21 June, 2010

Endangered landscapes

In the Lonely Planet guide, a sidebar text asks "What does the future hold for young Yusufelians?" It's a good question. Here construction and destruction are one and the same.

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From Yusufeli to Artvin, a narrow road hugs the Çoruh river. The minibus driver takes it at breakneck speed, decelerating quickly on a corner to avoid collision. Local black humor says that if you have an accident here, it's your last one - every winter one or two vehicles plummet into the Çoruh - but Artvin natives are considered the best drivers in the country.

This narrow, veering road beside the whitewater hangs in three shadows - of the spectacular, ragged peaks of the Çoruh gorge, and the shadow of a new highway being constructed more than a hundred meters up the cliffs. Here and there massive pylons tower, awaiting the bridges to span tributary streams. A single vehicle, a single person in this landscape is a speck; so are the few microsettlements along the roadside, which will depopulate when the new highway is finished. The only things of value here are the minerals hidden within these rocks - and the power of moving water, on a scale as epic as the landscape itself.

Since 1982, the Turkish government and a handful of partners, domestic and foreign, have planned to construct a complex of ten hydroelectric dams on the Çoruh. To date the Muratli and Borçka dams, north of Artvin, have been completed, and construction on the 254m-high Deriner dam 5 kilometers from Artvin has been ongoing since 1998. At the moment, the one truly controversial dam - the Yusufeli - is just a set of anchor points for the steel reinforcing cables of the lowest section, inlaid in concrete and mountainside.

Controversy over the Yusufeli dam, like the proposed Ilisu dam on the Tigris, has centered on a number of issues. The Ilisu would flood Hassankeyf, an important tourist site and a center of Kurdish culture. In addition to the relocation of residents and the loss of a famous site, critics - led by Friends of the Earth and the Kurdish Human Rights Project - argued that the Ilisu dam's cultural impact abetted a sort of ethnic cleansing by erasing cultural heritage, and served as a political project limiting access to the Tigris' water resources by Syria and Iraq downstream. (Hassankeyf was to be my Diyarbakir daytrip, until the search for the stolen camera rearranged my plans.)

The minibus stops for nearly twenty minutes where rock blasting fills the road with a growing pile of stones and generates a cloud of dust obscuring the way ahead. In the Çoruh region, construction is undoubtedly an economic engine - but is it a sustainable one? While the network of dams will take decades to complete, the tourism potential of Yusufeli whitewater will be erased forever. Roads to many of the crumbling, historic Georgian churches will be flooded out, reducing the region's cultural value.

In the case of Yusufeli, there are environmental and sociological impacts as well. In this corner of Turkiye, habitat is not something to destroy lightly. Though these mountains may seem barren, they form the margins of a global biodiversity hotspot; a total of one-hundred and sixty plant species endemic to Turkiye, twenty of which are already listed as threatened or endangered, will be adversely affected by the dam. Numerous animal species will also be affected. Against these environmental costs, the benefits of increased hydroelectric production still seem significant - Turkiye's economy is among the world's fastest-growing, and hydroelectric from the Çoruh drainage is projected to contribute 10% of its electricity supply in the coming decades. It is the human impact that has generated the most resistance.

When Yusufeli is submerged, its 6,400 residents will join another six thousand displaced by the dam, forced to relocate to a new site 3 kilometers west (near Tekkale); a majority of the relocation sites are characterized as "arid and uninhabitable" mountainous zones. According to some sources, the total number who will have to relocate rises to 30,000 when the impact on road and agricultural infrastructure is accounted for. Dam opponents point out that to date, the project does not meet OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) standards. As a result, in 2002 major investors Spie (France) and parent company Amec (Britain) pulled their financial backing. Nonetheless, the damn project continues. (In passing i noticed a search result on the impact of the current global economic crisis on the project, but no amount of searching found that a second time.)

In Yusufeli, life goes on day to day. No one knows when the town - slated to be inundated within eight years - will be bulldozed, when those cafe balconies overhanging the whitewater will be a soggy pile of debris. Whether in defiance or denial, construction within Yusufeli continues. Their fate is not sealed yet.    

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At an intersection, the road to Artvin turns left, climbing a dizzy series of hairpin turns and traversing to reveal a view of the city. Just below, the Deriner dam is visible. Though it is a spectacular sight - a monumental work of construction that still seems small in this landscape - i can't picture tourists making pilgrimages to massive dam sites. What i did realize, in researching this post, is that since dams tend to happen in these big, elemental places with a surfeit of water and rock, their construction is one of the most fascinating and magnificent intersections of nature and engineering on the planet (see here). Alas, it poses one of the most difficult dilemmas in the quest to balance sustainable development through clean energy with environmental preservation and human rights.