Turkey has long hoped the Southeastern Anatolia Project, known as GAP, could act as an engine for economic development in a majority Kurdish area. The question now is whether the project can get into gear fast enough to save the region from an agricultural crisis.
In Akıncı, a village of about 400 people in the Mardin District, situated some three kilometers from the Syrian border, houses stand abandoned. A five-year drought has prompted many residents to migrate in search of jobs in Istanbul and elsewhere. The district is plagued by a 23.6-percent unemployment rate, according to the Turkish Enterprise and Business Confederation, a national business association. One local shop-owner said that water to irrigate farmland is needed to bring people back.
GAP, which promises to irrigate 1.82 million hectares of land by 2014, could provide that water. "GAP would solve the problem of water here," asserted Mehmet Şirin Imrak, director of Mardin's Agriculture Department.
Turkey’s southeast, once part of Mesopotamia, is one of the oldest farming regions in the world. Add water, and three things would happen, predicted Altug Ozgur, chief economist at BGC Partners, an Istanbul-based international brokerage firm.
“First, Turkey would be able to double its agricultural production, and the project would create around 3 million new jobs and, on top of that, with the help of rising agriculture exports, we would be able to reduce our current account deficit,” Ozgur said. The growing difference between Turkey’s imports and exports of services and products is one of its economy’s key weak points.
Sezgin Arslan, a state-employed agricultural engineer in Mardin, agrees that
GAP-related agricultural exports from southeast Turkey would find a ready market in the Middle East. “They cannot grow anything in the desert, only in Israel,” Arslan noted. “In the future, this will be an opportunity. The farmers [in Turkey] can earn [money].”
For now, though, Mardin’s farmers are forced to pump water from underground, an expensive and energy-intensive process.
The Agriculture Department’s Imrak claims that fields will be ready by the end of the year for pipes and canals that, in 2012, should be connected to a canal in Şanlıurfa, about 170 kilometers west of Mardin. Water from GAP is already irrigating fields in an around Şanlıurfa.
Agricultural engineer Arslan, though, questions whether the infrastructure will be in place for Mardin to receive water in time for GAP’s slated completion in 2014. “We cannot talk about the effect of GAP on unemployment in Mardin,” he said. “Now there has been just one effect of it. The fields have become more expensive.”
A Southeastern Anatolia Project Regional Development Administration spokesperson, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed doubts about whether the project could meet its 2014 deadline. "I am not sure what is going to happen. There were talks about closing the project, but then after [the] AKP [Justice and Development Party] came to power with the [June parliamentary] elections again, they were talking about extending [the completion date] again by five years,” the spokesperson said. “It was supposed to finish in 2012, but it doesn't seem possible. I do not even know what will happen with my job.”
Most Mardin farmers still recognize GAP’s economic potential. Abdulkadir Acar owns land around the village of Göllü that for the past three years have yielded almost no crops because of drought. “After one year of water, I expect to have my economic situation in order,” Acar said, citing the example of Şanlıurfa, where incomes reportedly have rebounded.
But an increase in local agricultural production depends not only on building irrigation infrastructure. Practices much change too.
Many Mardin farmers own individual parcels of land in different parts of the district. To distribute GAP’s water more efficiently, the government is forcing farmers to trade land until each has one continuous property. This process is meeting local resistance. Farmers are also slow to adapt new farming techniques or to try growing different crops, commented Hicran Akaalip, another state agriculture engineer. Few use fertilizers other than animal waste, for example.
Akaalip described spending three years convincing farmers in northern Mardin that apple trees were better suited to the district’s weather than poplar trees, the tree to which they were accustomed. While Akaalip blamed the farmers, she conceded that the guidance they receive from the government is minimal.
Projects often fail from a lack of funding, even though there is an agricultural engineer for roughly every four to five villages in the district, Akaalip alleged. She conceded that she no longer bothers visiting the villages for which she is responsible since she has to buy her own gas to get there. “They say ‘Stay in one village and let them come to you,’” she said of her bosses at the agricultural department.
The local government still maintains an official show of optimism that GAP’s waters will bring a flood of prosperity. Claimed Mardin Agriculture Department Director Imrak: “It will be like a wallet for the entire Middle East.”
Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.