Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is to attend an inauguration ceremony for the proposed Ilisu dam on Saturday, despite continuing concerns over its impact on people living in the area.
The dam – which would be the second largest in Turkey by volume of water – is to be sited on the upper Tigris River, in the mainly Kurdish south-east of the country.
The Turkish government says the project, planned for more than two decades, will provide much-needed hydro-electric energy and jobs in a poor region.
But opponents believe it will devastate the area’s environment and cultural heritage, as well as displacing more than 50,000 people.
Among hundreds of sites to be flooded would be the ancient town of Hasankeyf, considered an archaeological treasure and home to at least 3,800 people.
Dozens of local government ministries, community groups and NGOs have formed a coalition, the Initiative to Keep Hasankeyf Alive, to oppose the dam.
Speaking from Diyarbakir, the region’s main city, spokeswoman Caglayan Ayhan said people were upset they had not been consulted about a project that, if it goes ahead, could lose them their homes.
“We are really not happy about this – but no-one will listen to us,” she told the BBC News website.
“We want to show that Hasankeyf and its cultural heritage is important for Turkey and the world, not only the people here.
“We are not resisting development – we are just saying, does it have to be this way?”
Up to 10,000 people were expected to join a solidarity concert held at Hasankeyf ahead of the symbolic ground-breaking ceremony, 100km (60 miles) away in Ilisu village.
The protesters’ biggest concern is what they see as inadequate plans for resettling and compensating an estimated 55,000 to 78,000 people displaced by the waters.
Some 199 settlements would be affected by the dam, Ms Ayhan said, but the consultants who drew up the resettlement plans had had access to only limited information.
You go to Hasankeyf and you see the river and cliffs and caves – and you see an ancient site that is still alive, with people living in it
Many of those displaced would be likely to head for nearby Batman and Diyarbakir, both of which have seen clashes between security forces and Kurdish protesters in recent months.
The government plans to build a new town to re-house residents of Hasankeyf – and has said it will preserve much of the site’s heritage in a “cultural park” open to tourists.
But opponents say little has changed since questions over planning and legal issues caused the project’s financial backing to collapse four years ago.
British construction firm Balfour Beatty and Swiss bank UBS, part of the European-Turkish consortium involved, pulled out amid international concerns about the project’s social and environmental impact.
A new consortium has now been formed, headed by Austrian firm VA Tech Hydro, but its applications for export credit guarantees from the Austrian, Swiss and German governments have not yet been decided.
NGOs in several countries are appealing for the guarantees – given by governments to protect firms from risk in big overseas infrastructure projects – not to be granted.
Heike Drillisch, spokeswoman for WEED, a German NGO campaigning on environmental and development issues, said the project “clearly violates all the international standards the export agencies have”.
But, she said, campaigners fear the decision will be made on political grounds, with European countries keen to access the Turkish market and build good relations with Ankara.
Maggie Ronayne, an archaeology lecturer at the National University of Ireland, Galway, who has studied the area around Hasankeyf since 1999, has condemned the dam as a “weapon of mass cultural destruction”.
At risk is not only Hasankeyf – thought to date back 10-12,000 years and bearing evidence of Assyrian, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk Turk and Ottoman civilisations – but potentially thousands of sites yet to be discovered, she says.
She calculates only 20% of the area to be submerged has been surveyed by archaeologists, with the government’s own estimate only at 40%.
Although Hasankeyf has been protected under Turkish law since 1978, the area has been largely inaccessible because of years of conflict between government troops and Kurdish separatist forces.
Ms Ronayne, who has been working with the charity Global Women’s Strike, warns that the region’s many poverty-stricken women will be those to suffer most, because they may not receive compensation and will struggle to care for their families if displaced.
At stake is also the cultural heritage of the ethnic Kurdish people, she said, as well as ancient Muslim and Christian sites.
Kerim Yildiz, executive director of the London-based Kurdish Human Rights Project, said it would be challenging the project in the international courts.
Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rights agreed last month to hear an application against the dam lodged by archaeologists, journalists and lawyers, who say Hasankeyf must be preserved in its natural state.
Ms Ayhan agrees: “You go to Hasankeyf and you see the river and cliffs and caves – and you see an ancient site that is still alive, with people living in it. It has incredible natural beauty, it’s really unique.”
She remains optimistic the campaign will save Hasankeyf a second time.
“I think in a normal working democracy where people are listened to… solutions can be found. But it may take a while.”
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