Damming the Munzur

If someone physically attacked you, you would defend yourself,”  said Barış Yıldırım, a human rights lawyer from Dersim. Damming the Munzur River, he continued, would be “the same as harming our body. We will never stop fighting against the dams.”

An elderly woman whose kind, grandmotherly face was framed by a loose-fitting head scarf put it this way: “If they come to build more dams, we will burn ourselves and kill them all.”

Ayten Bozdağ, a thirty-two-year-old teacher from the city of Tunceli, wasn’t surprised by the old lady’s declaration. She took it as a given. “If any new dams go up,” she explained matter-of-factly, “it could start a war.”

With its deep ravines, narrow gorges, and steep drops, the Munzur Valley is the kind of landscape over which hydraulic engineers get giddy. Since 1983, when Turkey’s State Hydraulic Works issued a master plan for the Tunceli district, 8 to 10 hydroelectric projects have been slated for construction on the 60-mile long Munzur River and its tributaries. Six of the proposed dams would be built within the borders of Munzur Valley National Park by exploiting loopholes in – or flat-out ignoring – the laws designed to protect the area.

If completed, the dams would impact rare ecosystems, submerging forests and meadows that are home to thousands of plant species – over a hundred of which are found nowhere else on earth. The hunting and grazing patterns of local wildlife would be affected, forcing animals large and small to adapt to unnatural changes to their habitats and food supplies. Seasonal cycles of flooding would cease, and the turbidity and temperature of the water would be drastically altered, disturbing fish and other forms of riparian life.

Incalculable amounts of human trauma and cultural damage would also derive from the dam system, as its reservoirs drown sacred Alevi sites and force the permanent evacuation of the approximately 10,000 Alevi Kurds who still live in the upper sections of the Munzur Valley.

In his paper From Shining Icons of Progress to Contested Infrastructures:
“Damming” the Munzur Valley in Eastern Turkey
, Dr. Laurent Dissard, an archaeologist whose work has focused on the cultural impacts of Turkey’s dams, asks:

“If these large infrastructures are so harmful, not just to the natural environment,
but to the social fabric of the valley itself, why then are they built in the first place? Damming the valley does not benefit local farmers since agriculture in this mountainous region of Turkey is negligible on the national scale and merely satisfies local needs.” In other words, local farmers don’t need reservoirs.

To the government’s assertion that its intention is to promote development by providing more electricity to the region, Dissard notes that, “when considered as a whole, the estimated production of the Munzur dams and HEPPs (totaling 360 megawatts) constitutes a negligible fraction of the total installed power capacity of, for instance, the Keban (1330 MW), the Atatürk (2400 MW), or the yet-to-be-built Ilısu Dams (1200 MW). The sacrifice to nature seems too great for such a small amount of electricity that would only fulfill a minute percentage of the country’s needs.”

Why then dam the Munzur Valley?

“…If the benefits to the local population are nonexistent and the energy production is insignificant,” Dissard says, “the estimated cost of the Munzur dams put together – up to $2 billion – is not.”

If the dams are going to cost a couple of billion dollars, Dissard points out, that money has to go somewhere. In this case, most of it would profit a consortium of Turkish, American, and Austrian construction companies. These types of arrangements, often involving the ministries and directorates supposedly responsible for preserving the country’s environment, have led many local people to believe that successive governments in Turkey have simply acted as clearinghouses for the private sector, selling away rivers and other precious natural areas for financial gain.

Many people, however, believe that profit is merely a secondary motive. When asked why the government wanted the dams built, Baris Yildirim – the lawyer – replied, “Because we are Kurds and we are Alevis. They want us to leave and forget who we are.”

According to a report by Nicholas Marsh for the UK Defence Forum, since the early days of the Turkish Republic, the intention behind building dams that forced Kurds to leave their ancestral homes was to sever the Kurds from their cultural geography. By resettling them in easily accessible urban areas among a majority Turkish population, the Kurds would be easier to control, and would be encouraged to naturally assimilate into mainstream Turkish culture. Additionally, since the 1980s, dams were built as part of a military strategy to deprive the PKK of sanctuary, resources, and freedom of movement in rural regions. More than money, more than electricity, Marsh writes, these are the real reasons behind the government’s desire to dam Munzur and places like it across eastern Turkey.

Today, locals believe that the drive to displace them may now be more about religion than ethnicity. With an Islamist government in power in Ankara, it is thought that the goal of the dams is to uproot Alevis from their sacred spiritual heartland and scatter them among Sunni-majority communities, whose ways of being and worshipping would gradually wear off on them, diluting the essence of their Alevism and converting their practices into something more recognizably Muslim.

The people of Munzur are outraged over the prospect of being permanently expelled from their homes and their holy places. Their anger is sharpened by the sense that the government’s true motives are fundamentally cruel and unjust, yet wrapped in the double-speak of magnanimity, as officials hail the dam plans as evidence of Turkey’s commitment to bring development to marginalized areas. Equally upsetting to locals is the damage that the dams will do the environment; to Alevis, nature is sacred, and the wanton destruction of plants, animals, and landscapes is nothing less than a crime against God.

