Ekin Kurtiç, Brandeis University
The number 711 is inscribed in several locations, on the rugged mountains, on the doors and walls of houses, and on the stones of terraced fields in Yusufeli, a small town in the Çoruh Valley in northeastern Turkey. In the center of Çeltikdüzü (Rice Plains) Village, the corner of the exterior wall of a house is marked in white paint. Located right in the middle of the main village road, the number is constantly reminding its inhabitants that a significant part of the village, including its rice paddies and vegetable gardens by the river, its irrigation canals, houses, and the mosque, will soon be flooded under the Yusufeli Dam reservoir. In another village, the number 711 is written on a big rock by the tributary stream, indicating the future upper end of the reservoir.
In his column in the Yusufeli Municipality’s magazine, Yener Dedeoğlu, the assistant manager of the town’s public education center, reflected on the significance of this number with a subheading that read, “711, the code word of Yusufeli”: “It depends on your viewpoint. Whichever point you look from, you will see the 711. Again, it is about the viewpoint; according to some, better days will come; for some, it is a new excitement; for others, it is a smackdown, a destruction” (Dedeoğlu 2016: 61). The number 711, marked on a multitude of in the town, indicates the dam’s reservoir elevation that would submerge the entire town center and nineteen villages. These white painted marks allow the future of the landscape to haunt every aspect of its inhabitants’ daily lives.
What does the experience of living with future submergence entail? How do multiple and intersecting temporalities shape the politics of dam building? This article examines the practices and imaginaries through which its inhabitants currently experience the future submergence of the landscapes they dwell in. I shift attention from anti-dam movements – the topic that critical scholarship has primarily focused on (Baviskar 1995; Ghosh 2006; Sneddon and Fox 2008) – to the everyday lives of those who continue living under the shadow of a planned and already accepted inundation. Dam building engenders an experience of inescapability shaped at the intersection of the past, the present, and the future (Bromber, Féaux de la Croix, and Lange 2014; Evren 2021). The process of waiting for the future submergence, I show, is not an eventless present. It is a time frame during which sacrifice and its politics acquire significance for the town inhabitants in their efforts to navigate the changes in the landscape.
Figure 1. House in Göcek village, inscribed with the number 711. Source: The author.
The making of a hydropower resource
The Çoruh River rushes through the northeastern provinces of Turkey for 354 km before crossing the border with Georgia, where it calmly flows for another 22 km before reaching the Black Sea. Known as the fastest running river in Turkey, it has been transformed into a national hydropower resource through the ongoing construction of 15 large dams. Succeeding the well-known and widely studied Southeastern Anatolia Project in the Kurdish Region, Çoruh’s reservoirs became symbols of the expansion of modernization and developmental endeavors to the last remaining “untouched” valleys in the northeastern borderlands far away from the center of the nation-state.
In the Çoruh Valley, the rainy coastal geography of the Black Sea gives way to a landscape consisting of a narrow valley floor with a swiftly running river surrounded by steep mountains. The valley presents a transit climate zone between the Black Sea coast with high precipitation rates and the terrestrial and arid central Anatolian climate. Its microclimate enables the cultivation of fruits and vegetables, including olives, which are generally not expected to grow in this part of the country. However, the climate’s advantage for cultivation is reduced by the narrow valley floor and the lack of flat land. This condition leads to a specific form of farming in the region, requiring, in the first place, creating the land to cultivate. Valley inhabitants construct terraced plots by flattening the slope, retaining it with stonewalls, and bringing fertile soil, mainly from the riverbanks. The agricultural lands in the valley are therefore considerably small in size but surprisingly fertile and diverse in terms of cultivation.
