TURKEY’S dream of economic transformation took a great leap forward last year. In a highly symbolic ceremony in November, taps were turned and water flooded into the first of two huge new tunnels. They will draw water from the Ataturk dam and begin the irrigation of vast areas of southeastern Turkey. The multi-billion dollar investment, known as the GAP project, could one day transform a virtual dust bowl into the granary of the Middle East (MEED 25:11:94, page 22).

That, at least, is the promise as Turkey harnesses its water resources for productive use. Yet, the autumn celebration was a very national affair as Turkey’s southern neighbours do not share in the delight. For them, the GAP scheme is a potent reminder of Turkey’s control over the head- waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris, the two main rivers on which they rely.

When it faces protests from Syria and Iraq, Turkey asserts an inalienable right to dispose of waters rising on its territory. Bilateral understandings have been reached over the years but no formal treaty on water sharing binds the three riparian states.

Turkish officials insist that Ankara would never use water as a weapon against its neighbours. Rather, Turkey has a strong ambition, elaborated by the late president Turgut Ozal, to use its rich water resources to promote regional reconciliation.

Peace pipeline

That mission is being pursued more keenly as the Middle East peace process evolves. There is even talk of reviving the grandiose 1980s scheme, the so-called Peace Pipeline which would carry 2,200 million cubic metres of water a year to the Gulf states from Turkey’s Seyhan and Ceyhan rivers.

At the time, the bold proposal was dismissed as politically impossible and prohibitively expensive. Cynics suggested that Ozal’s vision of a Peace Pipeline was really a ploy to pre-empt protests from Syria and Iraq over the reduced flows from the Euphrates and Tigris as the GAP project proceeded. The Ataturk dam was then nearing completion and, in late 1989, the flow of the Euphrates was interrupted for a whole month as the new reservoir was filled.

Turkey’s water diplomacy has always been hard-nosed. When the then prime minister Ozal went to Damascus in 1987, he pledged to maintain a flow of 500 cubic metres per second in the Euphrates on the tacit understanding that Syria would curb the activities of the rebel Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) on its territory.

The Kuwait crisis of 1990/91 found Turkey and Syria aligned with the Western allies against Iraq, but no closer on water issues. When Ozal called for a new water summit in 1991 his appeal fell on deaf ears. Ankara began looking elsewhere. Today, it is talking to Israel and the Palestinians rather than Syria and Iraq, and is offering water all round.

Such schemes are not mere fancy. Water for Israel and the Gaza Strip could come from the half-completed Manavgat water export scheme on the Mediterranean coast near Antalya. The sale of 180 million cubic metres annually at a reported $0.45 per cubic metre was high on the agenda of Prime Minister Tansu Ciller’s groundbreaking visit to Tel Aviv in October, the first by a Turkish premier since the founding of the Jewish state.

Israel agreed to press forward with the project pending further feasibility studies. In return Tel Aviv is offering its own irrigation expertise to the GAP programme. None of this will have been particularly well received in Syria. As in the past, Damascus will perceive Turkey as exploiting water to elbow its way to a central role in the region as a new order takes shape.

In Turkey itself, GAP is a source of national pride which usually transcends party political differences. However, Syria’s ambassador was not the only absentee from the tunnel-opening ceremony in November; Mesut Yilmaz, leader of the main opposition party, also stayed away. His complaint was that the occasion was timed to deliver the maximum electoral advantage to the government in a 4 December by-election.

The seeds of the GAP project were sown by the World Bank-supported programme to develop the Cukurova area around Adana in the 1950s. Cukurova university has helped to shape agricultural policies for GAP since its inception. President Demirel has a personal interest, having headed the state agency for irrigation and hydro-electricity, the State Hydraulic Works (DSI), before entering politics in the 1960s. As prime minister, he laid the foundations for the twin Sanliurfa tunnels back in 1977.

The GAP programme has brought a number of separate projects under one roof, integrating schemes such as the Keban and Karakaya dams on the Euphrates, which were already completed, into a grander vision for transforming the entire southeastern region.

The scope of the project is huge. About $11,000 million has been spent and another $21,000 million is envisaged. No fewer than 495 projects have been integrated into the programme, including 22 dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and their tributaries, 19 power stations, and more than 1,000 kilometres of irrigation canals, feeders and distribution networks. Irrigation will be provided for 8.5 million hectares, equivalent to 19 per cent of Turkey’s cultivable terrain. The scheme will account for about 22 per cent of the country’s total hydro-power potential of 118,000 million kWh (Power, MEED Special Report, 19:8:94, page 46).

The programme could create 3.5 million jobs in a region of chronic unemployment, and increase per capita incomes nearly fivefold; irrigation has the potential to boost crop yields fourfold. Production of soya beans, grains, sugar beet, vegetables, citrus fruits, cotton, tobacco and other cash crops should boom. The region could produce an exportable surplus worth $6,000 million a year. The extra hydro-power generated should speed the industrial expansion of urban centres such as Gaziantep. Process industries based on agriculture are the most likely developments.

If the scheme can transform the region economically it may also serve a long-term political goal of the Ankara government by weakening support for the separatist campaign of the PKK. In 1993, the PKK burnt construction equipment at the site of the Batman dam on the Tigris, in a bid to knock the project off course. The action caused a six-month delay.

The GAP programme has been dogged by other setbacks due mainly to shortages of funds. One reason for the slow construction of the Sanliurfa tunnels was the delays caused by contract disputes over payments. Turkey has financed most of the programme itself, except for using export credits for power generating equipment. The World Bank and other lending agencies have given the project a wide berth. Apart from any questions about its environmental impact, GAP presents political problems due to the water flow implications for the downstream states, Iraq and Syria.

GAP has its domestic critics too. They say GAP has diverted development funds from other needy causes – Sanliurfa itself suffers from water shortages and wastewater problems which have not been addressed. Also, many of the plans drawn up in the late 1980s are still very sketchy while the local population is not actively engaged in the programme and is only dimly aware of its aims. Training for irrigated agriculture is basic or non- existent and water pricing could prove controversial. Elsewhere in Turkey, the DSI negotiates water prices with the Union of Farmers, but will levy tariffs according to its own assessments in the GAP region.

The advent of irrigation could also upset traditional patterns of land tenure. Irrigation favours large agricultural units while much of the region is farmed by small holders. The state may use expropriation to encourage greater land concentration. Allegations are being made that speculators have bought up land in the area to be irrigated by the Sanliurfa tunnels. And, in late November, Ciller said the government would launch a comprehensive programme of land reform, especially within the GAP area.

Environmental questions also loom large. Syria and Iraq fear that the run-off from areas to be irrigated will carry fertilisers and chemicals downstream. DSI says it is studying the use of recharge dams or collector dams to reduce such risks.

There is still plenty of time to solve such problems. The main dams and irrigation canals will not be completed before 2005 and the irrigation networks will take far longer to finish. Turkey is tapping as much international expertise as it can muster. The Israeli offer may be taken up but Japanese consultants have already helped with the masterplan, and firms from Italy, Australia, France, and the UK are working in sectors including crop marketing, afforestation and transportation. US firms are bidding, with local partners, to provide a geographical information system.

Yet, the opening ceremony for the first of the two tunnels was symbolic rather than operational. The flow was cut almost immediately to test for leaks and the irrigation season does not start until early spring. However, the occasion did underline Turkey’s determination to press on with the GAP project regardless of the financial burden and the fretting of its anxious neighbours in the Middle East.