As we neared Hakkari province in Turkey’s far southeast, bordering Iraq and Iran, we began to see the helicopters flying overhead. There were military bases scattered among the mountains, resembling medieval castles. At checkpoints we were asked to show our passports or IDs. My friend, who is Turkish, joked: “You see, even the Turkish government thinks this is not Turkey!”
Hakkâri is more than 1,100 miles from Istanbul, a mountainous region populated mostly by ethnic Kurds. It is renowned for its untouched natural beauty, fertile plains, snowcapped peaks, and clear water. It is also the site of ongoing conflict, and many Turkish view it as a hotbed of terrorism. Battles between the government and the guerrilla army of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a militant organization that has been fighting for Kurdish independence since the eighties, are ongoing.
The province is scattered with military outposts. Photo: Alex Kemman
The high mountains and proximity to the foreign borders make it an excellent area for guerrilla tactics, and the local Kurdish population generally supports the PKK. As Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned PKK leader, once said: “Hakkari is where we are the strongest.” Few visitors enter this area, and the strong presence of the Turkish military makes it feel inhospitable.
I was there in 2013 and 2015 to investigate a series of state-funded dam projects that locals believe will be used for military purposes. Some academics have reported that the so-called “security dams” are actually part of a broader war strategy by the Turkish government, to counter the PKK. When traveling to Hakkari along the Iraqi border, several half completed dam structures can be seen. The government has claimed that the dams will bring electricity and foster development in the poverty-stricken, mostly rural area, and that they are part of a nationwide plan to use all Turkish water resources by 2023. As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in 2011 when he was the country’s prime minister: “No river should run in vain.”
In the Hakkari and Sirnak province over a dozen dams are planned. In Hakkari especially the Greater Zab river is of major importance, a key tributary to the Tigris River. In comparison to mega dams such as the Ilisu or Mosul dam, the dam reservoirs are small and deep due to the steep valley. Four larger dams would be directly on the Greater Zab River and would contribute the major share of the estimated 1100MW power generation. Those projects combined are estimated at over a $1 billion.
The exact environmental impacts remain unclear, however some of the dams are located in Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) and would flood those. KBAs outline internationally important areas through standardized indicators in order to conserve global diversity.
But the local populations believe the dams will flood the hideouts and routes of the PKK. The rough mountainous terrain will be less accessible for guerrilla activity. Moreover, the villagers living in those areas will be forced to move toward the city, making them easier to control. Others complained that their smuggling activities would be curbed; indeed the towns are filled with smuggled goods ranging from gasoline to tea.