The Power and Politics of Turkey’s Ongoing Hydroelectric Projects--An Interview with Dr Arda Bilgen

By THO Nonresident Fellow, Joseph Lombardo

Earlier this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan announced the powering of the Ilisu Dam along the Tigris River, inaugurating the start of Turkey’s fourth-largest dam. The declaration, however, comes amidst much negative press over the past decade, as local communities and environmental activists view the Ilisu as an unnecessary addition to the country’s already massive hydroelectric energy portfolio. The country is no stranger when it comes to consternation over its dams. Since the 1960s, Turkey’s politicians and planners have envisioned dams not merely as sources of energy, but also of expanding its political reach in the country’s underdeveloped East.

Yet this situation was not entirely isolated, and in fact pointed to aspects of regional planning and water resource management as exported by the United States. One of the early objectives of regional planners in Ankara was to identify countries which had somehow overcome their own domestic, regional social and economic disparities. Among those which surfaced as possible models was the US Bureau of Reclamation, has played a vital role in how Turkish planners historically have addressed their riparian needs and economic development. And so programs such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Hoover Dam, among others, were meticulously observed throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Throughout the 1960s and especially 1970s, American engineers were contracted through Turkey’s State Hydraulic Works to make recommendations on what would become the Keban Dam, the first of the country’s mega-dams which would populate the rivers and valleys of Eastern Anatolia. I recently spoke to Dr. Arda Bilgen, whose work on Turkish dam-building looks at the political and social impact of hydraulic infrastructure in the Turkish East.

Dr. Bilgen, before we explore Turkey and hydropower, could you offer us a working definition of Turkish development?

Development is a contested term. There is little consensus as to what it exactly refers to because it absorbs different meanings in different contexts. It may simultaneously refer to economic growth, infrastructure construction, institution-building, social change, post-conflict reconstruction, women’s empowerment, and many other similar and dissimilar actions and processes. That’s why some critical scholars argue that development is in fact an “amoeba-like term” (Esteva, 1992) or an “empty signifier” (Ziai, 2009) into which different, even opposite meanings could be placed.

That’s pretty much the case in Turkey as well. The way political elites, businesspersons, NGO workers, union members, and blue-collared workers define the term development in different ways. What is development for one might mean environmental destruction for another. What is economic growth for some might imply impoverishment for others.

Despite the lack of consensus on the meaning of development, the so-called neoliberal paradigm of development continues to be the hegemonic development thinking in Turkey. As you may know, neoliberalism has shaped the way development is imaged and practiced across the Republic since 1980. Over the course of those 40 years, neoliberalism has moved beyond being just a set of economic principles or an economic governance approach. Development in the Turkish context is often too fixated on ensuring economic (and social) growth in a strictly linear sense via control and use of natural resources—the marketization of all domains of society through various technocratic and economistic means.

The aforementioned interpretation and application of development is almost entirely top-down and even “power-blind”. That is to say, its brokers have mostly overlooked the socio-political realties, environmental concerns, and cultural sensitivities of the recipients of developmental policies. While on paper it draws on a wide array of development buzzwords such as accountability, empowerment, human development, participation, sustainability, and transparency, there is a discrepancy between such commitments and their implementation. To be more concrete, we have seen over the last several decades an uptick in protests precisely because of this discrepancy:  Ilisu Dam, and hydroelectric power plants (HPP) projects such as the Ikizdere HPP, as well as mining developments such as the one in the Ida Mountains, and to say nothing of the focus of the Gezi Park and its main grievance.

So, in spite of these movements and those which are in fact critical if not hostile to development, the developmentalist narrative continues to receive play in Turkey. And as such, planners and politicians in Turkey are still able to legitimize their decisions and actions by presenting the detrimental social and ecological impacts of these various projects as “inevitable” or “sacrifices for the greater good” in fulfillment of their goal to make Turkey a fully-developed country. Such narratives are popular in Turkey. One of the unfortunate results is that they sometimes are used to mask deeply-rooted problems of poverty by virtue of their overly technocratic explanations—thereby allowing elite political circles to maintain the status quo, without doing much.

It seems that historically, Turkish planners and politicians have hitched the country’s developmental hopes unto running water. Even today, there are more dams being built in Turkey. Why did—and why does—Turkey continue to look to hydroelectric infrastructure as a means of economic progress?