The river’s transformation from an ecology that, thanks to its flow, brings along soil for cultivation into a hydropower resource is a long process requiring numerous field observations, calculations, sampling, and documentation. Decades-long surveys and reports continued since the 1930s rendered the Çoruh Valley a site for hydropower development, replacing its value as a special agro-environmental region. Since its construction has started in 2013, the Yusufeli Dam – glorified as Turkey’s highest dam – has become an index of this frontier zone’s spatial and temporal integration to the national landscape. The governmental actors and technical experts have envisioned it not as a unidirectional connection in which progress is brought to the region via infrastructural development. They have also promoted the dam as a magnificent monument, arising amidst these long-forgotten steep and rugged mountains, which would carry Turkey into the future. The small town, long inscribed with discourses of underdevelopment and lack of progress, has been cast as the channel and embodiment of future-oriented national achievements that would materialize through technical prowess and infrastructural expansion.
An Inescapable Sacrifice
While the dam indexes ambitions and aspirations for the future, Yusufeli inhabitants experience the process of its construction through another temporal reference, its prolonged history. “God created this valley for it to be dammed ” is a frequently used phrase in the town. According to this widely circulating view among the project implementers as well as the local inhabitants, the topographic features of the landscape, and especially the velocity of the river running through the deep valley, have rendered it a perfect fit for dams. For many, this valley, which collects the streams of four different valleys, is a unique place destined for dam construction. Constructing a belief in the ecological destiny of the place, town inhabitants attribute timelessness and inevitability to the dams on the Çoruh. The idea of a “perfect fit” serves as to justify the sacrifice of the valley for the sake of national development.
Like many other town inhabitants, for Servet – a neighborhood muhtar – the process of living with future submergence entails constant ambivalence. When we met in 2016 for a lunchtime interview in a local restaurant alongside the river, he expressed the pain staring at the flowing water was causing to him. The reservoir would erase all the beauties of the landscape built through a tremendous amount of human labor, together with the memories and life experiences inscribed in them, he lamented. Soon his voice shifted from sadness to a firmer tone while expressing that the river did not belong only to the people of Yusufeli but to the entire nation. Yusufeli’s inhabitants lived on the banks of this river; they were the ones who suffered the difficulties of living here, but on the other hand, all the people of Turkey had a right to benefit from the goods provided by this landscape. To him, the entire nation had the right to use the electricity produced from this river; for that to happen, Yusufeli people would need to make self-sacrifice. The “local” river, through the trope of sacrifice, was scaled up to a “national natural resource” (Kurtiç 2019; Hoag 2019).
What accompanies the trope of inevitable sacrifice is a reference to the prolonged history of the dam projects on the Çoruh. On an early autumn day in 2016, I accompanied my host in the town and her two neighbors for an afternoon tea on Gülden’s balcony right across the view of the mountains in the town center, where on fawn-colored rocks surrounded by scattered bushes, the number 711 had been written with white paint. As Gülden was serving tea to everyone, her neighbor Fatma, who was a member of the governing Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) women’s branch in the town, started to talk about her feelings about the future submergence: “I have memories on every street of this town. All these streets are vital to me. It is something immaterial and irreplaceable. It tears my heart out (içim gidiyor/parcalaniyor).” To her, trying not to think about the approaching inundation was one way to soothe her grief on a daily basis. Another way was to accept it as an inescapable event that those who hold the power to rule have decided for a long time. “But the dam has a long history. Today its construction coincides with this government, but it is a state project that has existed for a long time,” she added.
Referring to the long history of the dam projects on the Çoruh is a common way in Yusufeli to disentangle the drastic transformations experienced in the socio-natural landscape from the political power and responsibility of the AKP government, of which many town inhabitants are the constituents. Moreover, the long temporal scale that crosscuts the rule of several different governments creates the notion of a persistent and unpreventable state project beyond the local inhabitant’s sphere of influence.
Figure 2. The mountains above Yusufeli’s town center across Gulden’s balcony,
marked with the number 711. Source: The author.
