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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

When Fertile Is Not Fertile Enough
March 22, 2000

Careful! The black stone steps are worn with time and slick with rain, but the view from the top of this Roman wall surrounding the old city of Diyarbakir will be worth the climb. Bundled tightly against the wind and rain, Monica and I make our way along this old wall, looking down at the sprawling town below. Littered rooftops and half-finished houses are evidence that this is both a poor city and a growing one. "Look!," I point downwards through the rain at a brown, winding river far below, "That's it! That's the Tigris!"

I remember studying the "Fertile Crescent" (aka "The Cradle of Civilization," or "Upper Mesopotamia") in elementary school-you know, that huge 'C' made up of the Tigris and the Euphrates River valleys where agriculture first began. I've seen it on maps, but it never really meant anything to me before, and I certainly didn't know what the "modern day" fertile crescent was like. It might as well have been a fairytale.
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Monica looks down from the walls of Diyarbakir to the Tigris river below.
But now, here we are in Eastern Turkey, where both the Tigris and the Euphrates (known as the Dicle and the Firat in Turkish) have their source. We're in the center of the crescent, with one end curving down into Syria along the Euphrates, and the other end into Iraq along the Tigris. The land here is hilly, rocky, and, quite frankly, it doesn't look all that fertile. Of course, it is winter, and a lot of the region is under snow and ice. But if this is such a fertile agricultural area, why is it also one of the poorest regions of Turkey? Why don't I see a lot of big farms and tractors and mills?

One reason is that this is also the region of Turkey where the Kurdish minority lives. Since the founding of Turkey 78 years ago, taxes and produce have been taken from this region, but, until recently, little was given back. The economic problems faced in the Kurdish areas, as compared to the rest of Turkey, are one reason why Kurdish separatists fought a guerrilla war here against the Turkish army. And although economic racism is clearly a valid problem, years of bloody guerrilla warfare certainly didn't help matters any! Cities like Diyarbakir are filled with jobless Kurdish peasants, abandoning their farms to escape the violence in the countryside. As recently as last year, it was extremely dangerous for foreigners like us to even come here. Even today, the Kurdish problem is far from settled. The Turkish government is working on a huge project which they hope will bring prosperity to the region. The project, known as GAP, (which is the acronym for the Turkish Southeastern Anatolia Project), involves a series of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric plants to be built on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The biggest one, called Ataturk dam, has already been built.

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"Oranges are everywhere these days! And they're super sweet!"
This is the fertile crescent, after all, and we live in a world that is bursting at the seams with new human beings, waiting to be fed. Already, Turkey is one of only seven countries in the world that produces a surplus of food, so they know all about agriculture as a big business. And hey, look at Turkey's Middle Eastern neighbors. Right next door are countries that have high birth rates (Muslim families tend to be large) and lots of non-arable desert, so they're going to need food. Also, many of Turkey's neighbors have a natural resource that Turkey doesn't have, but desperately needs; and that is OIL! So Turkey is hoping to trade one for the other. The legendary Silk Road is being replaced by the modern day "oil pipeline." It kind of loses the romance, doesn't it!


guerrilla - a small independent band of soldiers that attack with surprise raids
prosperity - successful, thriving
ecosystem - an ecological community together with its environment, functioning as a unit
coercion - to compel someone by use of force or power

Despite the cold rain, I really like Diyarbakir. The people are friendly, and the market is full of fresh, cheap food. We bought a kilogram of the sweetest oranges I've ever had for only 50 cents! Growing cities like Diyarbakir are central to GAP, and they are trying to make them more livable. When I read all the stuff the people at the GAP office gave me, it sounds really good. They hope to raise the income of the area to five times its present level, and improve education and health care. But of course, projects like this come at a cost, and it's important to acknowledge and question the price being paid. Development issues are always tricky, and it's impossible to know all the effects that will come from such a drastic change in the ecosystem, as well as the social and economic structures in such a short time.

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"Kemal Ataturk-who pushed for development and modernization-is seen here teaching children the new Turkish alphabet in front of what appears to be a giant spaceship that landed in the center of Diyarbakir. Now that's development!"
Let's try to name a few that we can predict. First, the environmentalist in me winces at the thought of 22 dams. Many things happen when the natural flow of a river is impeded. For one thing, river areas are fertile because of the silt that they carry and deposit on their banks. Dams trap silt, keeping it from flowing downstream. A dam also changes the ecosystem of the river, which can be devastating to fish or other wildlife. Remember when we visited Aswan dam in Egypt? There the Nubians lost their land to the flood waters. Here, many small communities are being displaced. Citizens are given monetary compensation, and help finding new homes and jobs, but studies by GAP are finding that most people aren't happy, even years after they've resettled. The money is often squandered, and the community structure destroyed. An increase in water-borne illnesses is another problem that is created by the GAP project. Turning semi-arid land into extremely wet land creates a breeding ground for mosquitoes, known malaria and tropical disease carriers. I'm glad we're here in the winter time! I was with Kevin when he contracted malaria, it wasn't pretty!

Did you ever think that a dam could start a war? Scary, but possible! Remember, the Euphrates River flows into Syria, and the Tigris River flows into Iraq. Now, with modern technology, Turkey has first dibs. Both of these countries depend on the water that is coming down the rivers, and water is even more essential than oil. We can't live without it! Does Turkey have the right to use up all the water in the rivers before it flows downstream to these other two countries? It is, after all, on their land. Do they have a responsibility to the countries downstream?

Water is life. To control the water of another person or another country can be an incredibly powerful weapon. In the world, 200 rivers are shared by two or more countries, thirteen of those are shared by five or more countries, and four of those: the Congo, the Danube, the Nile, and the Niger supply water to nine or more countries! With populations growing and the quality of the water on the earth deteriorating due to pesticides and other forms of pollution, the politics of water is getting BIG! This is especially true in the Middle East and in Africa, where there are many people, and plenty of desert! Take the Jordan River for example, lasting peace between Israel, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinians will require a miracle - or very careful and respectful use of the Jordan River. And that region has more of a history of miracles than of respect between nations! Do you know where your water comes from? Do you know what other cities, states, or countries rely on the same water source as you?

Iraq objected to the Turkish dams on the Tigris, and in 1975, they threatened to blow them up. The Turkish government said that water is just like any other natural resource. Turkey used the age-old "stay out of my business" defense we all learned in first grade: "We don't tell Iraq what do to with its oil, so Iraq shouldn't tell us what to do with our water."

They must have learned that argument from the US government, who said basically the same thing in 1895 when Mexico complained about dams on the Colorado River! Of course, the US did change its policy, and now guarantees a fixed amount of quality, non-polluted Colorado River water to Mexico every year.

Even though agreements were signed between the countries guaranteeing water rights, everyone still knows that Turkey has the upper hand. If there is ever a war or even a diplomatic disagreement, Turkey can just decide to shut the water off to Syria and Iraq. Of course, the nice shiny brochures and magazines we got from GAP don't mention "powers of international coercion" as one of the benefits or goals. But, Turkey has threatened to decrease water to the Euphrates if Syria doesn't stop aiding the Kurdish rebels.

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The Tigris river winds its way through the valley below the city of Diyarbakir
Icy rain, muddy rivers, warm hammams and Turkish Tea - water is everywhere today! It's hard to believe, sometimes, that water scarcity can be such a big deal. But unfortunately, it is. And with the population explosion demanding more food and water, and the inevitable reduction in fresh water caused by pollution, water is going to become an even bigger issue in the years to come. What things can we do to help?


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


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