Even through various state institutions such as the Ministry of Public Works and the Electrical Power Resources Survey and Development Administration conducted feasibility studies on the hydropower and irrigation potential of Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s, the Turkish state embarked on its “hydraulic mission” only after the General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works, or DSİ, was established in 1954. The DSİ was given the role of the primary state agency for planning and managing Turkey’s water resources. The first Turkish mega-dams, the Seyhan Dam and Sarıyar Dam, were built in this period. In 1960, the State Planning Organization (DPT) was established to help governments formulate economic and social policies as well as to help them formulate five-year development plans. At this time, development circles in Turkey acknowledged that increasing hydro-energy capacity was a promising goal for furthering modernization and social progress in Turkey. As a result, the planning and construction of dams, and irrigation canals, and various other water-borne infrastructural projects gained significant momentum in the following decades (Evren, 2014, p. 409).

There are several reasons why Turkey has attached historical importance to water-borne infrastructural development. First, Turkey, as with other countries, had taken the lead from such strong hydraulic bureaucracies such as the United States Bureau of Reclamation (henceforth “the Bureau”) and the construction of such dams like the Hoover Dam in the 1930s and 1940s (Molle, Mollinga, & Wester, 2009, p. 333). Of particular importance was the launch of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933, which Washington underscored as a potential globalized model for river basin development such as the Middle East, home to the Tigris and Euphrates. During this period, both the United States as well as the Soviet Union saw the construction of large-scale projects as an opportunity to exert more influence internationally. These superpowers assisted the so-called Third World as it was known at the time, in constructing dams and irrigation systems as a means to strengthen their respective alliances (p. 335). Turkey was not an exception in this regard. The Bureau began to invite and train Turkish engineers in Denver in the 1950s. This established a strong link between the two countries and the Bureau became deeply involved in organizing Turkey’s DSİ in their own image, and the American-style technical knowledge from which it would flow (Sneddon, 2015, pp. 182–183). In other words, American influence played an significant role in steering Turkish water policies in a certain direction.

Secondly, Turkey invested in dams in order to reduce its energy dependence. The country meets almost 75% of its energy demand from energy imports. This dependence forms a considerable share of the country’s economic deficit. Due to this dependence, global energy and political crises severely impact the country’s economy, as witnessed in 1973 during the oil crisis. Turkey invested in dams also to meet its growing energy demand. Factors such as rapid urbanization, rapid industrialization, and rapid population growth have significantly increased the demand for energy over the past decades. In addition, the country needed cheap energy to support its industrial sector and, thus, increase its competitiveness. Dams were considered vital to address these economic concerns from all fronts.

Third, as previously mentioned, Turkey’s developmentalist vision carried modernist ambitions. Drawing on the concept of “High-Modernism” (Scott, 1998), it can be argued the idea of “taming” the unruly rivers via state-of-the-art technology to promote economic progress and social transformation has formed an important part of this vision. Accordingly, this vision considered water infrastructure development an effective tool to address the socio-economic development gap between the “developed” and “underdeveloped” regions of the country, especially the gap between Western Anatolia and Eastern Anatolia. In this context, dams and similar structures were imagined as instruments to ensure the center-periphery or urban-rural integration and homogenization throughout the country.

Fourth, Turkey’s development vision had a nationalist dimension. As a part of its state- and nation-building efforts, the Turkish state has presented large-scale infrastructure projects, specifically the ones under the umbrella of GAP, as symbols of modernity, strong statehood, and strong nationhood (Bilgen, in press). The state has portrayed these projects as vital and inevitable projects for both the regions they are implemented in and the nation. Such infrastructure has also extended the reach, visibility, and arguably legitimacy of the state. Thus, these projects have brought political gains and benefits in many forms, especially when voters are convinced that the projects contribute to the overall national development of the country. Due to the political, economic, and social reasons above, and also some additional contextual reasons, the Turkish state has put great emphasis on developing its water resources and building water infrastructures.

You've written extensively on the Southeastern Anatolia Project, better known by its Turkish abbreviation as GAP. What draws you to the topic of hydroelectric infrastructure?

