This paper has been presented at the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change (ICGC), International Research Workshop on Struggling for water: Dams, pipes and urban-rural transformations in the global South at the University of Minnesota, November 13-14, 2010
Water Flows, Turk Watches:
Struggles to Stop Small Scale Hydroelectric Power Plants (HES) in Turkey
Today I am reporting to you from a zone of struggle… I choose these words not to reproduce violence by saying a battle front. But may be I should not have refrained, because there is violence, there is violence most and foremost against nature. It is not a surprise that what the Turkish Government is allowing and facilitating to happen in the country is called “The Genocide of Streams.” Every wild stream once flowing over and around giant boulders with a constant loud sound of joy is being strangled and killed by hydro-power stations. So this is the story of the calamity of streams and the struggle of people who don’t want to loose their sleep because they can’t hear the river anymore! This is the story of people who do not want to loose a limb. Although my words might sound passionate I am not part of this struggle, the organisation I am from Greenpeace Mediterranean is also not engaged in this campaign because of its own global priorities and simply because there are people at local and national level, who are trying to save their streams. So I speak today from a privileged detachment where I believe what I say is not part of any of the many different and passionate voices of this struggle, but rather observations of one who surely cares about those streams and their people.
The title of the paper starts with “Su akar, Türk bakar” which means “Water flows, Turk watches.” It is a proverb that has been primarily used by bureaucrats in Turkey to argue for the construction of dams for both electricity generation and irrigation. It found its sound especially from 1950s onwards in the rapid development of rivers and river basins where more than 555 reservoirs (dams higher than 15 m) and irrigation pojects were constructed in the Turkey as of today, and more added every passing day as there are another 140 in construction. As the former General Director of State Hydraulic Works, which was modeled after the Bureau of Reclamation in the US, the former prime minister and president of Turkey Süleyman Demirel has been a driving force behind construction of dams hydro-power stations and irrigation projects. This throughout the years has caused hundreds of thousands of people to loose their land and be resettled or simply disappear into the urban slums, it has caused major destruction of ecosystems and even local climate regimes, and loss of knowledge and subsistence systems replaced by cash-crops, intensive agriculture resulting in drop of fertility of soil due to chemical overload and salinization. The catastrophe these developmentalist projects have caused, became most apparent when all the lakes in Central Anatolia dried out in 2008. Since 2000, these lakes were drying out one by one. The condition still continues at a lower level since we are experiencing wet years, however the dams and irrigation projects have created a completely different hydrological cycle that has marginalized environmental flows, the water that ecosystems need. Today another catastrophe of the same making is unfolding, the run-of-the-river hydro-power stations in all the wild steep streams of all the regions, but especially concentrating in the North East Black Sea region of Turkey.
The struggle against run-of-the-river hydro-power stations goes some years back, however today the struggles have reached a totally different point in which the dialogue is as much about what constitutes development. On 26th of June 1998 the groundbreaking of the first run-of-the-river hydro-power station in Rize, Çamlıhemşin, Fırtına Valley was done, that day Prime Minister Mesut Yılmaz in his own birth-place was protested by locals. But before the groundbreaking it would be good to highlight that the engineers sitting at their desks in the General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works Ankara in 1960 were thinking that the water was flowing in the North and that they were watching. So they decided to do something “useful” with the water. So in 1965 in the watershed of Fırtına Valley they planned 21 power generating facilities consisting of 6 hydraulic regulators, 5 dam lakes and 10 run-of-the-river hydro-power station. The plans stayed in the shelves until BM Engineering applied for the Dilek-Güroluk hydro-power station. Luckily the area was declared on 19th May 1998 a natural protection area (SIT) and Zilkale and the surrounding of Kale-i Bala an archeological protection area (SIT). However the company despite the protection status hastened its efforts. Despite the local protests and declared protection status the Ministry of Environment approved the Environmental Impact Assessment on 25th June 1998. The next day Mesut Yilmaz was protested in his home town trying to do “good.” The next day a law-suit was filed against the government by locals, supported by national organizations such as the Society for the Protection of Nature (DHKD). On March 1999 Trabzon Administrative Court decided by expert opinion that 16% water would not be enough for wildlife and because 68 thousand trees will be felled and stopped the project. Finally in 2001 the State Council approved the decision of the administrative court to revoke the Environmental Impact Assessment. Ironically hydro-power projects continued to pushed and built in the valley with a continued legal and activist struggle.
Hence the villagers in Muğla Köyceğiz were quite cautious when they won their struggle against AKFEN Holding, which cut hundreds of years old sycamore trees to built a hydro-power station. The villagers started their sit in at the site to protect their trees and stream on 12 December 2009 and continued with the participation with many prominent people until AKFEN retreated from the project and declared publicly that they much rather not do the project if the local people are against it 5 months later. Ironically the company said we had 20 hydro-power stations planned now we have 19. The villagers continued with their sit in until they saw full retreat and are still alarmed in case the plans re-emerge as they usually do.
