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SOURCE: Yale e360

DATE: October 3, 2019

SNIP: From the vine-draped veranda of Yolgecen Hani, a café in the Turkish town of Hasankeyf, one can still catch the scent of the free-flowing Tigris River below, which courses through the country’s rugged southeast and then the length of Iraq before emptying into the Persian Gulf. The sun-baked mountains, verdant riverbanks, and jagged gorges, which lay at the heart of ancient Mesopotamia, today are home to unique ecosystems rich in endemic flora and fauna.

Yet, in a matter of months, a massive hydroelectric plant and impoundment dam located about 35 miles downstream will obliterate much of this splendor. The waters that will soon back up behind the Ilisu Dam will transform nearly 90 miles of the Tigris and another 150 miles of its tributaries into a vast reservoir that will submerge nearly 200 villages and displace an estimated 80,000 people. The drowned settlements will include the pearl of Hasankeyf, whose cultural heritage — ancient churches, caves, and tombs — attests to the presence of some of the first large human communities 10,000 years ago.

The flooding, as well as the surge of water releases downstream, also threatens endangered species such as the Eurasian otter, the marbled duck, and the red-wattled Lapwing, say experts. The dam will further imperil many of the Tigris’ native fish species, already battered by overfishing, industrial pollution, and sewage discharges. And experts say the impacts of the Ilisu Dam will be felt hundreds of miles downstream across large parts of the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, which includes Syria, Iraq, and Iran, exacerbating water shortages that will affect irrigation, biodiversity, fishing, drinking water, and transportation.

The region’s environmentalists say the loss of riverine ecosystems and wildlife will be calamitous. “This dam is a disaster for biodiversity, not just in Turkey but also for ecosystems of the whole Tigris-Euphrates basin,” explains Itri Levent Erkol, conservation manager at the Turkish environmental NGO Doğa Derneği. “The Tigris River Valley has the last pristine riverine and canyon ecosystems in all of southeastern Turkey. There are endangered species there that we know will become extinct once the valley is flooded.”

[T]he Euphrates soft-shelled turtle is one of the indigenous species on the brink of extinction. The turtles, which grow up to 2.2 feet and can weigh 44 pounds, have been laying their eggs in the river’s reedy sand banks for millennia. Now that the Euphrates has been carved up by dams and hydropower plants, the rare turtle species exists only in small pockets along the Tigris and is unlikely to survive the deluge that will engulf much of this part of the Tigris Valley.

As for birds, in addition to the lapwing, whose shrill alarm calls carry across the river, the lesser kestrel is a globally threatened species that will lose its habitat in the river’s grasslands. For centuries, the high cliffs that soar above the Tigris at Hasankeyf have hosted Bonelli’s eagles, Egyptian vultures, and griffon vultures. But the non-stop construction in and around Hasankeyf — which includes cementing over embankments and thousands of ancient caves, including the craggy nesting places of these birds of prey — has already driven most of them away.