The Mercan Dam

At first, people didn’t understand exactly how the dams would change life in the valley. When the first dam within Munzur Valley National Park was built on the Mercan River (a tributary of the Munzur) it met with little resistance. It was too small to submerge any villages, and the government pledged it would have negligible impact on the environment. Once it was completed in 2003, however, locals realized that the riparian ecosystem below the dam was suffering; with so little water flowing downstream, fish populations were dying off. A protest movement against the rest of the dams planned for the valley was ignited, which quickly grew into a widespread grassroots campaign of mostly peaceful, yet very vocal, resistance.

Writer’s note: of the many people that we spoke to in the Munzur Valley, every single person was aware of the dam project, and every single one was vehemently opposed to it.

Protests against the dams in 2012. Photo by Akın Gedik. 

It’s not unusual for thousands of people to join together in marching against the dam, chanting slogans like “Munzur will flow freely!” Following the completion of the Uzunçayır Dam in 2009 – which blocks the Munzur River below Tunceli, outside of the national park – locals feared that an Alevi holy site called Jara Gola Çetu was in danger of being submerged. Over 20,000 people gathered to protest the rising waters, and the city of Tunceli, along with its mayor, were sued and fined 2.2 million Turkish lira by the State Hydraulic Works for trying to protect the area by turning it into a municipal park. Despite pushback from the government in Ankara and initial loses in the courts, which ordered the park to be destroyed, the protestors’ tenacity and passion eventually won an agreement to keep the reservoir behind Uzunçayır from drowning Jara Gola Çetu.

 A protest in October, 2009, against the Uzunçayır Dam. Photo By Akın Gedik. 

A protest in October, 2009, against the Uzunçayır Dam. Photo By Akın Gedik. 

Despite virtually unanimous opposition across Dersim to the series of dams planned within the national park, the Turkish government and the commercial contractors insisted on moving ahead. Occasional acts of sabotage, and threats of greater violence, by the Liberation Army of Turkey’s Workers and Villagers (better known as TIKKO) didn’t deter the builders. The annual Munzur Nature and Culture Festival, which draws internationally-known musicians from around Turkey and Europe to perform around the valley for several days in August in an attempt to draw attention to the threats to the region, failed to persuade the powers-that-be to save the valley. Meanwhile, legal challenges to the hydro project, championed by Barış Yıldırım, stalled construction, but the ultimate damming of the Munzur seemed inevitable.

Then, in October 2010, the Council of State – Turkey’s highest administrative court – issued a ruling in favor of the activists, effectively blocking the construction of the Konaktepe Dam – which would have been built in the heart of the national park – because no environmental impact assessment of the project had ever been performed, as was required by law since 1997.

Turkish parliament reacted to the decision by passing a law exempting infrastructure projects planned prior to June 23, 1997 from the need for environmental impact assessments. This included all of the dams on the Munzur River, which were planned earlier, with no regard for how they would affect the flora and fauna of the valley.

The Mercan River, within Munzur Valley National Park, flowing freely before it’s blocked by a dam. 

Yıldırım and his colleagues, undaunted, continued to bring challenges against the Munzur hydro project. He was convinced that the law passed by parliament wouldn’t hold up to legal scrutiny, since it directly contradicted Turkey’s National Parks Law and flew in the face of common sense. In October, 2014, he won a “landmark” victory when the Council of State overruled the law, confirming that no new dams could be built in environmentally sensitive areas without undergoing environmental assessments, regardless of when they were planned. In the short-term, at least, the court’s decision effectively stops all ongoing constructions within the borders of Munzur Valley National Park.

This is most likely not the end of the story. According to Dr. Dissard, new dam plans for the valley, which will undergo environmental assessments, are supposedly being drawn up. It’s unknown, however, whether companies and investors will want to get involved in any new scheme; Elvan Tugsuz Guven, an engineer with Tektuğ Elektrik Üretim A.Ş., says that while Munzur has “great hydro potential,” her company opted against getting involved in dam construction there because of the resistance of the local population, the legal hurdles to building in a national park, and the likelihood that terrorists could sabotage their work.

If there is sufficient interest in damming the Munzur River, the people of the valley are ready to rise up in opposition once again, with more confidence than
ever that they can keep their beloved, sacred river flowing freely.

To them, the Munzur is not just a river, not just a valley – it is a manifestation of an idea that includes a unique way of living, of perceiving the world, of relating to nature and other people. It is a place perfectly attuned to the Alevi path. The victories in court are more than just triumphs by an underdog community against a behemoth of corporate and government interests that wanted to dam a river – they represent hope that the people of the Munzur Valley may win the most important fight of all, once and for all – deciding for themselves where and how they want to live.