In the meanwhile the legal and activist struggles continued in the North West after Fırtına Valley struggle. The Sisterhood/Brotherhood of Streams (Derelerin Kardeşliği) Platform was founded at the end of 2007 by Remzi Kazmaz and his friends. They organized in every valley around the region and prevented any hydro-power development enter the valley by guarding them day and night. The sisterhood provided legal support against hydro-power development and organized in new valleys and organized the first largest demonstration with thousands of people in Çayeli in June 2008 against hydro-power. As the platform entered an internal crises in 2009 they stepped out of it by the formation of the The Water Council/Parliament of Turkey (Türkiye Su Meclisi) in January 2010. The Council brought together both local and national more than 55 NGOs in a structured way to work towards “to guarantee nature’s right under the constitution, in a policy that assures for the public to own water and to correct the wrong implementations related to water.” It had a more national perspective and despite different political fractions and critiques it was effective and also revitalized the Sisterhood of Streams. They produced a series of very useful reports and continued to organize the movement and were able to get the message out at the national level. But most important in this struggle was may be the legal part. There were about 10 lawyers assisting in the legal struggle. Of these 10 lawyers 3 were in the executive committee of the Water Council. The lawyers managed to open 70 court cases out of which they have won 40 already and 30 more are continuing, and new court cases added as the struggle unfolds. However there is also a recognition of the complexity of the legal struggle as with every step the companies re configure their strategies and treat it only as a matter of time.
One of the very interesting acts of this unfolding or reconfiguring came when the government was ready to undermine the whole nature protection legislation for hydro-power development. In October 22nd 2010 the Trabzon Council for the Protection of Cultural and Natural Heritage after expert investigations declared the İkizdere Valley a Natural Protection Area (SIT). This decision stopped the 22 Hydro-power station plans in the valley. This was a historic decision at the location where also the Water Council of Turkey was formed and one of the strongholds of the Sisterhood of the Streams.
Within the week, a new Nature Conservation Law was sent to the parliament that was abolishing all protection areas (SIT) and putting their declaration under the control of a government controlled committee instead of the independent Council for the Protection of Cultural and Natural Heritage. This new development is now confronted by another formation of 70 national and local NGOs which formed “The Nature Protection Law Monitor Initiative.” Which I am proud to say that Greenpeace has also joined in supporting as it relates to Marine Reserves that Greenpeace Mediterranean would like to see declared and conserved. The initiative was able to effectively mobilize NGOs and expose the effort of bypassing the existing law to enable further hydro-power and other pipelined development. The initiative made contacts with European Union bureaucrats and were able to influence the 2010 Turkey Progress Report towards union, where it stated that “No progress can be reported on nature protection. The draft law on nature protection and biodiversity, submitted to the Turkish parliament, raises concerns, in particular as regards the abolition of the current protection status of many sites that would be a useful contribution to the Turkish Natura 2000 network.” In the meanwhile through an article in the amendment of the renewable energy law the government passed an article which allows areas of every kind of protection to be opened up for renewable energy projects.
Once, I wanted to turn the “Water Flows, Turk Watches” proverb on its head once, so I said “Su akar, Turk bakmaz, baksa nereye aktığını görür” meaning if the Turk realy watched, he would see where it goes, talking about environmental flows. But I was outwitted by the prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who said “Su akar, Türk yapar” which means “Water flows, Turk builds” talking abut hydro-power stations.
After hearing about the declaration of İkizdere Valley as a protection area which stopped all hydro-power development Environment Minister Eroğlu and Prime Minister Erdoğan – the surnames meaning son of a soldier and born soldier – talking about environmental struggles, sorry - in this case battles, responded immediately. Prime Minister Erdoğan, talking from the opening of a greenhouse gas emitting gas power station: “For years we have approached water in this country with a logic of water flows, Turk watches, but from now on we would like to watch differently. We say water flows but Turk built, but they block us.” Environment Minister Eroğlu, accused the environmental struggle for getting finance from those who are trying to get a piece from the energy cake and said “To be against hydro-power is insanity.”
The world is going into insanity that is for sure, not only in terms of water, but on all fronts pushing anything that is wild into corners and controlling and using everything that is left, whether it be a valley to harness the water, or an arid slope to plow and plant. Anyone who is not doing that or resisting is called insane. The insanity of the dominant socio-economic paradigm has made everyone who does not adhere insane.
Through that insanity while some groups get radicalized and even drop out of the mainstream environmental struggle or even joint platforms, others are trying to strike a balance of still development and environment, as a coping and delaying mechanism. On the other hand the recent developments show that Turkish NGOs both local and national are able to move much more together, thereby increasing their strength and transformative capacity.
The target of the struggle goth on the legal and on the activist side is still the government, however that has partly changed in the struggle against hydro-power where companies were also targeted, and some retreated as in the case of AKFEN. However at the same time we should note that the private sector has been encouraged to invest in constructing hydro-power plants on rivers throughout Turkey, through a ‘right of usage for the national good’. It is the government policies and incentive structures that at the end make the change, those very policies and incentives which are shaped by the companies.
Environment Minister Eroğlu talking from a groundbreaking ceremony from a hydro-power plant that is going to be constructed on the Sakarya River said: “This hydro-power station will produce 49 to 50 million kilowatt hour energy every year. We are not environmentalists by words but by essence, this is our difference. When we say environmentalism now, we are the ones who know environmentalism.”
The famous pop-star Tarkan on the other hand going over his line of duty as a singer at a concert in the black sea region of Turkey addressed the crowd saying:
"We will continue to struggle against hydro-power, will we not? I heard they stopped the hydro-power, struggle till the end. I will also be with you. Our grandfathers left this land to us. We will not let them destroy it… they say 'water flows for nothing'. Can something like this be true? Then is the sun and the air also for nothing. My dear landspeople, we will struggle till the end!
Esra Basak, 2009. Kackar Daglari Surdurulebilir Orman Kullanimi ve Koruma Projesi - Ekosistem Degerleri Araştirmasi, TEMA Vakfi, November 2009 Istanbul.
Çağrı B. Muluk, 2009. Hydroelectric Power Plants Expert Report, Kackar Mountains Sustainable Forest Use & Conservation Project, TEMA Foundation, August 2009 Istanbul
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