Thirst for energy drowns hopes of saving ancient world

ALLIANOI, February 2011, The Times

Gazing across the rising lake that is covering his farmland, Adnan Celik sees more than his livelihood slipping away. The waters around him, glittering in the cold breeze of a bright morning, have already swallowed up the far end of the ancient Roman bridge on which he stands.

It is all that now remains of Allianoi, an 1,800-year-old spa settlement whose sprawl of streets, columned atriums, covered passages and pristine mosaics have been subsumed by the deepening reservoir behind the new Yortanli irrigation dam. “We are drowning our own heritage,” says Mr Celik. “It’s not the loss of land or the farming that matters. The tourism from the ruins could have kept young people here.”

As mayor of the nearby village of Pasaköy, he is one of countless Turks to have become embroiled in a debate between defenders of the country’s vast historical and ecological riches, and a government that believes sacrifices must be made for the sake of progress.

Ecologists and academics fear that legislation now in front of the Turkish Parliament will dramatically free the Government’s hand to force through more projects like Yortanli.

Though it is unlikely to threaten established tourist destinations such as the ancient ruins of Troy on the Mediterranean coast, the law will abolish a network of committees charged with protecting the country’s cultural and natural wealth and centralise control in Ankara. It will help Turkey to realise a programme to develop the country’s entire hydro-electric potential by 2023 by building about 1,300 hydro-electric power plants.

“This law will cause huge and irreversible damage,” said Engin Yilmaz, director of the Turkish advocacy group, the Nature Association, which estimates that the legislation could revoke the status of up to 80 per cent of environmentally protected land in the country.

Allianoi was one of a number of sites around Turkey that have become the focus of an increasingly vocal lobby of domestic activists seeking to prevent large-scale hydro-electric or irrigation schemes. The ancient city of Hasankeyf, believed to have been continually inhabited for 10,000 years, will be partially submerged by the reservoir of the Ilisu Dam when it is completed in 2013.

The Ikizdere Valley, a pristine ecological hotspot home to 200 rare and endemic species, is also threatened with the construction of 22 hydro-electric power dams.

At Allianoi, the waters began rising at the start of this year, following a decision to cover the ruins in sand, which the Government claims will protect them. But scientists and archaeologists who have studied the site believe the weight of 18 metres (60ft) of water and sediment will all but destroy it. “This is the murder of history,” said Dr Ahmet Yaras, the archaeologist who led excavations at Allianoi.

“One of the most important of humankind’s common cultural heritage sites is going into the darkness of history without gaining any real knowledge about it.”

When the ruins were discovered during the mid-1990s during surveys for the dam, archaeologists had no idea that they were looking at one of the largest and best-preserved Roman spas anywhere in the world. Aside from the still-functioning thermal baths, they found the hospital where Galen, the celebrated 2nd-century Roman doctor, worked.

“Allianoi is important to the history of world medicine,” said Dr Yaras. “This is not just the property of the Turks, it is world cultural heritage.”

But Turkey’s leaders are angry and impatient with campaigners who have launched a string of legal challenges against hydro-engineering projects.

“The pieces here are just one pillar and a fountain,” said the country’s Environment Minister Veysel Eroglu following the decision to bury Allianoi. As a former head of the State Hydraulic Works he is a leading defender of the schemes. “These can be found anywhere,” he said. “No one was aware of them before we dug them out. My job is to build dams but we did our best to protect this place.”

Supporters of the Yortanli dam project, which included the majority of local residents, believe that its water will transform the local economy as well as the parched farmland around it. Engineers say it will irrigate 44,000 acres of land and benefit 6,000 families.

Economists also acknowledge that Turkey desperately needs hydro-electric power to widen its energy sources in order to wean itself off Russian gas and power its breakneck development. Last year the country had the second-fastest growing economy in the G20, expanding by as much as 8 per cent, according to one government estimate.

Professor Mert Bilgin, an energy specialist at Bahçesehir University in Istanbul, says the country’s energy consumption will double by 2020. “Turkey is in urgent need of boosting electricity production,” he said. “Supply diversification actually is the main strategy which drives the policies.” But he also warned that insufficient regulation increased the potential damage caused by such projects.

A spokesman for Turkey’s environment ministry said those opposing the new law had been “misinformed” and added that the ministry “attaches importance to protection and development equally and makes effort for the regulations and precautions which will ensure a balance between two of them.”

At Allianoi, campaigners still refuse to admit defeat and have now launched yet another legal appeal to halt the dam even as the waters are rising behind it. Effet Diler, a spokesman for the Allianoi Protection Group which has launched 16 legal appeals against the dam in the past decade, fears the precedent being set by the decision to submerge the ruins. “The new law will mean there are more cases like Allianoi,” she said.


ANALYSIS: Nature, as well as history, must be protected

In Turkey, it sometimes seems as if you cannot put a spade in the ground without unearthing an historic treasure. The sight of toppled Roman columns peeking through grass verges is so commonplace it hardly elicits a second glance.

So it is easy to see that the country’s archaeology must seem like a curse to a Government that is struggling just to keep the lights on amid surging energy demand.

Far less acknowledged is the country’s wealth of wilderness and vast biodiversity. It has more endemic species than all of Europe combined: 3,600 of its plants and animals are found nowhere else in the world. Its rare birds include the northern bald ibis.

While few could doubt the international importance of its historical wealth — the Greeks, Trojans, Romans and Ottomans have all left their mark on Anatolia — this natural diversity is also of international importance.

It is not only a vital hub for bird migration between Europe, Africa and Asia, but it also lies at the junction of several ecosystems and geographical regions. It is the point at which the distinct flora and fauna of the Mediterranean, Middle East and Euro-Siberian regions come together, and many scientists believe that this could make it a vital corridor through which species migrate during periods of climate change.

By passing a law to facilitate its own economic development, Turkey’s Government could destroy a bridge that many species will need as global warming accelerates.

As one of the cradles of agriculture, it is also home to the wild forbears of many domesticated crop plants, among them wheat, oats, barley, rye, chickpeas and lentils. This makes it a vast natural genetic database of food plants on which we may one day draw to feed our own hungry species.

The Government is in a difficult position. It has to balance conservation needs with its own breakneck economic development. Pursued intelligently and with properly enforced legal safeguards, this is achievable, but the current Nature Protection Bill simply tears apart what safeguards exist.

The situation is not hopeless. The Government has made impressive progress in other areas. It is democratically accountable and cares deeply about its popular perception, at home and in Europe.

Turkey’s civil society organisations are battling determinedly to save the country’s natural and historical wealth. It is a fight in which we all have an interest.

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