Private ownership of rivers in Turkey raises environmentalists' eyebrows
Wealthy in water resources, Turkey struggles to balance economic growth and development with the protection of the environment.
By Erisa Senerdem Dautaj for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 29/03/12
While the current administration is concerned with the country's economic growth and development, environmentalists are worried the mismanagement of Turkey's water resources could endanger fragile ecosystems.
Despite stiff local resistance the government still plans to move forward with building the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris river, which would bury the ancient city of Hasankeyf under water. [Reuters]
"We are putting our life in danger -- both in a biodiversity and socio-cultural and economic sense -- through extensive interventions in rivers and the ecosystem," Engin Yilmaz, the general director of Doğa (Nature) Association, told SES Türkiye.
The government aims to increase the country's hydro-electric power production by utilising 100% of Turkey's rivers, up from 30% at present, in the framework of its 2023 target that corresponds with the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey.
Through 49-year renewable concession contracts, private companies are allowed to use river waters -- including underground springs -- for multiple purposes, including for the construction of hydro-electric and thermal power plants, mine processing and bottling drinking water.
According to the Water Rights Campaign, the Energy Markets Regulatory Board approved legislation that allows construction of hydro-electric power plants by private commercial firms in 2001, after which many companies whose specialisation was different from energy and water management started entering this business.
The issue of riparian waters and water in general is treated in the framework of economic development, although the administration should chose policies that make lives better, Yılmaz argued.
However, related legislation does not consider the harm and damage and fails to foresee the negative short- and long-term economic consequences, he said.
The exploitation of river water is justified by the need to increase the domestic generation of energy, which Turkey mostly imports from abroad. However, thousands of people living in nearby valleys have been or are at risk of being forced to abandon their villages.
According to Nuran Yüce, an activist of the Water Rights Campaign (SuHakkı Kampanyası), there are about 1,200 medium- and large-sized hydro-electric power plant projects in Turkey. The figure reaches about 10,000 if micro-dam projects are also included.
"This means forcing river water out of its beds," Yuce said, adding that not only the living species but the whole ecosystem around river beds would be harmed.
Current legislation has allowed firms that manage riparian waters to collect up to 90% of the average volume of the river over the past ten years. Thus, as little as 10% of the water volume could be left to support the ecosystem and species living within rivers or surrounding valleys, unless specified otherwise in the Environmental Impact Assessment Report that is prepared before any hydro-electric plant project is approved.
"Unless living species reach water, they will all die," Beyza Üstün, a member of the Istanbul Environmental Engineers Chamber and professor at Istanbul Technical University, told SES Türkiye, adding that this may have irreversible results for the country's biodiversity in a very short period of time.
There are 305 Important Natural Areas in Turkey that make up 90% of the country's biodiversity. Of these, 185 areas are threatened by plant projects and dams, according to the Doğa Association.
Legislation regulating natural areas and protected zones -- including rivers and valleys -- is incompatible with the Turkish Constitution and related international agreements, Üstün said. She particularly highlighted Decree Law 648.
The law gives ministries authority to intervene in urban planning -- including regulation of natural areas like rivers and valleys -- without prior consultation with local administrations.
A complaint has been filed to cancel the decree law, which was confirmed to SES Türkiye by the ministry of environment and urban planning. The complaint alleges the law gives urban planning authority to the central government, namely the ministry, which is allegedly inconsistent with EU provisions regarding local administrations' autonomy, the press office of the ministry said.
"The constitutional court will investigate and decide on the issue," the press office said, refusing to make any other comments.
Meanwhile, the Doğa Association's Yılmaz said there have been more than 80 court cases against hydro-electric plants and dam projects. Of 51 concluded cases, 49 were decided on behalf of local people.
However, the related ministries -- the ministry of environment and urban planning and the ministry of forest and water affairs -- have amended legislation to make legal challenges more difficult, he added.
A long term solution would be to recognise access to water as a fundamental human right in the country's constitution, which would avoid any use of water sources for private profits, she suggested.
"We believe we can solve our concern through mutual understanding and co-operation among [all stakeholders such as] local people, experts, academicians, as well as politicians," Yılmaz said.