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Tigris River Dam at Center of Controversy in Turkey

Set to produce 3.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity a year, the Ilisu Dam project is part of the Turkish government's plan to boost economic prosperity in the country's less developed southeastern region. But building the dam has caused numerous battles between governments and environmentalists, pulling several European countries into the controversy.

To the applause from his deputies, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently promised to end one of the country's longest and most controversial construction sagas. "This is a struggle for civilization," he said. "This is the way to reach to the level of modern civilizations." Mr. Erdogan added, "Here are people who are showing utmost effort to provoke and sabotage this project. While we are quenching the thirst of southeastern Turkey as well as the whole country, we are also taking big steps for energy," he said.

The Ilisu Dam will control one of Turkey's main rivers, the Tigris, and produce power and irrigation in one of Turkey's poorest regions - the predominantly Kurdish southeast. But construction of the dam has already proved too difficult for five prime ministers.

Analysts say Mr. Erdogan likes to portray himself as the strong man of Turkish politics who gets things done.

One of his biggest battles is with the country's environmentalists who have campaigned for years to stop the project.

An environmental campaign video warns that the dam will submerge the 3,000 year old town of Hasankeyf - a place with a unique, historic, cultural heritage and hundreds of unexplored archaeological sites. The video says more than 50,000 people in the area will be forced from their homes.

Guven Erken of Turkey's Nature Association says the result of the Ilisu Dam conflict will be a decisive battle over the future of the country's hydroelectric projects. "This dam is going to flood a river and ecosystem of 400 kilometers, and it is going to change an entire river to a make giant lake. It's going to change the entire water cycle in that region. And it's going to have a huge negative effect on a very old ancient Muslim city - the Hasankeyf. And we have learned so many lessons through other dams. They did not bring the proposed economic income and they had major, major, major ecological effects," Erken said.

Turkish environmentalists have enlisted foreign support. Several international financial consortiums have backed out of the project. Construction of the dam has been stopped three times in the past four years.

According to Emre Yigit, chief economist for the Istanbul-based brokerage Global Securities, the dam is so controversial that few investors will support it. But, he says, that does not mean the dam will not be completed. "It may come as a bit of surprise, but ideally, the government wants these projects to be funded by the contracting party, which in this case is unable to find financing. But if the Turkish government decides it wants to go forward with this, it's straight forward," he said.

Analysts say that in addition to the prestige associated with the project, swift completion of the Ilisu Dam is important to Prime Minister Erdogan because it will short circuit complaints about the project by neighboring Iraq and Syria.

Those two countries have been lobbying the international community to pressure Turkey to stop the dam because, they say, it will reduce the amount of water they receive from the Tigris River. Iraq and Syria rely on the river for agriculture and drinking water.

"The longer it takes for Turkey to complete the GAP, the more there [are] problems with [its] neighbors. When it's completed, everyone will know how much water there is and how much water is utilized," said political scientist Gun Kut of Istanbul's Bosporus University.

Several prominent artists, including Turkish pop singer Tarkan, whose song protests the building of the dam, have joined the anti-dam campaign.

Guven Erken of Turkey's Nature Society says the efforts his group have also been effective. "For the first time, a dam is being discussed with its negative effects on nature and culture. So it's a very important project and certainly whatever the result will be, it's going to have a huge implication on wider dam projects in Turkey. So, therefore, we are working on it very actively, as a Turkish organization," he said.

With such high stakes for environmentalists and the government, controversy over the Ilisu Dam will likely continue well after its projected completion in 2013.