True. GAP is an iconic project. For those who are not familiar with it, the Turkish state launched GAP as a very comprehensive water and land resources development project in 1977. The project included seven groups of energy production and irrigation projects on the Euphrates, and six on the Tigris. It comprised the construction of 22 dams, 19 HPPs, and extensive irrigation networks to utilize the available water resources of the GAP region, generate 27 billion kWh of hydroelectric energy each year, and irrigate 1.8 million ha of land. At this stage, DSİ administered GAP due to its heavy technical focus and limited scope. In the 1980s, the state expanded the project to include additional sectors such as agriculture, transportation, telecommunications, healthcare, and education and, thus, transformed to a multisectoral and integrated regional development project. After this expansion, DPT took over the responsibility to administer GAP. In 1989, the GAP Regional Development Administration (GAP-BKİ) was founded and assigned the duty of coordinating various state institutions involved in the project. Following the “sustainability” and “human development” turn in the 1990s, GAP was once again transformed, this time to a “sustainable human development project.” In the 2000s, the European Union accession process and increasing neoliberal character of the Turkish political economy have brought additional changes in the project framework. Despite these changes, the overall objectives of the project have remained as to remove regional disparities and to completely modernize and transform the socio-economic, sociopolitical, and sociocultural structure of the GAP region (Bilgen, 2018b). As of 2020, 78% of the energy projects and 54% of the irrigation projects have been completed (GAP-BKİ, 2019, p. 2).

In my doctoral research, I examined the ways in which the Turkish state pursued a mission to transform its southeastern region through ambitious water resources development projects and social development schemes under the umbrella of GAP. I examined the history, rationales, and mechanisms of the project from the standpoint of depoliticization, which is a highly underused concept in the analysis of development thinking and practice. I challenged the overly technical nature of mainstream development theories like modernization theory and posed a critique on the depoliticized interpretation of development.

My initial interest in the topic of hydroelectric infrastructure in general, and of GAP in particular, began before I started my PhD. This interest stemmed from my motivation to examine in what ways security and development interacted in theory and practice. I had thought that focusing on the case of GAP in light of this framework would provide new insights and perspectives that could help better interpret the relationship between the two concepts, which was almost automatically conceptualized under a nexus. Even though I changed my theoretical framework, methodology, and research questions after I began my doctoral training, I decided to keep GAP as my case. The project was as controversial as it was iconic. It had a lot of dimensions that remained under-researched in the literature. More importantly, the works that examined the project in light of critical and discursive approaches to development that were influenced by post-development and postcolonial theories were scant. I am glad that I kept my interest in the project and, years later, contributed to the literature on critical development studies, resource politics, and Turkish politics through my publications.

Are there any security implications for projects like GAP? If so, what are they?

As widely known, in the past decades it has been fashionable to claim that there will be a resource war over water in the Tigris-Euphrates River Basin. Fortunately, the war is yet to materialize. Nevertheless, GAP has created tensions among the three riparian states of the Euphrates and Tigris, namely Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. It is impossible to provide a detailed history of the dispute here (see Kibaroğlu, 2017). Suffice it to say that Syria and Iraq, as downstream states, feared that GAP would provide Turkey, the upstream state, with unproportionate strategic advantages. It is true that GAP has given Turkey, which is already a water-rich country compared to its neighbors in the Middle East, a tremendous leverage vis-à-vis its downstream neighbors. The project has allowed the country to have control over the flow of the most pivotal rivers in the Middle East and, for some, declare its hydro-hegemony. Syria and Iraq also worried that the project would severely impact the quality and quantity of their water. Three states worked towards solving this issue by establishing joint technical committees, signing various bilateral agreements and accords, and engaging in institutional cooperation throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Today, the water-related tensions among three states are not as salient as they were in the past. The water issue and the Kurdish question are no longer linked as they once were in the 1980s and 1990s either. However, after the breakout of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, it has become extremely difficult for three states to coordinate water resources management and to engage in transboundary water cooperation at a desired level.

GAP has been a controversial project also for being instrumentalized to maintain security in the GAP region and beyond. Based on the assumption that the “underdevelopment” or “backwardness” of the region and the Kurdish question were interrelated, a considerable number of politicians, civil bureaucrats, and military bureaucrats have thought of the project as a means to “win the hearts and minds” of the Kurds through economic development. The idea was to integrate the local populations, especially the Kurds, to the mainstream Turkish political and economic system through comprehensive economic and social development schemes. Simultaneously, “security dams” would limit the maneuver capabilities of the PKK. Thus, there would be no further separatist or disruptive political movements originating from the region (see Jongerden, 2010). The Kurdish political and intellectual movement, however, mostly disagreed. From their perspective, GAP was not a productive, but an exploitative project. As witnessed in the displacement of thousands of people and the submergence of historically important towns, it was a project of “mass cultural destruction” designed to erase the Kurdish history. Due to the implicit and explicit emphasis on the notion of Turkishness throughout the social development programs, it was a project of assimilation rather than a project of integration (see Bilgen, 2018a). The discrepancy between the two perspectives aside, the overall link between GAP and the Kurdish question does not attract as much academic and policy attention as it once did.

