It was meant to be one of the most ambitious energy policy programs ever undertaken by the Turkish government, but on Tuesday, Germany, Austria and Switzerland withdrew their backing for the controversial Ilisu dam project. The governments of the countries said they would suspend loan guarantees to European construction companies participating in the mega project.
Construction of the 1,820 meter (1.1 miles) long and 135 meter (443 feet) high dam would have meant flooding the archeologically significant, ancient city of Hasankeyf on the Tigris River as well as the enforced relocation of more than 10,000 people.
The countries said the decision came after Turkey persistently violated cultural and social provisions that were part of the deal. "Our critical attitude toward Ilisu was correct from the beginning," said German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul of the center-left Social Democrats. "If the protection of people, the environment and cultural heritage cannot be ensured, then the supply and loan guarantee agreements for the dam must be terminated."
Others criticized the government for taking so long to quit the project. In a statement, the joint heads of the German Green Party, Claudia Roth and Cem Özdemir, a German born to Turkish parents, said: "The announcement that Turkey will continue to build the dam without loans from German, Austria and Switzerland raises concern. Berlin must support Turkey in developing environmentally friendly alternatives to the dam."
Turkey wanted to build the dam in order to generate hydro electricity as well as to provide improved irrigation for farmers in the impoverished, predominately Kurdish southeastern region. Germany had previously said it would back the project with €190 million in Euler Hermes export guarantees. In December, Germany temporarily froze the credit and gave Turkey 180 days to fullfil a strict list of criteria. The deadline expired on Monday, and the German government felt Turkey had done too little.
The mayor of Hasankeyf, Abdulvahap Kusen, also greeted the suspension of the loan guarantees and called for the city, which is more than 10,000 years old, to be declared a UNESCO world heritage site. The Turkish government, however, expressed its irritation over the decision and said it would push ahead with the project -- with or without support from abroad. Turkish Environment Minister Veysel Eroglu said the decision was a political one and that an existing agreement had been broken. The report by the expert committee, he noted, had not recommended suspension of the project.
The disagreement is part of a recurring trend: recently tensions between Turkey and Europe have been growing again. For weeks, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been critical of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy's positions on Turkey's EU candidacy. Both European leaders would like to see a "privileged partnership" for Turkey in lieu of full membership status. The Turkish president told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera earlier this week that Turkey had lost interest in "waiting for Europe."
On Wednesday, editorialists at German newspapers see the decision as less of a Turkey-EU schism and more of a victory for environmental and social activists. Editorialists praise the suspension of loan guarantees, arguing that the government in Berlin should not be supporting projects abroad that it would never permit at home.
The leftist Frankfurter Rundschau writes:
"By protesting vocally, a unique international alliance of non-governmental organizations, artists and environmentalists has successfully ensured that money for the controversial hydro-energy project on the Tigris River will be cut off. At the very least, the gigantic dam will not be built using German, Austrian or Swiss taxpayers' money. That may not be enough to stop the project but it will create problems for it. At the very least, the withdrawal of Western European loan guarantees will dampen the chutzpah with which aspiring EU member state Turkey has brushed off objections against the mega project over the years."
"But the history of the Ilisu dam should also be a lesson for the German government. A small but persistent grassroots movement has seen to it that the German government cannot quietly set aside ecological and social standards evidently applied at home, while providing export aid to German construction companies doing business abroad. In this David versus Goliath episode, David has seen to it that the brakes have been put on Turkey's megalomaniacal and failed energy policy -- and at the same time, halted German export policies in which there was a governmental double standard at work."
The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"The city of Samosata, the center of the ancient Komagene empire, was flooded many years ago as a result of the construction of the Atatürk high dam. But the equally interesting city of Hasankeyf still has a chance of survival. Germany, Austria and Switzerland have withdrawn their loan guarantees for the construction of the Ilisu dam. ... The Turkish government is saying it fulfilled all the conditions placed on it by these countries and that the decision to pull their credit has been 'purely political.' But that's a dubious line. People who were forcibly displaced years ago are still awaiting compensation today. The sense of environmental consciousness is also growing in Turkey. Well-known artists like Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk have protested against its construction. Now Turkey wants to go ahead and build the dam on its own, but no one knows for sure how or with what money."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"It's a good decision. It's just bad that it came so late. In truth there shouldn't even have been years of debate over loan guarantees for the dam project. The cliff city of Hasankeyf alone is reason enough for never buildng the Ilisu dam. The planned dam would only be used for 60 years but it would destroy 10,000 years of human history. The German government's participation was essentially a blessing of the project. By imposing 150 conditions on Turkey for the loan guaranties, the government wanted to make the dam a model project. The first surprise came when European inspectors unveiled the fact that Turkey's adherence to these conditions had been a farce. The second was the reaction of governments in Berlin, Bern and Vienna to their own experts' devastating assessments. Ankara was systematically violating the conditions placed by the Europeans in order to protect the cultural heritage and prevent the displacement of people. Turkey had long been violating the terms of its contract, but it only did so because the Europeans allowed it to."
"Now one has to suspect that the decision to withdraw from the project has more to do with growing public pressure than any principles. And that's why Germany's laws should be reformed. The government in Berlin cannot be allowed to let German businesses participate in projects abroad that would never be permitted in their own country."