World Summit on Sustainable Development was held in Rio, Brazil. This marked a major effort by the world’s nations to tackle human development in the context of environmental issues and try to develop a model of development that was sustainable. Sustainability can only come about without the degradation of natural capital that provides the necessary requirements for human life. It has been determined that a healthy population is dependent on a healthy environment. Links are often drawn between human health and environmental health outside the realm of needs production as poisons in the environment negatively affect human health as evidenced by historical use of pesticides and their effects.

Further conferences on sustainable development in 1997 (Rio+5) and most recently Rio +10 in Johannesburg 2002 has further developed the notion of sustainable development. Due to public pressure corporate social responsibility has become a focus for corporations based in the developed world and this is further evidenced by the emergence of ethical investment funds which critically screen the companies they invest in.

Dam construction was a popular activity in the first half of the 20th century and experienced a peak in building activity in the 1970s (WCD, 2000). It is not that the usefulness of the dam in providing energy, irrigation and flood control has passed; it is that there are fewer rivers that are left to be damned and social and environmental awareness of issues surrounding dam construction has increased. However dam construction continues as it is an important source of energy and nations are forced to meet the energy requirements of their citizens. More than 20% of the world’s energy supply comes from dams and more than 60 countries depend on hydroelectricity for greater than 50% of their total energy needs (WCD, 2000). The World Bank still funds dam construction but less than in the past with 1.3% of the bank’s funds going toward dam-related projects and 0.9% being spent on the construction of new dams (The World Bank, 2000).

In 2000 the World Commission on Dams (WCD), a United Nations research body, released a landmark report entitled Dams and Development – A New Framework for Decision-Making. This research was undertaken in response to the new realizations on the effects of dams and the role they could play in sustainable development. The report noted that nearly 1/5th of the world’s energy was generated through hydroelectricity and that 1/6th of the global agriculture was dependent on irrigation from dammed rivers. It has been estimated that global levels of hydroelectric generation, which is largely carbon-neutral, precludes the need of an extra 4.4 million barrels of oil a day (WCD, 2000). If all dams were decommissioned and destroyed the damage to humankind would have enormous and alternatives would have to quickly be found to provide the benefits that we glean from dams.

There are several high profile dams being constructed globally today. The larger projects like the Three Gorges Dam project in China and the Narmada Dam project in India. These dams are large and multi-purpose aiming to help these nations meet development needs of energy and irrigation.

Though dams have been integral to social and economic development there are costs as well. Large dam projects typically involve the displacement of people living near the river upstream of the dam. The WCD (2000) estimated that between 40 and 80 million people have been displaced by dam building often with little or no compensation.

Water and Conflict

Fresh water is a requirement for life as we know it. Humans are made up of more than 70% water and can live only days without a source of drinkable water. Clean water is needed for drinking as well as for farming, industry, sanitation and household uses. Unfortunately fresh water is scarce on Earth and its distribution uneven.

With the majority of fresh water resources concentrated in a few nations the need for shared management of water resources is obvious. Turkey is a water poor nation as are its neighbours Syria and Iraq (WCD, 2000; Stern, 2004). The Tigris and Euphrates are two of the main sources of water for these two nations and they have their sources in Turkey. In a river system such as this the actions of the users upstream have an impact on those downstream. Since rivers do not follow nationally contrived boundaries this can cause conflicts between nation-states as one nation, acting within its own borders, can have significant impact on other nations. It was just this sort of trans-boundary environmental issues that incensed the UN to act and create bodies to help manage and resolve such issues. Acid rain, smog, ozone and pollution are all similar in that though no national borders are trespassed, damage it still felt by other nations. New solutions and methods are needed, and are being developed by ENGOS, industry and government, to tackle problems such as these

The Ilisu dam project was approved in 1982 and because of the date of approval the project is not automatically subject to the Regulation on Environmental Impact Assessment which is current Turkish environmental policy (Ilisu Engineering Group, 2001). However due to the scope of the project and the international attention it attracted an Environmental Impact Assessment Report produced by a consortium of international experts under the moniker of the Ilisu Engineering Group was commissioned by the Turkish authorities and firms involved in construction of the dam.

The Ilisu Dam will consist of a reservoir with a surface area of 313 km and a volume of 10.4 billion cubic meters. The power station will have a capacity of 1,200 MW and is expected to be capable of producing 3,800 GWh of power per year (Ilisu Engineering Group. 2001; Stern, 2004). The dam will transform the local environment, inundating land that is typically arid, causing a shift in the ecology of the area.