The future submergence is therefore rendered a lamentable yet inescapable political ecological fate. Just as the marking of the stones and mountains with the number 711 brings the future submergence into the present, Yusufeli inhabitants situate the present within the prolonged history. They do so by hinging on a belief in the destiny of the landscape shaped by its creation and by recalling the long history of turning the river into an observable, legible, and profitable hydropower resource. Nevertheless, life in Yusufeli is not merely reduced to waiting in stillness for the inescapable. Anthropologist Erdem Evren (2014) shows that waiting in Yusufeli generates new forms of hope for profit making from expropriation, as well as it creates a sense of fatigue from suspension and uncertainty. In the next section, I will demonstrate that, as an ongoing socio-material construction site, the town witnesses emergent forms of politics organized not to stop the submergence but to intervene in the process leading to submergence.
Shaping the process that leads to submergence
In 2018, as the dam construction progressed into its fifth year, town inhabitants started to feel its material impacts on their daily lives more directly and drastically. That summer’s primary concern was the construction of a viaduct as part of the main road leading to the new town center at the resettlement site. The viaduct was planned to pass through the very center of the soon-to-be-inundated town where people still resided. Its construction required the displacement of several shops and buildings, including the central secondary school and the buildings of key local state institutions. Ramazan, the owner of the coffeehouse right across from the District Directorates of Agriculture and of Forestry, whose primary source of income was the tea and coffee he served to these institutions, described to me how shopkeepers decided to organize to oppose the viaduct that would displace them in the absence of a proper plan for resettlement. The sudden demolishment of the existing town center for building a viaduct that would lead to the still non-existing resettlement site seemed unjust to them. They were not actively opposed to the sacrifice of their town under the dam waters for the sake of greater national interest and development, but in turn, Yusufeli inhabitants raised claims for compensation and proper handling of the process. In other words, their sacrifice was not for free; it was built upon and generated a notion of reciprocal relationship (Açıksöz 2020; Govindrajan 2018).
After holding meetings in Ramazan’s coffeehouse for about a week, the group, mainly composed of male shopkeepers, decided to organize a march and a press release, and they applied for a permit from the Provincial Governorship. After the 2016 military coup attempt that took place in Turkey, the governor had been prohibiting any kind of public march, protest, or press release in the province, and he did not make an exception for their application.
Still, shopkeepers decided to go ahead with the march. However, on the day of the march, they heard that the riot police assigned to come from the neighboring district to prevent their march had a severe accident on their way and five injured police officers were brought to Yusufeli Hospital. Upon this incident, the committee decided to cancel the march to show their respect for the police, Ramazan explained. Still, thanks to their determination in resisting the viaduct, shopkeepers succeeded in postponing its construction. He believed that delaying the viaduct was partly a political move on the part of the government to avoid public criticism before the upcoming general elections, which included the parliamentary elections as well as the first presidential elections of Turkey. In contrast to his brother-in-law, who perceived the viaduct incident as a signal indicating that it was time for his family to outmigrate, Ramazan and his family stayed in Yusufeli as they acquired more time before their business would be severely impacted, even though they remained skeptical about for how long the viaduct construction would be halted. Delays in construction and infrastructure projects do not only produce economic and political power (Arican 2020) but they are also forged by inhabitants in finding a way to continue living in sacrificed landscapes.
As life still continues under the shadows of an inundated future, Yusufeli inhabitants enact politics not by resisting the dam and the town’s flooding. Instead, their politics entail attempts to intervene in how the process unfolds until the day when the waters will gradually rise to the elevation of 711 meters, like an hourglass made of not sand but water. Ramazan and others, who are not actively opposing the dam, experience the submergence as an inescapable future, which they intend to find ways to live with at the present moment. However, the process of waiting for future submergence is not a passive and eventless one. As the case of opposing the viaduct exemplifies, even if Ramazan and his friends have made a sacrifice and accepted to live in an hourglass, they do not refrain from intending to control the neck of the hourglass to ensure they have a say in the process that will eventually lead to submergence.
Figure 3. A secondary school student’s painting from the exhibition “The Future of Yusufeli”
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