GAP is a crucial project in terms of ensuring the energy and food security of Turkey as well. The GAP region includes large plains such as those of Harran, Suruç, Ceylanpınar, and Mardin, as well as vital rivers like the Tigris and Euphrates. Approximately 20% of the total irrigable land and 33% of the energy potential of Turkey are located there. For this reason, one of the primary goals of GAP has been to turn the region into “the food basket” of the Middle East. Even though the project lags behind its goals and schedule, it still produces almost 25% of the country’s hydroelectric energy and mostly between 25% to 50% of certain agricultural products such as cotton, wheat, red lentil, and pistachio. Therefore, even in its incomplete form, the project is of crucial importance for both industries and people region-wide and nationwide.

The world has existed, it seems, in the shadows of the 2008 Financial Recession, and for Turkey, 2018 was particularly difficult. Given President Erdoğan's focus on construction and infrastructure in the East, how has this crisis been felt with regards to dam-building efforts in the country?

Actually, the dam-building efforts in the country have undergone significant changes since the beginning of the 2000s. In this period, the Turkish government extended the liberalization and deregulation of the national energy sector, which had been liberalized and deregulated for the first time in 1984, to increase the level and intensity of public-private partnership in the sector. Later on, the government granted the rights of rivers to private companies for a 49-year period (Islar, 2012, p. 376). In the following years, the government provided companies with generous incentives to become more active in the sector. While the involvement of the private sector in the building, operation, and management of water infrastructures or in the generation and distribution of electricity was not entirely new, the forms of dams that these companies were to build were novel. Instead of building large-scale dams, they turned their attention to building small-scale, diversion-type run-of-river hydropower plants with an installed capacity less than 25 MW (Akbulut, Adaman, & Arsel, 2018, p. 98). The role of DSI was also redefined along this process. Except a few projects, DSI assumed the role of a coordinator/supervisor rather than the role of a constructor/implementor. Through this mechanism, the private sector has built hundreds of HPPs all over Turkey. The government’s ambition to harness the energy potential of the country was so strong that it allowed and encouraged the construction of power plants even in protected areas such as national parks and natural preservation sites (Islar, 2012, p. 386). As mentioned before, these projects met with local resistance, especially in the Black Sea Region where the HPP-building activities were concentrated. Despite their controversies and adverse effects on the environment and local communities, the government continues to promote the utilization of water resources and the production of renewable energy through the mechanisms explained above, especially as a part of its “2023 Vision” – the ambition to make Turkey one of the top ten economies in the world in its 100th anniversary.

Indeed, the neoliberal transformation of water governance has changed the role of the state from the provider of public services to the regulator of these services. Despite this shift, however, it still plays an active and crucial role in the governance process. Also, this transformation has complemented the state’s efforts to pursue its hydraulic mission rather than replacing it. In other words, it is a dual process where modernist and neoliberal approaches converge to prevent rivers from “flowing in vain” (see Sayan, 2016). Regardless of its guise, the appetite to exploit every drop of water for energy generation is still alive and well, influencing the political, economic, social, and environmental realms at different levels in different contexts.

Dr. Bilgen, thank you for your time and expertise.

Today, the United States’ developmental aims no longer put a premium on international dam-building as it once did. Like oil, which also ignores political boundaries, rivers and their development have important and even grave consequences for states downstream of their source. In the 1980s, Syria was close to declaring war on Turkey over the amount of water which was not being released from the Euphrates—and helped to give material support to the PKK. The United States, while active in Northern Syria, would do well to actively assist Turkey in mitigating any potential conflict with its transboundary partners in light of the Ilisu Dam. Turkish Dam security ought to be a mutual security interest for the NATO alliance and for security for the region as a whole.

Dr. Arda Bilgen is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of International Development, Community and Environment at Clark University. He holds a BA in International Relations from Bilkent University, an MA in International Affairs/International Security Studies from George Washington University, and a PhD in Development Studies from the University of Bonn. His research interests lie at the intersection of the politics of natural resources, the politics of infrastructure, and the politics of governance. He has published a number of single- and co-authored articles in a wide range of journals including, but not limited to, Middle Eastern Studies, New Perspectives on Turkey, the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, the Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies, Forum for Development Studies, and Geoforum.

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Bilgen, A. (2018a). A project of destruction, peace, or techno-science? Untangling the relationship between the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) and the Kurdish question in Turkey.” Middle Eastern Studies, 54(1), 94–113.

Bilgen, A. (2018b). The Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) revisited: The evolution of GAP over forty years. New Perspectives on Turkey, 58, 125–154.

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