Resettlement of the Kurdish people in the Anatolian regions is the main source of resistance to the construction of the dam. It was determined that approximately 183 settlements will be affected, 82 would be inundated entirely and 101 would be affected by flooding (Stern, 2004; Morvaridi, 2002). Exact numbers of people are unavailable because conflicts in the region have driven people out of their villages and have encumbered census takers from obtaining accurate estimates of population. The estimates range from 30,000 to 70,000 people, mostly Kurds, losing homes or land or both. Under Turkish law these people would be allotted cash compensation or an offer of resettlement under Turkish law (Morvaridi, 2002). This compensation plan becomes much more complicated when it is realized that many of the people living in the region do not hold deeds to their land and many have expanded their land without government planning permission (Morvaridi, 2002). Determining who would be eligible for compensation would be a long and painful bureaucratic process that would undoubtedly leave many people unsatisfied.

Some have claimed that this project is part of a Turkish plot to expatriate the Kurdish people from their native lands. Human rights NGOs mobilized on behalf of these groups and were able to influence the international financiers into relenting on their backing. However the dam’s constructors and the Turkish government point to the social and economic benefits to the people of Turkey and the direct benefits to the people of the Anatolian provinces. The construction of the dam will bring jobs, training and an influx of money to a previously impoverished region. The availability of ample fresh water for irrigation, possibility of a fishery and tourism opportunities also bear consideration. The possibility exists for real economic and social benefit to the region if the project is handled properly with attention paid to women’s rights and economic opportunities, education and investment in long term planning (Ilisu Engineering Group. 2001).

Cultural Issues

A second major objection to the dam is archaeological potential of the area. The proposed site has seen much history pass through the area. Mesopotamia was centered here, the Romans conquered the area and the Silk Road wove through what is now South Eastern Turkey. Access to the area was previously restricted due violent conflicts between the Turks and the Kurds but in the lull archaeologists have began excavating the area. One site in particular is Hasankeyf which has visible archaeological evidence dating to 2000 years ago and the ruins may evidence a settlement dating back to 7th century B.C.E (Young, 2000).

The excavation of Hasankeyf began in 1986, was stopped in 1991 due to civil strife, and excavation resumed only recently with a laughable grant from the Turkish government of £15,000 from the Ministry of Culture. The government is spending only £76,000 in exploring the area agriculturally before the dam is built, a meagre effort at best. Even the Ilisu Engineering Group revealed that some of the worst damage of the dam would be in the loss of untold archaeological treasures (Ilisu Engineering Group. 2001).

Political Issues

The construction of the Ilisu dam would require the water flow to be suppressed in the construction of the dam. Even the slowing of the flow of the river has consequences for the downstream inhabitants in Syria and Iraq. The people of these countries rely on the river for sanitation, industry and personal use and as the rivers are already over taxed any further reduction will surely have negative consequences on the people of these regions.

With the construction of the Ilisu dam reservoir there is the potential that Turkey can fully cut Iraq and Syria off from the flows of these vital rivers. In the coming years when the crisis over water deepens this could be an ill-advised political tactic for Turkey to dominate these nations. Due to the volatile nature of the region it is hoped that it does not come to this. However in 1997 the UN approved the Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of Transboundary Waterways with a vote of 103: 3. The convention was aimed at preventing damage to international waterways with emphasis on peaceful resolution and prior notification between nations. China, Burundi and Turkey all rejected the treaty (Bosshard, 1998).

Dam Alternatives

The main focus of the dam is to meet Turkey’s energy needs. In the way of natural energy resources Turkey is scarce. To match the 1,200 MW output of the dam numerous coal, lignite or oil plants would need to be constructed which will have a negative impact on the environment of the region and the globe. In the Ilisu Engineering Group’s 2001 Environmental Impact Assessment the group concluded that it would be necessary to import and consume over 2,500 tons of oil per day, releasing 3 million tons of CO2 per year. A coal plant would do much the same.

Photovoltaic technology is not advanced or cost-effective enough to possibly take the place of such a large MW project with the costs being three times per kilowatt what hydroelectricity would cost (Ilisu Engineering Group. 2001). Wind projects are under consideration in Turkey but it will take the construction of wind farms as well as the GAP to meet Turkey’s energy needs in the coming decade.

The major avenue for reducing the need to build the dam is in increasing energy efficiency. The Ilisu Engineering Group’s report pointed to this avenue as a necessary one for exploration as Turkey’s energy needs continue to grow.

Current Status and Future

The Ilisu dam’s future is uncertain as major international funding fell apart over concerns of the dam’s social and ecological impact. In November 2001 the British construction firm Balfour Beatty backed out of the deal as the UK export credit agency pulled its support due to public pressure. Another construction company, Impregilo of Italy, also pulled shortly afterwards and the Swiss bank UBS did the same less than 6 months later (BBC, 2002) Through Turkish government still plans on carrying on the project the lack of financial backing makes it impossible to go forward. For the time being the project is on hold.


  • A baseline study of wildlife and ecology with the intention of creating reserves nearby for displaced species.
  • Adequate funding and time for proper exploration of Hasankeyf and investigation of other potential sites.
  • Negotiation with Syria and Iraq on the use of the river. Finding a solution that benefits these nations is vital to the dam’s construction.
  • A plan for compensation of people displaced by the dam. Compensation will need to be based on more than proof of land ownership and a census of the area will be necessary to determine the scope of the compensation plan.
  • Negotiation with the Kurdish people of the region, guaranteeing them a greater say in the compensation funds from the dam and in the monetary benefits to be gained from its construction.
  • Moves to further improve the existing energy infrastructure to ensure maximum benefits are garnered from the dam.
  • Development of industry and agriculture in the area to aid in the development of the region.

The Ilisu dam is a highly controversial project is a necessary part of Turkish development, providing energy for tens of thousands of people. Dams, though notorious for displacement of people and conversion of landscapes, are a multi-purpose high energy yielding alternative to fossil or nuclear power generation. In terms of sustainable development they are a much better option than fossil fuel and provide the best energy option until wind and photovoltaic energy technology improves. The dam is controversial and for good reason. The Turkish government must take into account the many parties that will be affected by the dam and work to mitigate their concerns. However without this dam Turkey will be hard pressed to meet energy needs and be able to develop for the social and economic benefits of their people. The Ilisu dam may not be an ideal solution to Turkey’s energy needs but it seems to be the best currently available.


BBC. 2002. Swiss bank quits Turkish dam project. Available from <>. Last accessed April 25th, 2005.

Bosshard, P. 1998. Ilisu - a Test Case of International Policy Coherence. Berne Declaration, November 1998. Available from <>. Last accessed April 25th, 2005. © Copyright of European Rivers Network

Bruntland, G. (ed.), 1987. Our common future: The World Commission on Environment and Development, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Carson, R. 1962. Silent Spring. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Ilisu Engineering Group. 2001. Ilisu Dam and HEPP Environmental Impact Assessment Report.

IISD. 2002. Sustainable Development Timeline. Available from <>. Last accessed April 25th, 2005.

Kaygusuz, K. 1999. Energy and water potential of the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP). Energy Sources ; Vol. 21 ; Iss: 10 ; PBD: Dec 1999.

Morvaridi, B. 2002. Social Review of the Ilisu Dam Resettlement Action Plan. UK Export Credit Guarantee Department.

Northwest Texas International Trade Center. 2004. Gap Irrigation Project In Turkey. © Northwest Texas International Trade Center 2000-2004. Available from <>. Last accessed April 24th, 2005. Last Updated 02/06/2004.

Stern, S. 2004. International Project Finance: The Ilisu Dam Project in 2004 and the Development of Common Guidelines and Standards for Export Credit Agencies. Journal of Structured and Project Finance. New York: Spring 2004.Vol. 10, Iss. 1; p. 46.

The World Bank. 2000. Statistics on the World Bank's Dam Portfolio. Available from <>. Last accessed April 25th, 2005.

United States Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service. 2005. Southeast Anatolia Project (GAP). Available from <>. Last accessed April 24th, 2005.

WSSD. 2000. Towards Sustainable Development: A Guide To The Process Towards The U.N. World Summit For Sustainable Development. Johannesburg, 2002

WCD. 2000. Dams and Development – A New Framework for Decision-Making.

Young, P. 2000. Hasankeyf: A city in Peril. History Today; Nov 2000; Vol. 50 Iss 1. pg. 3.


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